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 July 9, 2013

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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