The State and the Regulation of Violence 


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 

  •  if people or animals are actually hurt, perhaps? (but that would include hunting, fishing, horse racing, football, motor-racing -- and lots of currently legal sports)
  • if they lead to undesirable effects? ( but there will be much work involved here to spell these out and show  they are caused by the violence concerned, as we shall see)
General Issues and Liberal Dilemmas

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: 

  1. (a) they prevent working-class or ethnic minority groups from associating and gaining even temporary control of public spaces
  2. (b) they offer a chance for the police to practice riot control techniques, and to demand increased resources from the government, which might be handy in any directly political confrontation with organised labour in the future 
  3. (c) they impose upon the rest of the population ruling class tastes and preferences 
  4. (d) they clear the field, so to speak, for popular activities organised from below to be replaced by commercial forms of leisure -- traditional football by commercial football, spontaneous carnivals by licensed spectacles taking place in stadiums in front of paying audiences 
Problems with Violence 

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

(b) Given the lack of firm evidence, it is not surprising to find the State acting rather inconsistently in this area, in its attempts to regulate violence in television, film, or video games. In Britain, there is a preference for indirect regulation, relying on officially private organisations to act on behalf of the State. The classic organisation is, of course, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) , a body of individuals, nominated by the State to censor movies, in effect. The State in Britain justifies it could be a its right to license movies for distribution indirectly as well -- originally, film stock was highly inflammable, and so the local organs of the State had a right to license premises on safety grounds. The national State established a body to guide local authorities in licensing matters. In order to move away from some sort of Marxist conspiracy theory, however, it is worth saying that the movie industry itself also wanted some national guidance, both in Britain and in the USA. The members of the BBFC seem to act as self-appointed guardians of the National Heritage, rather as in Conservative theories of the state, upholding traditional standards against the excesses of Hollywood commercialism. We shall return to their classification system when we discuss sexuality. Just to round out the picture quickly, BBFC type classifications are also found in use in the video and electronic game industries, while television has a different system of regulation, through various advisory boards, watchdogs and a national Commission. 

(c) The issue is also firmly in the public arena, of course, and there are periodic public campaigns, or  'moral panics', concerning violence in the media. If you read books like Buckingham  (1996), ( see also a nice essay on Buckingham on my guest page -- here) you will find a particular campaign usually associated with the horrific murder of a child called James Bulger. This murder was committed by two young boys, and in the usual struggle to explain such an apparently senseless act, some popular newspapers alleged that the perpetrators had been watching violent videos. The judge in the case also delivered himself of statements expressing his own abhorrence of the act, and mentioned a possible role for the media. One video in particular featured the murder of children. Buckingham insists that there was no actual evidence that the boys had even seen this video, but in the usual mixture of emotional stress, a campaign began to regulate still more the violence depicted on videos. This campaign was successful again in representing itself as  'public opinion', and subsequent legislation ensued. Buckingham's book attempts to calm many of the public fears by stressing, among other things, the abilities of even young children to understand, interpret, and to deal with violent episodes that they view on TV. He also points out that children can be frightened by and alarmed at a variety of scenes on television, including some which adults do not even think of as violent: in a way, then, legislation seems almost impossible, and Buckingham argues that the normal capacities of children to deal with being frightened ought to be strengthened instead. However, I suspect that this will be too complex a solution for politicians. 

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

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