For a long time now I have thought it would be useful to have a rigorous definitional distinction between ‘violence’ and ‘force.’ And to this end I have, in my head, been trying to come up with a conceptual distinction that would stand up to scrutiny. I am not sure that I have completed this task but here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
Violence is a willful act which is intended to harm someone (including, of course, animals) either physically or mentally. Force, on the other hand, is an organized act of coercion (within the context of a significant imbalance of power) which draws upon either violence, the threat of violence, compulsion or incarceration. Keep in mind that I am not suggesting at this point that force is always necessarily a bad thing.
Force is obviously involved when someone, say, takes another person hostage at gun point. However, as a concept I believe it is more useful in understanding the act of force within a social or institutional context. It is the ‘imbalance of power’ referred to the in the definition that gives force its real weight and it is this imbalance that is most acutely felt when institutions are involved. A kindergarten teacher, for example, may be using force to control her students and compeling to act in certain ways. The significant imbalance of power and the potential threat of compulsion and even incarceration involves a fairly basic act of coercion. Now, this coercion is arguably, in many cases, necessary and good (in that the outcomes are favorable for the person using force and the person against whom force is used.)
The more obvious and complex example of force is involved when the State acts in a military or paramilitary capacity (I include the police in this context). The State can easily draw upon violence, the threat of violence, or compulsion and incarceration to coerce people to act in a fashion that is perceived to be in the State’s interest. The imbalance of power between the State and an individual or the State and a group of individuals who are pursuing a specific goal is obvious and can be overwhelming.
Where this issue becomes interesting is in the context of a blatantly oppressed group of individuals who might employ acts of violence against a powerful state in order to assert their independence and the advantages that flow from such independence. A group, for example, that has asserted a national identity, may use a level of organized violence to achieve its goals. However, the extreme imbalance of power in the relationship implies, in my mind, that a distinction must, at some level, be made between the actors in the conflict. This is largely because those who possess the balance of power in such a context have a significant advantage concerning their ability to settle such a conflict amicably. In other words, those who use force, whether exercised individually or institutionally, are always at an advantage when it comes to potentially bringing about a state of peace and satisfaction. Those who have ‘force’ at their disposal are at an advantage over those who can only exercise violence.
The real problems arise, or course, because institutions which exercise force can be entirely guided by individuals who have a particular, often dangerous and problematic agenda. Violence, can also be used by people who are pursuing a dangerous and wrong-headed agenda. But what particularly interests me is the conflicts involved in the assertions of National Identities. Those who pursue a National identity often have only some level of organized violence at their disposal. Those resisting the assertion of the National group, on the other hand usually have a myriad of techniques at their disposal, many of them involving the excessive use of force at the cultural, educational, and military levels.
More on the implications of this later.