Symbolic Violence

Here I will discuss briefly the article “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle” by DeLuca and Peeples. The article will primarily be useful for the what it describes as “symbolic violence” and the relation of this to news media. In this article, DeLuca and Peeples argue that networks of news and large-scale dissemination and other properties of a ‘wired’ society are changing the ways that citizens can participate in activism. . They explain that “In comparison to the public sphere’s privileging of rationality, embodied conversations, consensus, and civility, the public screen highlights dissemination, images, hypermediacy, publicity, distraction, and dissent” (125, from the abstract). In other words, they are saying that as corporations capture a larger share of political power, new ways of communicating and representing are also new ways of making politics. While a ‘traditional’ view of the public sphere might see a decline in citizen participation, DeLuca and Peeples argue that it is, rather, a transformation in political participation that has surged forth in response to changes in media and power

In their analysis of the Seattle protests in response to the World Trade Organization meetings, DeLuca and Peeples go beyond simple considerations of violence to think about how violence was being used by protesters as a form of communication. Because the public sphere (as envisioned by Habermas) is by definition free of coercion and violence, DeLuca and Peeples say that violence can be seen as “a type of ‘communcation’ a priori ruled out of the public sphere” (137), and ends up being framed as a disruption to politics rather than a politics in itself. (Without a doubt, this was what I saw in my analysis of the Estadão timeline on the initial June protests, where the protest violence was framed as a disruption to the normalcy of traffic and use of public space in São Paulo.)

DeLuca and Peeples want to take violence seriously rather than simply denouncing and dismissing it. They are considering the importance of “staging imaging events for dissemination” (136), as a way to create voice and visibility on a ‘public screen.’ Specifically, DeLuca and Peeples refer to “symbolic violence,” which they characterize as “acts directed toward property, not people, and designed to attract media attention” (138). Because the news is “by definition” about what is out of the ordinary, they say, nothing is better suited to attract media attention than violence and uncivil disobedience (138).

And here is the substance of what DeLuca and Peeples are arguing about symbolic violence and its use as political activism on the public screen. They are talking about the visibility of the Seattle protests:

The whole world did watch – not because thirty thousand protesters gathered in one location, but because uncivil disobedience and symbolically violent tactics effectively disrupted the WTO, shutdown Seattle, provoked police violence, and staged the images the media feed upon. An aalysis of media coverage of the WTO protests reveals such tactics as necessary ingredients for compelling the whole world to watch. (139)

In other words, they are saying that this “symbolic violence” can be used by protesters as a form of communication, a way to draw media attention in order to support their own activism.  By analyzing news clips and news stories, DeLuca and Peeples find that rather than drowning out the message of WTO protesters, the use of symbolic violence “generated extensive media coverage and an airing of the issues” (140).

I’m not sure to what degree I think the airing of the issues in this way is effective… even in their analysis, the coverage is partial, and comes only after the immediate accounts of violence in the news stories. Still, in the protests in Brazil in 2013, for example, the most common narration credits their sudden spread across the entire nation to a widespread reaction to police violence. In other words, even though major media outlets portrayed protester actions negatively as a relatively depoliticized sort of vandalism, this representation (spurred on by the violence) allowed a widespread dissemination of the protests and their basic demands, allowing people across the country to take to the streets in favor of these demands and many others in a diverse, far-reaching political movement, however short. As well, the 2013 protests did have impacts on policy; I recently saw a video of president Dilma in her immediate response to the most intense protests, where she called for protests to be ‘peaceful’ but also asserted the right of citizens to demonstrate and said she would begin to work on some of the demands they were making.


Along with my post about the Estadão coverage that I’ve already linked,  the concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is also useful for my discussions of the legitimacy of violent potential and the illegitimacy of symbolic violence in online news media representations.

The premise of this aspect of my argument has to do with degree and with character. My assumption and argument is that while “violence” can be understood and characterized in a number of ways, acts of violence causing direct harm to people are more “present” and intense than other forms of violence. I would agree with the MPL representative that there are systemic forms of violence/exclusion that deprive people of the freedom to participate in many aspects of society (see the Estadão post). To me, the violence of exclusion is something very tangible, as is the violence of shooting someone in the eye with a rubber bullet and partially blinding them, as is the violence of throwing rocks or bricks or bombs at someone. The “symbolic violence” of breaking the glass windows of banks, burning dumpsters, and spray painting walls, on the other hand, is something that does not seem to be so directly violent. Yes, people will be harmed from breathing in the trash fumes; yes, banks will undergo some expense to replace the windows and stolen funds; and yes, some people will dislike things that have been painted… but this type of upset has more to do with perceptions and perspectives than with pain and exclusion.

In that line of reasoning… Why would spray painting a wall and breaking a window be ‘violence,’ while shooting someone with a rubber bullet would not, even though the latter signifies direct painful action while the former does not?

This is one of the questions that undergirds many of my discussions on this site. I am interested in “dis/placement violence,” the violence that is engaged through violently regulating people’s occupation of physical and visual and social places.  Just as police use of force to regulate protesters’ paths and actions is a physical and tangible form of dis/placement violence, I would argue that there are also more insidious forms of dis/placement violence that get naturalized through the media representations that I analyze on this site.

Ultimately, I am not sure how to define what “violence” is, other than that it causes or can cause some sort of harm. Some people who define violence will also take into account the intent of the actor; in this case, someone who does not intend to cause harm is not engaging in violent behavior. Personally, I think that while intent can be important to consider, it does not determine whether something is or is not violent. In my understanding, it is fully possible to cause significant and substantial harm to others as a result of your actions, even if you are not consciously aware of it. My reasoning still places the responsibility on the actor for engaging in violence.

For example: if an individual performs rape, i.e. sexual assault, on another individual without consciously considering it a form of violence or without consciously intending to cause serious suffering for the other person, does this make rape ‘less’ violent or the sexual assault less of an ‘assault’? I would argue that it doesn’t. Likewise, if a police officer does not intend to blind somebody with a rubber bullet but does so anyway, does this make the execution of the state apparatus (of legitimacy through the use of force) somehow less violent? (I.e., if every police officer theoretically wants to work towards law, order, and peace, and really doesn’t want to hurt anybody, does this make the police use of weapons ‘less’ violent?) I would say — not really.

Of course, there are many distinctions and nuances to be made here, and by no means do I intend to lay a blanket definition over all forms of violence. Rather, I am implying that the effects of actions are at least as important as their intents if we want to find ways to make meaningful social transformations.

(Important: Note here that I am not discussing punishment or responses to violence, only its definition.)



– DeLuca, Kevin Michael & Jennifer Peeples. “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. 19:2 (2010): 125-151. Routledge. Web.

-My own experience as nonviolence trainer for Meta Peace Team, where, in nonviolence trainings, we do a “nonviolence continuum” where participants try to figure out what constitutes violence and what doesn’t. By observing many different definitions of violence, I have started to come out with my own definitions, which are based on degrees and circumstances but also on a will to collaborate towards meaningful social change that embraces conflict while denouncing violence.


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