Violence: Morality, Culture, and History

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The term violence ranges widely across its many contexts—no definition can encompass it in entirety.  It is more than just “physical, intentional violence between individuals,” but rather a fluid, many sided whole that “covers a wide array of acts and situations,” and oftentimes people vary in their intuitions about violence (Schinkel, 2010, p. 4-5).  Additionally, violence varies in the many ways it occurs throughout society.

Violence is obscure in terms of the ways in which its complexities have not yet been, nor will they absolutely ever be, fully recognized, regardless of the work that has been done to solve the many problems associated with it (Schinkel, 2010, p. 5). While many people no doubt understand what a violent situation is, what makes it in fact “violent” is a widely misunderstood concept—does the act become violent because of the way a person uses his or her body in an aggressive manner?  Because there was a weapon involved? Or because onlookers perceived it to be so due to various combined moral stances? Schinkel (2010) defined determining “aspects” of violence as “selective highlighting of a certain relational identity” (p. 19).  This paper includes such aspects as the larger moral pull towards committing acts of violence, culture as a larger predictor of violence, and violence as a grounds for our nation’s historical birth.

Interestingly, it is rare for violence to be an act of rage or loss of control—it does not usually occur due to the inability to choose between right and wrong, a lack of empathy, or wanting others to experience pain.   Rather, violence many times is inflicted by a person or group of people fulfilling an internal or external moral obligation or feeling as if it is the right thing to do (“Violence for goodness’ sake,” 2014, para. 2).  While “loss of control, lack of empathy, dehumanization, [and] self-interest” are in fact things that often facilitate violence, they often do not account for the motives beneath many acts of violence; in this sense, violence is not “a breakdown of morality,” but rather it is actually motivated by extreme moral opinions and callings (“Violence for goodness’ sake,” 2014, para. 4).

It can seem illogical to say that violence is motivated by morality, or that someone might choose to hurt or even kill a person or people based on a moral opinion.  Many times we think of morality in terms of a way to ultimately avoid pain and suffering, yet morality truly is an unclear concept.  Morality often depends on the way a violent offender sees a situation, or what motivates the offender to participate in violence.  Violence oftentimes is used as a way to “create, sustain and otherwise regulate our social relationships,” and depending on the person, moral stances may not have always been cued to avoid harm and create peace, but rather as a powerful means to regulate relationships (“Violence for goodness’ sake,” 2014, para. 6).  For example, many parents spank their young children to induce order and to create moral adults.  Additionally, violent initiations often create group bonding, and in war, violent acts are done in retribution or to save lives within a brotherhood. We kill murderers in punishment, and we bomb countries that first bomb us.  Most violence, in this sense, is morally motivated to sustain relationships or status, depending on the cultural norms to which a person, group of people or a larger entity is bound.

When it comes to violence, culture is everything.  The ways in which modern cultures around the world allow violence in certain areas, but condemn it in others, is a main aspect of the broader problem.  In fact, television and the media are “purveyor[s] of cultural norms,” and violence against women is a prime illustration of how television and media consumption can lead to diminished opinions of the vast significance of violence (Kahlor & Eastin, 2011, p. 215). For example, Bonomi, et al. (2013) pointed out that even though 25% of women suffer from intimate partner violence, popular culture regularly normalizes abuse against women through novels, film, and music, using the popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey as an example.  This novel includes both emotional and physical forms of abuse towards the main character, who is stalked, threatened, isolated, given alcohol to control her consent, intimidated, etc. (p. 733).  Giroux (2013), on the other hand, expressed how violence and punishment are used as both “a media spectacle and a bone-crushing reality” throughout American society (p. 37). In this sense, the US has become “a culture of war…engulfed in fear and violence” that is sponsored by the media, politics, and culture at large, and is commonly accepted as a patriotic duty (Giroux, 2013, p. 37).

Some of the most common forms of violence that are often made socially acceptable due to the inundation of it across media platforms include sexual abuse, men controlling women, and resistance towards a variety of human rights areas, such as LGBTQ and other minority groups based on sexual preference, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic group, etc.  In fact, it seems that society is constantly conflicted by traditional social systems and a constantly changing and progressing world, leaving many people feeling oppressed.  The oppressed often suffer more violence than the oppressors inflicting much of the violence, oftentimes as a response to moral obligation.

Additionally, violence is so commonplace in history that the United States was essentially built on it.  In fact, early attempts to inhibit violence influenced the Revolutionary War, which increased in violence as it progressed; politicians, lawmakers, and warmongers during this time saw the war as an honor through all that it entailed, including the gruesome violence associated with fighting early wars.  The physical and psychological violence exhibited during our history’s wars is part of the need humans have struggled with in an attempt to gain standing as a country—“situations in which humans find themselves willing to kill or forced to die” (Hoock, 2017, p. xi).    A majority of depictions of the United States’ revolution are romanticized, but it is important to see a nation’s birth in this light, as most countries are built on the same or a similar foundation of violence.  For example, one of the most notorious incidents from the Revolutionary War includes the Boston Massacre, which was the killing of five colonists by the British as a result of tensions between the colonies due to tax burdens.

This “violence of imperial oppression” collided with “the violence of colonial resistance,” and these early killings and injuries would serve as a portrayal of the many deaths to come (Hoock, 2017, p. 11).  While we can often understand the obvious violence of specific events such as these, many types of violence are “downplayed” or removed from “conventional tellings” altogether, resulting in “overly sentimental narrative of America’s original war” (Hoock, 2017, p. 12).  Starving, dirty, and cold soldiers are depicted as idealized martyrs rather than men who had just witnessed or taken part in the brutal deaths of many other men, and white men standing over paperwork in great halls are justified in their violent tactics at a great distance from the violence on the ground.  Hoock (2017) identifies physical violence “with intention to kill, or cause damage or harm to people or property,” as well as psychological violence, or “the use of threats, bullying tactics, and brutality to instill fear in people and influence their conduct and decisions,” and both of these, even in today’s wars, are idealized or swept under the rug for the sake of American heroism (p. 12).

It is important going forward that people are educated on violence as the fluid enigma that it is, which would include a broader development of cultural discourse on the subject.  Violence is often left out of the broader conversations about war, politics, and what is acceptable in media form.  In order for violence to be seen as immoral, many cultural changes would have to take place in terms of accepted values.  In order for violence to be understood as wrong instead of right, the masses must begin to rethink everything they have ever been told, as it has become so ingrained in our history as a people, as well as our day to day lives, that it has become impossible to shed.


Bonomi, A. E., Altenburger, L. E., & Walton, N. L. (2013).  ‘Double Crap!’ Abuse and harmed identity in fifty shades of grey.  Journal of Women’s Health, 22(9), 733-744.

Giroux, H. A. (2013).  Violence, USA.  Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, 65(1), 37-54.

Hoock, H. (2017). Scars of independence: America's violent birth. New York: Crown Publishing.

Kahlor, L., & Eastin, M. S. (2011).  Television’s Role in the Culture of Violence Toward Women:  A Study of Television Viewing and the Cultivation of Rape Myth Acceptance in the United States. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55(2), 215-231.

Schinkel, W. (2010). Aspects of violence: a critical theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Violence for goodness’ sake.  (2014).  New Scientist, 224(2997), 1.