Friday, October 21, 2011

The Body Politic: Gilligan's Preventing Violence

Most of my classmates cannot stop singing praises about James Gilligan’s Preventing Violence. To a large extent, I can relate. Gilligan’s exposition on the multi-determined nature of violence (Gilligan, 2001, p. 67) is captivating and compelling. Many of his conclusions in some way support my convictions of community, nonviolence, the convergence of interpersonal and structural transformation, and the inherent structural problems of our collective house. He puts the future as starkly as did MLK: either we learn to live, and want to live, together or we die (p. 9). I also related to Gilligan’s doubt: he makes clear that he is not at all optimistic that the United States will heed his theory and generate the political and economic will to restructure our lives (p. 26); charting out a course to prevent violence does not mean we will set sail. I do not feel much optimism or idealism at all anymore, but I cannot shake deep convictions and, in some ways, a sense of obligation. Now that I have seen and encountered, I cannot ignore.

Gilligan’s public health approach (p. 12) is tremendously helpful, attempting to explicate causes and responses from a phenomenological perspective rather than a strictly a priori theoretical basis. Because he recognizes the biological, psychological, and social determinants of violence, he also acknowledges different levels of prevention (p. 20), which correspond with John Paul Lederach’s levels of intervention in Building Peace. Both Lederach and Gilligan accept the necessity of a diversity of gifts and a multiplicity of engagement aimed at diving as deep as possible. Like Hercules fighting the Hydra monster, we can chop down destructive systems forever, but they will continually grow back like biting heads unless we tend to the root. In this etymological sense, Gilligan’s diagnosis and prognosis is subversively radical. Furthermore, he won me over with his strong references to literature, such as Woolf, Shakespeare, and Genesis (p. 57, 8). More peacebuilders must begin to take these deep reservoirs of human folly and wisdom much more seriously. Such cultural traditions, like the social sciences, are extremely important disciplines that we cannot ignore.

Upon critical reflection, I have my share of questions with some of Gilligan’s points and assumptions. Gilligan’s impressive theory is that violence revolves around shame (p. 29) and that the purpose of violence is to coerce respect from others (p. 35). I put on Gilligan’s glasses and was amazed to see how many acts of violence could indeed be traced to shame and the desire for respect. Even playful insults often result in a jocular retaliatory punch in order to save face. While extraordinarily insightful, Gilligan’s theory stems from studies limited to U.S. prisons, which are situated in a Western society. I wonder if his theory can be translated into every culture and every violent situation. For instance, I see a strong correlation between this theory and Israel/Palestine and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but how does shame-based violence relate to U.S. incursions into Latin America, or funding rebel groups in Mozambique, or the first Gulf War? The danger of a fantastic theory is that it can become just another universal language, another meta-narrative. Interestingly, Gilligan critiques just such a tendency in the medieval concept of evil, which people viewed as an objective reality with an existence independent of subjective experience (p. 14). I think Gilligan has almost replaced “evil” with “shame.” He does not apply shame in the same way he claims medievalists did evil, but he seems to view it as the objective reality which lurks beneath every act of violence. I am hesitant to make such a statement, as possible as it may be.

Gilligan’s phrase “traditional moral and legal approach” (p. 7) is misleading. His prevailing argument is against the contemporary industrial criminal justice system, an argument with which I agree. But that system is not traditional. If, by traditional, he means “what we’ve had for awhile,” such explicitness would be understood and welcome, because equating this present system with the past four thousand years seems untenable. Indeed, he actually notes restorative justice as an alternative (p. 8), which is often inspired by ancient traditional practices, whether from Native Americans, Maoris, or Palestinian Jews.

While I also have problems with moralistic language, Gilligan’s definition of morality is overly negative (p. 18). He seems to think that empiricism is the right framework (p. 12) because it is somehow objective, which means divorced from morality. But observation does not occur without some value-claims. The binary opposition between morality and empiricism is somewhat unhelpful, and it is not necessarily true: our values shape our perceptions and perceptions shape our values. This is an inevitable cycle of mutualism that seems better to embrace than ignore, especially since Gilligan’s training as a psychiatrist illuminates his predisposition to a public health approach (p. 12). As I suggested earlier, his phenomenological lens, which utilizes the social sciences and recognizes “real consequences for real people” (p. 13), is important and resonates very deeply with me, but this is not a separate endeavor from philosophizing. Social sciences can be just as abstract as some philosophy; they contribute an essential voice, but if we take seriously our personal and societal biases we will not claim that they unveil the real perspective. Pitting empiricism against morality implicitly states that we can completely free ourselves from interpretive lenses and see things as they really are. While we cannot and should not reject phenomenology (something which I hold dear), we can and should accept our contingencies and the values that leaven our observations.

Gilligan offers a valid observation of militarism by sardonically suggesting that one murder leads to prison while thousands of murders earn the office of president or the emperor’s crown (p. 59); the highest honor given in the United States is the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is awarded to men for doing violence, for turning themselves and other men into objects of each other’s violence (p. 59). Gilligan in effect blunts this incisive critique by reframing military violence as necessary sacrifice for the sake of comrades and for the sake of all of us (p. 59). Gilligan therefore ends up supporting what he just exposed. Gilligan is very critical about the structural violence of American society, but he retreats from fully applying that critique to a major manifestation of socially-accepted, and socially-endorsed, violence. I am not at all interested in demonization, but if preventing violence is a prerequisite for human survival (p. 26), then militarism cannot be easily excused from the table. Intellectual honesty might require that people’s toes get stepped on at times.

I respectfully step on Gilligan’s toes when he addresses technology and economics. He actually makes an anarcho-primitivist critique when he claims that our hierarchical division of society did not exist before the dawn of the civilization (p. 104) in hunter-gatherer societies (p. 89). Indeed, one could argue that communities like the Hutterites (p. 86) and the kibbutzim (p. 87), examples of ways to create less violent societies, attempt to re-imagine a Paleolithic ethos in the modern world. Gilligan believes, however, that civilization no longer requires stratifications, such as slavery, because of progress (p. 104). Apparently, Gilligan thinks progress replaces human manual labor with robots so that we are free to engage in more productive endeavors (p. 105). I do think appropriate technologies have an important role, and I absolutely agree that we do not need economic stratifications, but I question that this will be achieved by producing more technology that eradicates human engagement. Gilligan’s faith in technological progression seems intimately tied to forms of violence: utter reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels and the violence to the earth and its human and nonhuman communities.

Perhaps this exposes another component of violence: the devaluation of the body and the alienation of work. I don’t think Europeans enslaved Africans because they were black; they enslaved Africans because Africans were economically expedient and militarily unimposing. They could be forced to do the work that Europeans did not want to do and racism justified everything. Replacing slaves with technology will not guarantee the end of resource wars, much less the end of violence. I don’t know exactly in what direction we should move, but I think ancient cultural wisdom might at least provide one interpretation of ways forward. The early monastic communities believed, as Gilligan seems to note, that the project of civilization is constructed on the centralization of exploitation and wealth; if that is the case, then communities should become as self-sufficient as possible (Myers, 1994, p. 182). Furthermore, they claimed that exploitation and wealth stratification stem from the alienation of human labor, which I think relate to a devaluation of the body; in order to restore dignity and respect (as opposed to humiliation and shame), they centered their communal lives around shared manual, and therefore unalienated, work (p. 182). Critical questions can be asked here, but I wonder if the dualism between body and soul plays a larger role in violence than is often credited. If it does, reclaiming the tangibility and localness of the body, and therefore the body’s interdependence with other bodies, is a way of preventing violence in an increasingly virtual age. Nonviolence is a part of this reclamation, because engaged nonviolence affirms the actual embodiment of humanity, recognizing the strategic and subversive placement of the political body within the body politic. The two are inextricably linked.


Gilligan, J. (2001). Preventing violence. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Myers, C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world Christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

1 comment:

  1. Holy crap, Jon. You've offered about the best critique and affirmation of Gilligan I've seen, and both aspects resonate with me. It is, indeed, a CJP first-year favorite that gets praised to the high heavens. Your critique, it seems, points out Gilligan's mostly Modernist assumptions: dualism, objectivism, inevitable progress, especially via technology, etc.

    A good companion to Gilligan is David Cayley's The Expanding Prison, which Howard has used in his first RJ class. It's a wonderful historical-sociopolitical exploration of how the prison-industrial complex came to be in Western societies, particularly the US.

    I can't utter Cayley's name without thinking of his EXCELLENT interviews with Charles Taylor earlier this year on the CBC: