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Feb 9, 2007

Symbolic violence

Pierre Bourdieu has introduced a fascinating notion of symbolic violence, “the violence which extorts submission, which is not perceived as such, based on ‘collective expectations’ or socially inculcated beliefs” (Practical Reason, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, 103.). This is when someone reminds you of your duty, or exhorts compassion, or uses value-laden language to make his or her point. For example, someone says to you: “should we not have the interest of the student in mind, not our own personal interest?” This evokes the symbolism of altruism versus selfishness dichotomy. What are you going to say in response? No, we should really protect our own selfish interest and forget about students? Even if that is what you think, the power of social norms make such a statement forbidden, especially in a public setting. Moreover, there are certain things you won’t even allow yourself to think; certain feelings you experience but suppress; which is where Freud and Bourdieu nicely overlap. Everyone has got to love children. No one ever profess dislike for children. Of course, education is important; you can’t say that education is not really that important without losing respect or credibility. Teachers are supposed to love all children, care about them, and accept lower pay gratefully. We are not in it for the moneys, etc., ad nauseam.

We all do this to each other, in small or big ways. “Do you love me? How do I look?” Hmm, let’s see what the right answers are. Or, in another situation: “Students should take responsibility for their own learning.” Or, “This if for your own good.” Much of what appears to be a dialogue is, in fact, thinly veiled power struggle, often using symbolic violence. One has got to be grateful, to return favors, to respect one’s parents, to love one’s own and other people’s kids. In addition, teachers and other educators must appear selfless, not greedy, etc. We all use this; this is just a matter of normal life. This is how we make other people do something they otherwise wouldn’t. Some people are better than others at detecting symbolic violence directed toward them, and some can defend themselves with either unmasking it, or trumping it with another form of symbolic violence. But we all do it.

I recognize symbolic violence as a part of regular social life, but question its efficiency in administrative matters. For example, someone says: “the university is in big financial trouble; we all need to make sacrifice. Let’s find our way out collaboratively.” What’s not to like? Sacrifice, collaboration, solidarity; all wonderful things; one would appear and perhaps feel guilty not collaborating. I’d rather have a direct order: cut your expenses 4%, or better, raise your revenues 4%. Or, something like this: “You are a campus leader; you are a part of this decision making process; you get to decide.” Great, I am a part of the group, therefore I must play along and say what I am expected to say. People want to be helpful, and don’t want to be confrontational. The most interesting part of symbolic violence is that it does not feel like violence; rather it feels like a free choice, except it is not really free.

The symbolic violence is one of many power mechanisms of administrative control institutions use. It works very well in cases of emergency. For example, to fight a war, massive symbolic coercion is needed to mobilize people. If you have one massive financial crisis, it works to get everyone to sacrifice. However, it does not work well as a routine administrative tool. If there is a conflict between self-interest and socially approved norms, self-interest often wins over time. Even if it does not win, people accumulate resentment and feel exploited and demoralized. Sometimes, they don’t even understand why, but in most cases, they do. In the short run, institutional symbolic violence saves resources, because it helps extort more labor for less money. However, in the long run, it backfires, because the quality of labor declines.

I am not saying that only self-serving behavior should be encouraged, or that people should care only about monetary rewards. That’s not the case at all. However, I always like to be clear if I am being to asked to volunteer and to help, or I am expected to do something as a part of my job, or someone will compensate me for doing extra work. If this is a plea for help, I will or will not do it, but most importantly, I’ll do it on my terms, and never ask anything in return. If this is something I should be doing anyway, fine. If you’re paying me, this becomes a different kind of arrangement, where we negotiate a mutually acceptable amount. However, I don’t want to be paid AND feel like someone is doing me a favor; that would be a primitive corruption. I also hate pleas for help which are impossible to turn down, because of the all symbolic BS that’s wrapped around the request. Charity should be between me and my conscience; work should have an accountant sitting between me and whoever wants me to do something.

One can see a clear difference in patterns of performance. If people are really interested in doing something, and are passionate about it, or really need it to be done; they do it really well, because there is a self-serving (albeit non-monetary) component. If they get paid well for doing something, they also perform rather well, especially if a specific accountability measure is introduced. However, when they hesitantly agree to do something, because of the symbolic violence pressure… that’ a whole different ball game. People forget appointments, postpone work, they drag their feet forever, and results are not that impresive either. The paradox is that people may sacrifice their lives for a symbol but they are not able to do a half-decent work for the same symbol, if it is extended through some time.

We need to be able to see through symbolic violence, and make our choices outside of this sort of pressures. I bet, we’d do more things better. I like to hear things like “ OK, I’ll do it, I need some service on my resume, and it might be entertaining.” Or: “I’ll do it, I need the money.” Or, “if I don’t do it, people I care about will be in jeopardy.” When people assume martyred look and pretend they’ll do it because some one has to,… it always smells fishy. In other words, they are saying: “OK, but now you all owe me big, because I do this for the Cause.” This is the symbolic violence directed at the institution, not from the institution. So, we all do it. Let’s just learn to see beyond it.

1 comment:

  1. I am just now realizing that I have accepted being bullied by others' (and perhaps my own internalized) symbolic violence for (almost) my entire life! I thought that everyone else had a right to be intimidating to me, and/or I imagined I had done something or that my very essence was sufficiently disturbing to deserve criticism, bullying, etc. I felt that I was missing something in my mind, body make-up, etc., or that I was alive by default so that I was grateful for ANY communication,any attention from others even if it was of a negative, critical nature. (My mother told me so many times that she wished she never had me that I guess it damaged me, or I allowed it to damage me, almost permanently. I am hoping I can recover what is left of my life, by beginning to stand up for myself instead of allowing myself to be intimidated, bullied from from now on. One concern I have is how do you deal with denials of what felt like bullying, etc? Lately when I confront someone with what seeems like bullying they just laugh. Perhaps people are unaware that they are being symbolically violent. I wonder what people would or could be like if we all communicated without symbolic violence. I think it is possible but we may all need to learn to communicate without drama and ego, especially we would have to learn how to communicate without using any social, cultural constructs. We would need to communicate in declaratice sentences that eliminate words that have judgements. Instead of using any limitations such as comparisons, competitions we would all need to spect uniquel about ouselves, only. We would speak about our unique experiences, reflections perhaps. Until such a future utopian time, place, etc. where LIBERATORY LANGUAGE (see exists,I guess, it IS preferable to be symbolically violent instead of being physically violent!If anyone sees this and is interested in helping me with this, please contact me with key words, etc., anything that will help me to get at what may be involved in how symbolic violence in speech may be better understood.
    Barbara Todish
    H 973 484-1023