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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 29, 2001
Latest update: March 29, 2001
E-Mailjeannecurran@habermas.org

Respect, That We Do No Harm

Tyron Turner reminding us that "demanding respect"
can be structurally violent.

This essay is based on our many discussions on respect and disrespect. Related sources:



Respect in Our Classrooms and On Site

Tyron is right. It is structurally violent to construct even reasonable rules that treat people as fungible, and so do harm. But in our adversarial society, so much is run by rules that we have become unaccustomed to questioning ourselves on the harm our rules could cause. Even the rule that we should respect one another can be structurally violent if we fail to bring ourselves to awareness of the assumptions we are failing to state consciously.

Michael Planck (Theory, Distributive Justice, Spring 2000.) is also right to consider that there may well be some structural violence built into institutions because they must categorize to some extent for efficient operation. At some point that routinization, that bureaucratization (Weber) leads to an insensitivity that our assumptions of fungibility may cause.

Michael Planck contemplating the inevitability
of some structural violence.

Michelle Matthews and Shiranee Roper were absolutely right that I was being structurally violent in my assumption that because they had not successfully e-mailed me, when my e-mail was more messed up than I thought, and because they simply did not speak out in class, that they weren't doing their work. I apologize for the mistaken nature of those unstated assumptions. Dominant discourse leads us to the normative expectation that "good" students successfully turn in their homework, even if the teacher loses it, of course. And that "good" students "contribute" actively to class discussions. Wrong on both counts. Some of us are quieter than others. Some "good" students just don't say very much, especially not in class, but sometimes also outside of class.

Michelle Matthews and Shiranee Roper misjudged
by unstated assumptions.

Michelle Matthews and Shiranee Roper reminded us that it is structurally violent
to make the unstated assumption that silence is a signifier of poor performance.

I rememer how many students expressed gratitude for Marlene Veliz' comments on the extent to which we remained unaware of the silence of the Latinos and Latinas in our Distributive Justice class last spring, as we discussed Black issues in Beatty's White Boy Shuffle.

We're all in this together.
Let's not hurt each other.



Designing Rules for Respect with an Awareness of Structural Violence

In order to maintain an awareness of the harm we do by denying the very real operation of our unstated assumptions, we will design our rules for respect in the classroom with flexibility.We will maintain an awareness that we are not fungible and that we have many situational contexts coming together in one classroom.

It is structurally violent to insist that you NOT speak in class. There are many situations in which students need to talk to each other, even during a discussion. What we will bear in mind is that extraneous talk breaks concentration for some of us. Yesterday, in Criminology, I was interrupted at least four times by students talking or distracting me by their behavior. I stopped my discussion of post-colonialism each time, in confusion. Even though the students may not have intended harm, my confusion and my attempting to try to put an end to the disruptions should have been a sufficient statement of my validity claim that I was being disturbed.

It is structurally violent to continue in such behavior when the "Other," the one not included in your clique, expresses in words or in behavior, that he/she is made uncomfortable by what is happening. To ignore that is to disrespect the "Other." And when you disrespect the Other, there is considerable negative affect released in the room, even if you are not sensitive to it.

It is structurally violent to giggle when the "Other" tries to make a validity claim. It is structurally violent to maintain that the "reason" for your disrespectful behavior was someone else's misbehavior. When you put the "Other" off by laughing or by denial of disturbance, or by stating or even assuring yourself that you have the "right" to so misbehave, because you are 21 and can do what you please, or because you paid your tuition like everyone else, you are in denial. You are privileging your own subjectivity and you are harming those you do not include in your group.

Whether you intended specific harm or not, once you are made aware of the "Other's" validity claim, it is violent, not structurally violent, but violent to proceed with your behavior without a good faith hearing of that claim.

Disruptive actions and alternative solutions:

  • Eating out of snap, crackle, and popping bags is structurally violent.

    This makes me crazy. It interrupts my train of thought. It interrupts your concentration as you eat, but it also interrupts the concentration of others around you. Please refrain from eating out of bags that crackle, whether it be nuts or potato chips or anything else. If you are hungry, please eat something that is quiet. I prefer that you eat, or drink a coke or coffee, rather than be uncomfortably hungry or thirsty, but your comfort should not intrude on the concentration of others.

  • Talking in class to a clique, not to the class, is structurally violent.

    This might not matter so much if we were just policing in class whether you had done your reading or not, or if I were just repeating what you had read. We are not doing that. We are trying to carry on adademic and scholarly discussions. I am summarizing texts you do not have enough time to read in one course. Yesterday, I was summarizing Gayatri Spivak's critique of postcolonial studies. That is a difficult book. The ideas are complex and difficult. If you are to grasp such material, you must concentrate. If you cannot concentrate at that point, at least try not to distract the rest of us.

    One alternative solution, if you are having difficulty concentrating, is to make a simple hand gesture to us, to let us know you need to leave the room, and then leave as unobtrusively as possible. Please try not to come and go. The class is only an hour and 15 minutes long. Barring an emergency most of us should be able to sit through the class. Bring something to read if that will help. Do not bring something where you will keep turning pages. Again, that is distracting, to me, and to many others.

  • Teasing others to get them to misbehave is violent.

    It is not structurally violent. IT IS violent. It is not the result of categorization and bureaucratization. It is done intentionally to them and to us, to draw attention away from the class and turn it to yourself. It harms those at whom you aim your distractions, by causing me to fuss at the disruption. And it harms the rest of us by breaking our concentration. DON'T DO IT!

  • Lounging Posture is violent.

    Not structurally violent, but violent, because you are presenting an image of lounging in a situation in which you know that attention and concentration are essential to learning. If you are tired, try to get more sleep. Barring that, put your head down on the desk, or find some non-disruptive way to make yourself more comfortable. I know our desks are not comfortable. But it is horribly distracting to see students putting their feet up on chairs and lounging through what is trying to be a serious academic discussion. Wish I had a camcorder to show you what it looks like. When you are serious about an activity you sit up, erect posture. That presents a body image of attention and respect. Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This is not fun and games. This is your work, your education, your future. Treat the class with respect.