Friday, March 14, 2014

Sprinkle's book and the Meaning of "Violence"

This is the second post on Preston Sprinkle's book, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.

Since Sprinkle's book advocates a Christian case for nonviolence, it is important to get clear on what the definition of violence is with which he is working.  He gives his definition on pp. 30-32.

He begins with Stassen and Westmoreland-White's definition: "Violence is destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim's consent."  Sprinkle remarks that, of all the definitions he's read, he likes this one the most (he then goes on to make an adjustment or two and gives his own definition which we'll get to in a moment).

What is it to "overpower the victim's consent"?  This is an odd phrase.  If I consent to your punching me in the face, and you punch me in the face, have I overpowered your consent?  If you're asleep and don't consent to being punched in the face, have I overpowered your consent if I punch you in the face?  Perhaps they mean that violence is the destruction (Sprinkle says they mean "harm") of a victim in cases where they have not consented to be harmed.  This is close to the Oxford English Dictionary's first definition of violence:

a. The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this; treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

The OED's second (and following) definitions, however, leave out anything about consent and just focus on harm.  Here is the second definition:

 b. In the phr. to do violence to to do violence unto (or with indirect object): To inflict harm or injury upon; to outrage or violate.

So even though the phrase about overpowering consent is odd, I still think this first definition he offers of "violence" is plausible.  But Sprinkle does not settle on this definition.  Here is what he goes on to say about violence (we should note that he confines himself in the book to physical violence for matters of space and ignores psychological violence):

"I also want to modify the previous definition ever so slightly by adding a statement of intent.  In other words, an act of violence may not actually destroy the victim but is trying to destroy him or her. There are various activities, therefore, that could be violent--corporal punishment, mixed martial arts, etc.--but don't necessarily have to be.  It depends on the intent.
So for the sake of this book, I will use the term violence to refer to: a physical act that is intended to destroy (i.e. injure) a victim by means that overpower the victim's consent."

This is a narrower definition of violence than the previous one.  It's narrow because "violence" does not ordinarily imply anything about intent (in only one of the OED definitions that I came across does it mention anything about intent, the first definition above with the phrase "so as to," though even this is ambiguous).  One can witness a violent collision in football or a violent collision between two cars but have no idea about the intent involved.  In general, we can know that a collision was violent without knowing what the intentions were behind the violent collision (perhaps the car collision was an accident).  Another example closer to the subject of the book: a man takes a lot of drugs and gets so out of his mind that he goes on a violent rampage killing all sorts of people he doesn't know.  He is so high that he is barely conscious of what he is doing.  He had no intention of killing people when he took the drugs and while on the drugs he believes that he is in a video game and isn't intending to do violence to anyone; nonetheless, it is he who commits terrible acts of violence.

So Sprinkle is using the term "violence" in a narrowly defined way that is somewhat unconventional, employing both a concept of intent as well as consent.  "Violence" throughout the whole work will have to be understood as this term of art.  Of course, there's nothing inherently problematic with introducing a word as a term of art which means something slightly different than it would outside of its current context.  But there are a couple dangers: (1) Unless readers are frequently reminded that the term "violence" has a unique meaning, casual readers of Sprinkle's work will get the impression that (for example) when the Bible condemns certain acts of "violence" ("violence" as a term of art) that the Bible is thereby also condemning acts of violence (that is, violence regardless of the intent or consent).  (2) There is a danger that the author himself will slide from saying that (for example) the Bible condemns "violence" (the term of art) to violence (regardless of intent).

The general impression I get from reading "Fight" is that Sprinkle does not remind the reader enough that what is under discussion is (supposed to be) violence in his sense rather than the ordinary sense and many readers will thus likely conclude that violence (in the ordinary sense) is almost always wrong.  Nonetheless he does remind the reader of this from time to time, so perhaps I'm being too picky.  A greater problem, however, is that Sprinkle himself seems to sometimes forget the definition of violence he started out with and slides into discussing violence in the ordinary sense, and this is problematic for his argument.

Here are just two examples:

On p. 247 Sprinkle raised the question about whether self-defense is ever justified.  He says "In every instance where the New Testament portrays or discusses someone facing a personal physical threat, there is no clear allowance to use violence to defend oneself" [my emphasis].  Here, intent seems to drop out of the picture. To use the phrase "to use violence" is to understand violence as a means.  It's a means which could be intended for any of a number of purposes.  Even though Sprinkle goes on later in the same page to say that violence carries with it an intention, here he seems to be slipping into the use of the term "violence" in the ordinary sense.  The New Testament (he seems to be saying) doesn't contain a clear allowance for Christians harming or killing another person period (i.e., regardless of the intent).

Another instance:  In discussing Just War Theory on p. 275 Sprinkle says the following:

"Advocates for nonviolence also agree.  War is evil.  War should not be glorified or celebrated.  Where the two views disagree is whether there's a place to wage war as a last resort, as the lesser of two evils.  But the heart of just war is not far from nonviolence.  The very fact that just war theory says that violence should be used only as a last resort shows that it prioritizes nonviolence as a means of resolving conflict."

Here again [non]"violence" is being used in its ordinary sense.  Violence or nonviolence are means to some end.  Intention drops out of sight. Just War Theorists think that some actions of (e.g.) killing are just, but proponents of nonviolence do not.  Sprinkle seems to be suggesting that one shouldn't kill as a means to some end, regardless of one's intentions.  If we do not understand violence here in the ordinary sense, it's hard to make sense of his remarks here, since Just War Theorists argue that, so long as certain conditions hold including conditions about one's intentions, some acts of killing are justified.  If his theory of nonviolence differs from Just War Theory in that Just War Theorists allow killing as a last resort but nonviolence theorists do not, it's because the nonviolence theorists in question hold that killing in war is never justified regardless of the outcome or intentions.

So my first problem with "Fight" can be summarized as follows: Sprinkle starts with an unconventional and narrow understanding of violence.  As such it will be easier to make a case that violence in this sense is wrong, since it only includes actions that are intended to harm someone else by overpowering their consent and doesn't include acts of violence more generally where the intent (say) is to save the lives of others, do what is right, stop the spread of evil, etc.  However, Sprinkle's heart does not seem to be fully in it.  He seems at times to want to push a stronger form of pacifism on to the reader, one which calls into question not only acts which are intended to harm another without their consent, but violent acts in the ordinary sense--acts which harm or kill someone else regardless of the intention for these actions.  And readers who are not careful may get the sense that his arguments rule out the permissibility of violent acts tout court, when indeed they cannot, given his stipulation that violence be understood in the narrow sense.

This leads to a second problem.  One glaring absence in the book is any discussion of the notion of "double effect" (save one footnote near the end which doesn't mention the term but hints at the concept). Had there been several pages devoted to wrestling with that concept, this problem would likely have been avoided.  But more on that issue in a future post.

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