We have with this example a perfect chance to try out some of the theories of the State we have used earlier (here). The issue of violence is, of course, highly newsworthy. To take the events of the last few weeks (September 2000), for example, the British State has deployed its armed forces to rescue its soldiers in Sierra Leone, faced the problem of responding to an armed attack on a government building in London, and faced a serious protest against high petrol prices which, at one stage, looked as if it might involve using the armed forces to move blockaded supplies, possibly against resistance by the blockaders. How should these episodes of (potential) violence be regulated and dealt with?
Further, violence is often a feature of popular leisure activities which offer pleasures to both participants and spectators. It can be real violence ( as in boxing or street fighting), or simulated violence (wrestling, movies, video games). Should these types of pleasures be banned, and if so which and under which circumstances
At this stage, we might turn to some of the theories of the State, especially liberal ones, which we have suggested are important in British discussions. The issue of violence, and that the right of the State to use it, or regulate its use by others can be understood as a classic problem of reconciling individual freedom and social responsibility. Thus State violence might be justified, for example, where there is an overwhelming need to preserve social order. Rescuing kidnapped soldiers, or moving petrol supplies through a hostile crowd of protesters could be seen as the State acting in some general social interest against the interests and liberties of kidnappers or protesters. This is usually the main claim to State legitimacy, in fact, and to use the ability to act in the social interest enables the State to claim a monopoly on the use of violence.
To push this further, we might wish to remember Bentham's principle that the greatest happiness for the greatest number ought to be pursued in difficult cases like these. Thus the protesters might feel unhappy if their blockade is broken, but the State might feel that most people might be happier, on balance, to be able to buy petrol, despite their distress at seeing fellow-citizens arrested or manhandled. In this particular case, a great deal did turn upon likely public opinion, in fact, and a number of opinion polls were consulted by laymen and politicians alike before deciding not to break the blockade by force.
As we know, approaches by liberal thinkers like J S Mill would want to consider more than measures of public support or 'popular votes'. He would urge politicians to consider other ways of calculating the social interest, more subtle ways, involving long-term interests, and the difficult matter of protecting minority rights against majorities. In Britain, we heard policeman, of all people, explaining their reluctance to break any blockades or arrest any protesters by reminding us that they were there to protect the rights of minorities to protest against government policy, even where that government enjoyed a large majority in the House of Commons. Doubtless, even as we speak, politicians are consulting with the number of experts, including social scientists, in order to establish whether real social interest lies in this matter.
General Issues and Marxist Suspicions
We already know the general outline of Marxist views of the State in capitalism -- they believe that the state poses as a legitimate representative of society in general, while privileging in practice the interests of dominant groups. Earlier examples of industrial protest might fit this view -- the government took on organised labour, and did indeed use the police and even the army to minimise the effectiveness of strikes and pickets in the 1970s, for example. The regulation of subversive pursuits, threats to public-order, mass actions and so on has informed Marxist analysis of the State's role in leisure as well, as we know. This is normally demonstrated by policies such as 'rational recreation' , where traditional football, carnivals, wakes and fairs, and street processions were regulated, licensed, forbidden or discouraged, very often in the name of preventing violence. Even this year, the police in London renewed their argument for the closer regulation of the Notting Hill Carnival on the grounds of preventing violence.
To marxists, such policies reflect ruling class interests in a number of ways:
The general term 'violence' clearly covers a number of activities. Even the ones we have mentioned range from military action to street disorders to police activity to control demonstrators and protesters. The problem is that there is no general and agreed definition of 'violence'. Sometimes, it means something of which we approve -- 'good' violence, so to speak, which can include a range of activities visible on any rugby field or athletics track, or swift and effective military action. There is clearly a fine line between assertive and vigorous sporting activity, argument, or driving, and unwanted violent behaviour. Definitions change all the time -- new categories of disapproval appear, such as 'road rage', while forms of behaviour that were once acceptable are no longer acceptable: I know a veteran NCO in the Royal Navy who was astonished to discover that it is now considered unacceptably violent to shout at recruits. You might be able to think of other examples that should perhaps be thought of as 'violent', even though they're not defined like this at the moment -- is making people redundant an act of violence, for example? How about what some people have called the 'symbolic violence' present in education, where people's views are criticised, and they can expereince humiliation or distress as a result? Who makes the decisions about where the line should be drawn, and which forms of violence should be regulated?
Then there is the issue of why people engage in violence. Are we all capable of it? Do you know of anyone who has never committed a violent act? If we move away from a simple moral stance, for a moment, we might discover that violence is associated with pleasure, for example. Researchers in leisure studies know this better than most, possibly. Street fighting, or brawling at football matches, has been described as pleasurable by some of the participants. My own view is that large numbers of ordinary people find violence pleasurable too, even if it is watching the violence of others, or scoring some sort of points over rivals. There is a whole semi-secret area here which is badly in need of research. The State, in its policies towards the regulation of violence, seems oblivious to these points -- violence is seen officially as a form of social pathology, often committed irrationally, by mindless thugs or hooligans, but not by normal people. It becomes easier to legislate if you think you are doing so in the name of normal people who have nothing in common with mindless thugs
More generally, there has been a great deal of interest in the social causes or distribution of violence. Personal violence seems to be associated with young urban males, for example. You can often here or read debates about the relative weights to be attached to social conditions, and individual responsibilities in these cases. Yet, despite the doubts of experts and analysts about these influences, the police and judiciary, the main organs of the State in these matters still seem to operate with a straightforward view that violent action arises from some individual moral flaw. If this view no longer seems to be based on solid expert opinion, whose opinions is it based on? Is it the majority of the population whose opinions are being acted upon here, or the views of dominant elites again?
It is just not easy to decide, is it? Where did the strong currents of opinion come from that led to the demand for greater punishment for paedophiles in Britain this summer? Was this the authentic voice of the majority of the great British public, ignored for too long by liberal elites? Or was this a classic 'moral panic', constructed by an alliance of 'moral entrepreneurs', moral activists, and the mass media, able to act as a powerful group to gain the attention of the State, while claiming to act for the majority? Among the many ironies, of course, the vigilantes were enthusiastically recommending and pleasurably imagining personal, sometimes sadistic, violence against people who had themselves committed such violence against children.
A Case Study -- Violence in the Media
This is another popular area for debate, of course, and people tend to have strong views for and against. I want to argue that this issue is more complicated than it looks again. For example:
(a) It is difficult to gain conclusive evidence that violence in the media causes violent behaviour, despite the existence of hundreds of studies in this area. It is not too difficult to see why research has been so inconclusive -- there is the problem of defining violence, for example (some commentators have seen Tom and Jerry as a violent programme, for example, but however much it might have offended them, there is no guarantee that all the viewers will agree with their definitions). The same definitional problems arise with violent behaviour, as we have seen. Then there is the difficult issue of accurate recording of behaviour, since many people are unlikely to disclose the true record of their violence towards others, and many of us cannot accurately remember our behaviour over a long period of time. Finally, there is this serious problem of isolating the effects just of the media -- it is difficult to test this experimentally, since there are few typical people in Western societies who have not been exposed to the media for most of their lives; while, on the other hand, we know that many other factors are responsible for violent behaviour acting in conjunction with media effects themselves. Anyone interested in pursuing these problems, and in seeing how researchers attempt ingeniously to overcome them, might consult the two of the files on this website -- this one, and this one.Concluding Thoughts
I suppose we have encountered the dilemma that the general discussion left us with. How should the diverse and competing public views about violence be reconciled and organised by the State? Is there a genuine public interest in regulating something called violence? (We shall be asking similar questions when we turn to sexuality). Is there enough of a consensus among the public to enable politicians to detect the real social interest in this area, or is it just that the most organised groups tend to get their views expressed in legislation and policy?
Buckingham D ( 1996) Moving Images: children's emotional responses to television, Manchester: Manchester University Press