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Structural Violence Appel's Animated Figurine; see templart.htm.
and The Uniqueness of Its Impact

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: May 21, 2000
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Impediments to the Peacemaking Identity

by Jeanne Curran and Susan Takata
Part of Teaching Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan Takata, May 21, 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

We have been making an unstated assumption in our discussions of structural violence. Because we began to look at violence in terms of "structural violence," "the intermalization of that structural violence," and "personal violence," and the socialpsychological constructs those entail, we were more focused on these theoretical constructs than on the manifestations of affect.

What do I mean by that in plain Engllish? That we were trying to understand violence, and that we recognized three "kinds" of violence: structural violence, internalized structural violence, and violence. And that we were paying more attention to how to define these different types of violence than to the emotions they engender and how those emotions impact us.

  • Structural violence
  • Structural violence is violence that results from simple bureaucratization, rules set up to run families, schools, parks, classrooms, businesses, government. The harm comes not from the family, school, park, etc. intending to punish you specifically, but from the fact that you don't fit the rules, and that the family, school, park, etc. is treating you as though you were fungible, i.e. replaceable with any other individual they deal with, like a spare car part.

    The harm is in your being treated like a number, instead of as a unique human being, with a unique story. The harm to the institutional group so treating you is that it begins to function as a non-learning sub-system that heeds only its own rules, and does not take into account those who are harmed in that process. This is a very rough approximation, as I understand it, of Habermas' "auto-poietic non-learning sub-system." (Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, at p. 49, ff.)

  • Internalized structural violence
  • In the next construct we considered, the internalization of structural violence, we need to reintroduce the the uniqueness of individual response to the social context. In early childhood, frustration is a part of our daily growth. We encounter barriers, we encounter language, we encounter the need to persuade others to do what we need. Some of us are agressive and demanding; some are relatively unruffled, happy, and find pleasant ways to meet our needs; some of us do not have our needs met. These early experiences shape our response to frustration.

    Criticism entails frustration. Having made the effort to do something I am now told that effort was not as it should be. We speak of learning as one uses the criticism to correct the effort. But we do not all learn in this way. If the criticism is painful enough, the lesson learned may be internalized anger. And if our coping mechanisms have not kept apace with our intellectual growth, it may be anger not learning which is internalized.

    To the extent that the criticism is perceived as violent and unjust, i.e., not taking into account the effort itself, the internalized response is likely to focus more on anger and frustration than on learning. The present school system does no formal evaluation of effort, and no formal attempt to understand the student's response to correction. We propose in this paper that such inattention to underlying processes is one of the major causes of violence as a response to frustration.

    • Example: Student follows what she believes are instructions for essay. Student gets a C. Other student writes essay of similar length; but other student gets A. consider the following scenarios of Student response:

      • Student sees problem of writing as simply stringing words together coherently on paper. I wrote a paragraph. Other wrote a paragraph. You said write a paragraph. I did. But I only got a C. Other got an A. Why?

        Student in this analysis is not getting past the requirement "write." That's not unusual. For the student who has never mastered writing skills that require extensive practice, the objective to writing an essay is often just to fill up the page. If one essay is unsuccessful, that student merely starts over and writes another essay.

        Although the student's question, "Why?" sounds simple, it is not. Getting words down on paper is one way to start an essay. But there are other essential steps, like identifying the topic, building an argument, drawing a conclusion. Few teachers, given work overload, and lack of prior training to build on, break down their evaluations of students' essays into the elements that are missing, and what could be done to incorporate them. Most teachers, faced with this conundrum, offer off-putting disclaimers such as "This is not college writing," if you're in college, or "Other wrote a better essay." Both statements are conclusionary, and offer no clue as to what they mean.

        The student who has accepted the legitimacy of the school's evaluation of her, goes away hurt, but resigned that if she could just understand it, she could "write." But there's something about "writing" she just doesn't get.

        The intuitively bright, or the intuitively angry student, may not accept the legitimacy of the school's right to evaluate him. He goes away angry, sure of his own ability, and sure that his failure at this task is "their" fault.

        Neither of these students has had a valid learning experience. The school has labeled them. At best we have labeled them from the perspective of the advantaged student who had extensive writing practice in a privileged classroom of limited size. She blames herself. He blames others. But both have experienced only labeling, not learning.

        Race, gender, and class are relevant here, but only to the extent that social learning teaches those of minority groups, women, and workers to accept the legitimacy of such labels to a greater extent than those with power will generally accept. The confusion of the structual violence of institutional measures of success (generally paper and pencil tests) with actual learning and performance affects all. The privileged student, caught in the structural violence of the system, suffers the same harm. The difference is that the privileged student has more access to resources to protect her from such violence in her specific case. I.e., parental influence, parental knowledge, legal support, privilege gained from prior status, etc.

    • Violence, Personal

      In this project we have distinguished structural violence from violence by the personal nature of the construct. If person A behaves violently toward person B with the intent to hurt or with the disregard for any harm to person B, we consider that violent. But if person A behaves to person B as she would behave to any other person coming within her circle of power, that is structural violence. To the extent that person B could have been any other persons (fungible) with person B's non-unique characteristics, i.e., or race, or religion, or color, or gender, or accent, whatever, person A is structurally violent to such people as person B is categorized with by person A.

      Thus violence is aimed at a unique person.

      Structural violence is aimed at anyone who falls within a given category of the prepetrator's organizaed thought. A rule-breaker, a trouble-maker, a smart alec, a racially identified person, a gender-identified person, an age identified person, or any other.

      Institutionalized structural violence is violence aimed at anyone in specific identified categories, when that violence is simply the results of the way things have always been done, or of the "rules." Institutionalized structural violence is violence without a perpetrator. (Citations, Joe Feagin.)

    Structural Violence Internalized from Tradition

    Since violence tends to beget violence, survival in a violent social context tends to teach us violence through modelling, whether we so choose or not. (citations omitted - much in death penalty literature on this) the two examples given are taken from transactions in the project this semester. They are enough to give a sense of what we mean here by the internalization of the structural violence of tradition.

    • Defensive by taking offensive

      In an adversarial environment where the student is seen as having to prove that he has learned, as against the institution's assumption that the average student does not learn unless forced into it, students have learned to be defensive. Any negative criticism is perceived as prosecutorial, and the student often expects not to be heard in good faith.

      We saw this in the project this semester whenever jeanne asked for some indication of what the student was learning. Several times the student gave dozens of defensive answers, put off talking to jeanne, until finally, in anger, he wrote what jeanne called a "foff memo." Often, in anger, the student began to enumerate what he had in fact been doing, which is precisely what jeanne had been asking for.

      It appears that we have internalized the old adage that the "best defense is a good offense." So that very often in response to a request for some communication of learning, jeanne got, and so did Susan, messages about what they had done wrong, or failed to do, or not done well or clearly, or expected unreasonably. This appears to be hostile. It is not. The anger at the moment is real. But the student is terribly confused by the simplicity of being asked to explain what he has learned, where it fits into his knowledge base, how he can incorporate it.

      Once jeanne began to share the "foff" memos, and students began to catch on, we discovered that students were far more capable than we had ever imagined of real communication on their learning. For examaple, look at the extraordinary job of reporting that Cloyd Barnwell did.

      This would seem to suggest that we can begin to actually eliminate some of the structural violence in our own classrooms if we will just listen to the students in good faith.

    • Long latent learning curve - hesitancy to act

      Another way in which the structural violence of traditional learning manifests itself is the hesitancy that some students have to respond at all. Students with a particularly long latent learning curve simply do not perform well until they have mastered more than most students. This is not a sign of perversity. To the extent that one's learning style is more holistic, one simply does not find performance in discreet steps possible. These are usually students who "freeze" on exams. One cannot ask them "why" they freeze, anymore than once can ask a seriously depressed person "why" he is depressed. (Lear, Open Minded, et al.)

      The tendency to assume that all behavior is rational, and thus that the person who engages in it can give a rational explanation for it, is structurally violent and dangerous. We know that people learn in different ways, at different speeds, in both affective and cognitive domains. Why, then, do we persist in demanding that our students all adhere to one testing system? Why do we test at all in this way?

      Why don't we grant validity to what the student says? If we expect him to be a trustworthy citizen tomorrow, how can we so mistrust him today? (Citation, Catherine MacKinnon, on granting validity to what women say.)