Developing Sanity in Human Affairs

By Susan Presby Kodish; Robert P. Holston | Go to book overview

13
How General Semantics Contributes to the Understanding of Violence

Rachel Lauer

The National Research Council in its book Understanding and Preventing Violence defines violence as "behaviors that intentionally threaten, attempt or inflict harm upon others."1 There may be an implication here that violence is some thing that can be defined. Violence is a thing, an "it."

The general semanticist starts with the fact that "violence" is a word--a word for something else. We say "the word is not the thing"; it is not what is going on at the nonverbal level. The word violence refers to a map of a territory and of course is not the same as the territory.

What is the territory of violence? In accordance with the National Research Council's definition, typical violence analysts say the territory consists of murder, shootings, sexual attacks, gang killings, robbery, forcible rape, school fights, prisoners' fights, and assaults in the home. The general semanticist, however, sees violence much more broadly, as a whole context that must cover:

1. acts ranging from neglecting, rejecting, spanking, humiliating, character assassinating, discriminating, isolating, beating, starving, freezing, raping, shooting, strangling, bombing, etc.
2. the participants' perception of what happens; i.e. the meaning they give to it. Thus, what is perceived as violence by one person or culture may not be so in another. Wife beating can be taken for granted in one culture but be perceived as justification for jailing in another. Ridicule in a classroom can be felt as devastating or shrugged off. An execution of a criminal can be seen as murder, a sin, or as righteousness. Teenage girls voluntarily submit to beatings to earn membership in a gang.
3. the time, place and circumstances of events. In times of war, in the middle of a gang fight, under conditions of near starvation, the same acts of assault are different territories in meaning and effect. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II could reasonably be perceived not as violence, but as an act of saving lives.

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