What do we mean by “violence”?


At the Migrants’ Rights Network, we often refer to ‘violence’ in our communications when referring to the State’s borders and the immigration system. We want to define exactly what we mean by this, since most people have a conception of violence as being strictly referring to physical aggression or abuse. 

But violence is not just physical assault. It goes much deeper. In this explainer, we will share how there are many other forms of violence, which we refer to, that are often left out of the conversation. 

Violence beyond the physical

Violence doesn’t just have to be a physical action. There are many thinkers who have explained that violence is not just physical,  but is also something that harms someone’s dignity and quality of life.

There are two broad areas which violence falls under: objective and subjective.

  • Subjective violence is violence that is directly inflicted by an identifiable person or group (such as a border guard). This violence can include physical, emotional,verbal and psychological abuse. 
  • Objective violence is a type of violence that is hidden or obscured because there is no identifiable individual or group perpetrator. Objective violence is lesser known and therefore allows the impact of racism, xenophobia and other systems of oppression to be concealed.

Objective violence can be further broken down into the categories of symbolic and systemic violence.

Symbolic violence refers to how words, ideas and concepts become normalised and unchallengeable: categories and labels are taken for granted, and are assumed to be legitimate and the norm. 

We can see this with how society takes the language of “illegality” (“illegal migrants”) for granted. Society sees the border violence, detention and deportation committed against migrant communities as being justified, without questioning whether migration is something that should even be criminalised in the first place. 

Another example of symbolic violence is the global imposition of the Western colonial gender binary. For example, the definition of man as XY, penis and woman as XX, vagina is taken for granted as the ultimate universal fact. Even though a comprehensive historical and scientific understanding of both sex and gender proves these definitions to be not at all universal, since understandings of gender and sex vary across time and place. 

Systemic violence refers to violence that is inherent to a system and the institutions that make up that system. For instance, the immigration detention and prison systems are violent, since they use racist and colonial-era tactics of surveillance and control in order to paint entire migrant and racialised communities as dangerous and as deserving of domination. 

Epistemic violence

Epistemic violence can complicate the distinction between objective and subjective violence. But first, let’s explore what epistemic violence actually is. 

Epistemic violence is “violence exerted against or through knowledge”. It is the enforcement and privileging of certain ways of (Western, White) knowing, and the simultaneous rejection, ridiculing, trivialisation, extermination and annihilation of other (Black, Brown and Indigenous) ways of knowing¹. Certain ways of knowing are celebrated and valued as superior, scientific, civilised, rational and objectively true, whilst other ways of knowing are dismissed as inferior, unscientific, uncivilised, irrational, and emotional. 

An objective example of epistemic violence is colonialism’s impact on Indigenous ways of knowing, such as medicine and relations to the land. Colonialism repressed, subjugated, and erased the knowledge systems of colonised people, and positioned the White Western knowledge system as the only valid way of knowing. Epistemic violence is rooted in a marginalised group’s power to give or teach being denied: this also functions as a denial or killing of one’s humanity.

A subjective example of epistemic violence is the denial of and refusal to listen to lived experience. When Black, Brown and Indigenous people explain their experiences of racism, they are often met with White doubters, who ask them to cite statistics to prove their point. White people who deny the existence of racism are perpetuating epistemic violence, because they impose their way of knowing (knowledge through statistical evidence) as the only valid way of knowing, and because they believe that racialised communities cannot teach them anything of value. This violence is also a form of gaslighting: it leads racialised communities to doubt the truth of their own lived experience, and to internalise that their knowledge and ways of knowing are not valuable or worth listening to. 

The so-called “violence” of the oppressed

Understanding objective, symbolic, systemic and epistemic violence is important because it allows us to see how colonialism persists even beyond the occupation of land, and because it helps us to unearth the less visible or hidden forms of violence that the State imposes on migrant, migratised and racialised communities. Systems of oppression and their symptoms, such as homelessness, detention, and imprisonment, are inherently violent. Understanding the violent impact of words and discourse also shows us that words really do matter! 

Understanding these types of violence is also useful because it can help us to understand the mainstream reactions to the so-called “violence” done by the oppressed. Marginalised communities have often been condemned for destruction or vandalism of property, statues, and buildings, such as during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of colonial statues. The condemnation of marginalised communities frames their actions as something random or unprovoked, when in fact, “their actions are a response to structural violence”

Structural, symbolic and epistemic violence is normalised against Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled and working-class people. When we see poverty, homelessness, deportations, capitalism and the state’s failure to care for its populations as forms of violence, can we then understand that the actions of marginalised communities are a justified response to this violence. 

When we talk about violence, what are we really talking about? Which acts of violence ‘matter’ as contemptible? On which bodies is it acceptable to mete out violence and which bodies’ violations remain unremarkable? Whose bodies are sacrosanct, evoking horror when bodily integrity is violated, and on which bodies is violence business-as-usual?…Violence is inextricably linked to who society deems as human; that is to say, the structural violence inflicted on poor Black landless people is not considered violence because Black people are not seen as human.

-Wanelisa Xaba

¹The term ways of knowing refers to knowledge systems such as spirituality, identity, language, science, culture, governance and philosophy.

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