Postmodern “Violence”: A Case Study in Stretching a Word to the Breaking Point

Postmodern “Violence”: A Case Study in Stretching a Word to the Breaking Point

For the past few years I’ve been reading a lot of postmodern philosophy—focusing especially on its implications for Christianity. I taught a course on “Postmodernity and Christianity” and included a section on postmodern theology in my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press). And I have participated in a book discussion group that reads primarily books related to postmodern thought and its implications for Christian theology, ethics and church life. Still, I feel that I have only scratched the surface of the subject.

I’ve learned a lot from my recent studies of postmodern thought. One thing I’ve learned is to be suspicious of all totalizing metanarratives—ideologies, worldviews, systems of thought that claim to explain everything and also exclude all dissenting perspectives and voices. Under the influence of postmodern thought I’ve also moved away from all forms of foundationalist epistemology although I still believe in the importance of logic in persuasive discourse.

My study of postmodern thought has revealed diversity within it. Not all postmodern philosophers are cognitive nihilists or relativists; some of the best known ones believe in absolutes. They just don’t believe in the “presence” of absolutes or direct apprehension of them. But one cannot read the later Derrida, for example, without realizing he believed in justice, for example, as absolute (although he preferred the term “undeconstructible”).

But the more I read postmodern philosophy, theology and ethics, the more troubled I am with a common habit I find there. That is to stretch the meaning of “violence” beyond any normal or ordinary meaning. Many postmodern thinkers consider violence ubiquitous—everywhere and inescapable. How so? For example, by regarding all boundaries as violent. They don’t just mean geographical or cultural boundaries; they mean boundaries that exclude “Others”—non-insiders. They admit that such are necessary (or at least inescapable), but it seems to me, anyway, as I read postmodern thinkers, that any lack of total hospitality, for example, is considered “violent.”

Understandably, in the post-holocaust situation, postmodern thinkers place a great emphasis on the “obligation to the Other”—to hospitality toward those not like ourselves. Perhaps the strongest voice in this regard is the French postmodern philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (d. 1995). I agree with this ethical emphasis, but some postmodern thinkers go further and name any and every failure of hospitality “violence.” Then, some go further and say that the hospitality that is our moral obligation is impossible. Derrida famously claimed that hospitality is an “impossible”—a technical term in his philosophy meaning perfection is unreachable even as the impossible hovers over (or lurks within) our best attempts as a kind of ideal that always reminds us of how far we are from perfection and how far we have to go.

My objection is not to the idea of impossible ideals; I learned their importance from Reinhold Niebuhr (“The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal” in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics) long ago. My objection is to calling every ethical failure “violence.”

Some years ago I heard about a postmodern writer who planned to write a “nounless novel” because nouns are violent. I doubt it ever was written or, if it was, published. But there you go—a case study of how this use of “violence” can get out of hand.

Now, let me say that I do recognize a continuum between exclusion of the Other, just because of his or her difference, and genocide, but that doesn’t mean exclusion of the Other always leads to genocide or even physical violence. I think Miroslav Volf has handled this very well in Exclusion and Embrace (1996). There are times when exclusion, in the sense of boundary maintenance, is necessary even though our boundaries ought always to remain flexible and porous and our willingness to embrace the Other must always be maintained.

To me (these are my musings and nothing more), the word “violence” ought to be reserved for actual physical violence—especially intentional physical harm. To make violence ubiquitous and inevitable seems to rob it of its impact and usefulness.

I once knew a university professor who claimed that grading is violent. I disagree. It’s risky and can be harmful if not done with great care and caution, but it’s not violent. To lump grading together with rape, murder and genocide under one umbrella term, especially “violence,” is to do violence to rape, murder and genocide by lessening their abhorrent nature vis-à-vis other acts.

Now, you wonder, didn’t I just contradict myself? I think not. In the above sentence I clearly used “do violence to” metaphorically and everyone understands that. Nobody would consider that kind of “doing violence to” unethical or immoral or criminal.

My reading of postmodern thinkers is that this is not what they mean by declaring lack of perfect hospitality, for example, “violent.” They are not, I take it, using a mere figure of speech, a metaphor, an idiom. They are making a moral and ethical judgment. Do they intend to equate lack of perfect hospitality with genocide? No, of course not. But my fear is that by looking at the continuum I have acknowledged and labeling it all “violence” they are taking away something from the impact of the word “violence.”

This is similar to what I wrote here earlier about “love.” Especially in popular culture (e.g. advertising, colloquial language) “love” has become almost meaningless. Signs everywhere declare (for example) “We love our customers” (or the equivalent to customers). Teens and young adults say “I love you” to people they barely know. “Love” has replaced “like” or even “value” in popular parlance.

I would prefer that everyone from philosophers to the parabolic “man in the street” widen and deepen their vocabularies and use more words for different things. Surely there is a qualitative difference between an individual’s or group’s tribalistic exclusion of someone considered different (Other) and murder. One can lead to the other, of course, but “violence” ought to be reserved for that step from exclusion to actual physical harm (and, yes, no doubt also plots to do it and language that advocates it).

I would say the same about “hate.” That’s another word that is being misused—especially in the present controversy over homosexuality. People who think that sex between persons of the same sex is sin, for example, are frequently accused of “hating” homosexuals just because they think sex between persons of the same sex is sin. I think that’s stretching the word “hate” to the breaking point.

One thing I have learned from my study of postmodern thought is that there is a continuum between unwarranted exclusion (e.g., tribalism) and violence and even between totalizing world views and violence. I have learned to be suspicious of attitudes and behaviors that try to “normalize” Others by making them the “Same.” (I recently observed a white male interacting with an African child and commenting on her “beautiful blue eyes”—which she didn’t have. It was clearly an attempt to normalize her—to bring her within his orbit of what he could relate to. Without my study of postmodern thought I probably would have had no idea what he was doing. And the point is not to judge him but to try to avoid such behavior and the attitudes underlying it myself.)

But I am wary of using “violence” in such a way that it becomes unavoidable and ubiquitous.

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  • Zach Waldis

    In line with what you’re saying, I would want to critique the Continental tendency to be a hypocrite, to talk a big game and not back it up (ala my least favorite theologian, Hauerwas). It is comically hypocritical to grandstand against “violence”, as you say, and maintain a sheltered life as a privileged academic. It would be one thing if these folks were living in base camps in third world countries or lived amongst the homeless, but of course they don’t, relying on the “violence” of the state to preserve law and order. This seems to be a trend I see in radical/liberal circles as well, btw.

    • LexCro


      Thanks for putting apt words to what I’ve thought for some time. When I studied liberation theologians, I found this to be true for many (save for a few) of them. Good post!

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, Roger, for this post. As a philosopher who has read a fair bit of post-modern literature, I share both your appreciation of its contribution and your hesitancy to embrace all its rhetoric. I concur that the term ‘violence’ has, well, been violated–and it has so because, ironically, some post-modern writers can’t seem to place any boundaries around it. As you say, for some writers, ‘violence’ is ubiquitous–which also means, logically, that it is useless as a category of analysis and explanation. And I find that both unfortunate and frustrating. Too often one hears that moral discernment is a species of “intolerance,” which itself is recast as a form of “violence.” If one person’s refusal to grant moral equality to all choices of human lifestyle and another person’s choice to physically obliterate an other because of that other’s choice of lifestyle are both “violent,” then we rob ourselves of the capacity to meaningfully name the injustice of the latter. Or, to put it another way, if there need be no personal victim for there to be violence (as in the case of moral discernment recast as “intolerance”), then we need not pay attention to the actual victims of violence to claim the moral high ground against violence–if a personal victim is not essential for violence, then actual victims become incidental to violence.

    By the way, I especially value the work of Emmanuel Levinas. While he did write his major work in French, however, he himself was not French. He was a Lithuanian Jew, born in Kaunas, I believe, Lithuania’s second city, and home to a large Jewish population prior to World War II. His original surname was Levin, which was “Lithuanianized” to Levinas (a typical change of spelling to make foreign names conform to Lithuanian conventions–e.g., George Bush was called “Georgeas Bushas”!). Levinas left Lithuania before the war to study in Paris, where he remained after the war. Had he not done so, we would likely not be reading him today–some 95% of Lithuanian Jews perished by both Soviet and Nazi violence.

  • Robert

    if we push this expanded definition of violence to the extreme, then it seems that any attempt at abstraction (labeling a person conscientious or uneducated) or judgment call (hiring one vs all candidates, selecting the best picture Oscar) is violent, leaving us awash in agnosticism (in the broadest sense) and decisional paralysis). Thus, like any extreme (caricatured?) variant of postmodernism, it becomes nonsensical and self-refuting. Or so it seems to me.

  • Curt Day

    I am not a student in philosophy and have limited exposure to Post Modernism so please forgive any obvious errors. At the same time, I would appreciate feedback.

    It seems to me that the expanded definition of ‘violence’ by some post modernists could be explained through the relationship between reductionism and all-or-nothing thinking. It seems to me that the expanded definition of ‘violence’ is an attempt use this term to attribute all negative interactions between people to the category of violence because of a desired effect on people. Here all negative interactions can be called violence and thus reduced to that. At the same time, by using such a term to cover so much, we lose the ability to make distinctions between different levels of violence and even between violence and undesirable nonviolent reactions. The inability to make distinctions is a characteristic of all-or-nothing thinking and is the result of minimizing or maximizing certain attributes.

    In addition, it seems to me that the contribution that post modernism can make to reformed people like me can be seen in its opposition to domination, which might be a better word to use than violence though I could hardly call the lack of hospitality domination either, and the depersonalization of faith. I add the latter because it is my observation that too many of my fellow reformed Christians do depersonalize the Christian faith through theological formulas and authoritarianism.

  • Don

    I would like to add to this idea of the broadening of meaning of words thereby destroying our ability to make nuanced discussions and thought possible to include the idea of “miraculous”. I hear people saying things like “The birth of a child is miraculous” or “That sunset was a miracle” and other such nonsense. Now, to be forthcoming here, I was so completely overcome at the birth of (particularly) our first child that I could hardly speak to tell the waiting grandparents that we had a baby girl. Overwhelming, wondrous, amazing, maybe even (and I know I’m stretching it here) “numinous”, but not miraculous. A miracle should refer to something ordinarily outside the bounds of regular occurrence, by which I mean that rare happenings like birth are still regular events, unless accompanied by other oddities, like on an airplane, by the side of a road while rushing to the hospital, etc.

    It seems to me that we allow ourselves to enter that negative twilight area of then “calling evil good and good evil” if we permit this kind of nonsense to continue without challenge. Being rejected by a potential employer hurts, if a greatly coveted position it may even be a devastating pain…but it is still not a violent act…unless delivered with a right uppercut!

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, let’s add “miraculous” to the list of words that have been stretched beyond usefulness. Another one is “awesome.” Everything is now awesome so nothing is really awesome.