Theoretical and Actual Violence

Politicians prefer to talk about theoretical threats of violence, not actual threats of violence. This is because it is easier and more expedient to blame your ideological enemies for theoretical violence than to deal with actual violence. The former consists of making speeches and legislative gestures, the latter consists of policing the streets and, believe it or not, correctly filling out paperwork. (Fun fact: had the State Department been correctly screening Visa applications, 9-11 would have never happened.)

It is easier and more expedient to blame Donald Trump for theoretically inciting violence (i.e., his bombast may someday incite people to violence, so he must be stopped) than to deal with the actual violence of Latino activists rioting and beating up Trump supporters. In fact, you can even justify the actual violence by appealing to the theoretical: because Trump might, in theory, someday incite violence, our own acts of violence are justified! Best of both worlds, really.

Theoretical violence is vague. We are not quite sure who the mysterious Trump supporter is who will some day act on Trump’s rhetoric, but we are assured such a people are out there, somewhere, waiting to snap. Actual violence is quite concrete: not only is there a real person out there who committed the crime, but it is generally possible to predict the sort of person who will commit it.

The overwhelming number of violent criminals in America have a few things in common: they are males between the ages of 15 and 25, they are disproportionately poor and black, they have prior convictions, and they live in one of a dozen or so urban neighborhoods scattered across the United States. We don’t usually hear about these crimes in the national news because they affect such a small sliver of the population.

We do see news reports about people outside of this demographic who appear to suddenly snap and commit mass murder, but the reality is that these people are generally already known to police and their communities as being unstable and potentially violent.

Rather than talk about how to effectively police problem neighborhoods and how to handle the insane, politicians create a sense of general dread and insecurity as if anyone, anywhere, can suddenly snap and commit a violent crime because of impersonal forces like ‘hate’ and ‘rhetoric’ or because of inanimate objects like firearms.

Rhetoric about the deep failings of America appeals to our Puritan appreciation for self-loathing while it lets us conveniently scapegoat our ideological enemies, and if you are a politician that is the important thing. Reducing actual crime rates with proactive policing (not to mention filling out the damn paperwork) well, that takes real work.



  1. […] Source: Theoretical and Actual Violence | Truth and Tolerance […]

  2. That’s an interesting and very American distinction. The problem is neither exists in a vacuum. The Trump case is interesting because we’re already past the theoretical. He’s already presented an organogram to his followers where they are in charge and other groups are sub-citizens. That’s in itself an aggression. Imagine a presidential candidate saying Catholics shouldn’t be allowed into the US…?

    1. Yes, I keep hearing that Trump’s words are designed to incite all sorts of awful things, but they do not in fact have that effect. So if the words do not take place in a vacuum but in a context, one should assume the context is a non-violent one.
      Condemnations of Trump as the new Hitler (though to be honest every Republican candidate since Dewey has been called Hitler) take place in a context of riots and beatings. So the real aggressors would be people who speak out against Trump.
      As for your hypothetical candidate, I can’t see how that would justify Catholics rioting in the street and beating up voters.

      1. So you’ve never seen those Obama as Hitler posters? Just the Trump ones?

        I’m not saying anything justifies rioting or violence. I’m saying Trump debases political discussions and increases the likelihood of a type of polarization that’s destructive to society. His latest was implying Obama might have a secret *islamic terrorist* agenda.

      2. Trump is a bully and a blowhard with awful taste, and yes, I think he is bad for the country. I’m not excusing his rhetoric, but it is just rhetoric.
        The post is about the American habit of ignoring real violence in favor of imagined violence, Trump is just an example. In my comment on your post I used the Kennedy example.

      3. The problem is rhetoric is never just rhetoric, especially not once it starts picking up a following.
        I think what scares people about Trump is the amount of people rallying behind ideas that are entirely contrary to the Enlightenment principles/model America was founded on. That’s what’s causing these (unacceptable) panic responses and rioting.

      4. Well, the primary cause of rioting is the choice of the rioters under the belief that rioting is an acceptable political tool.
        But agreed, the rioters are afraid of something, and perhaps their fear is at least arguable.

      5. Now nuance that with this comment left by Tildeb:

        “It seems the shooter forgot to shoot the sin and not the sinner. Funny, that.

        Of course this bar’s clientele was targeted. But why… if the shooter was ‘merely’ a (very recent) ISIS supporter? Why this bar and not, say, a banking headquaters?

        Well, golly gee whiz… isn’t that just such a mystery.

        Except… it’s not.

        We’d find the connection immediately if the target was, say, a school for girls, a political camp retreat, a mosque or synagogue. Media would be quick enough to make the obvious link but, hey, when it comes to LGBTQ, the befuddlement is pronounced because they can’t possibly really be a target of such hate.

        Why not?

        Well, if they were, then that opens up that religious damnation can of worms component, doesn’t it… you know, recognizing that the major player in ongoing, unconditional, condemning on moral grounds for same-sex and transgendered recognition of being fully human, of being real and healthy people rather than depraved, normal people with normal sexual appetites rather than people suffering from an improper, alterable, impure moral condition expressed in ‘unnatural’ sexuality, perverts and child molesters with an agenda rather than morally stable celebrants of gay pride equality achievements.

        We can’t make that obvious connection. It’s against the religious roolz.

        They were targeted because they represent something some people hate to the point of committing mass murder. And the root of that hate is not secular, is not a biological impairment, is not the result of reasoned principled commitment to equality, respect, and dignity of personhood. It is the inevitable result of believing in conspiratorial, attribution, assertion, and assumption of being an ‘enemy’, purposefully made into an Other empowered by faith-based belief that such hatred is the logical extension of responding to such in-your-face immorality. And it is immoral for one reason only: it is deemed thus and supported by a divine morally authoritarian agency.

        As long as religions teach people to make their neighbours into Others we shall continue to regularly produce mass murderers out of otherwise normal people. I think Muslims are particularly vulnerable to this effect because the means to measure how good (or bad) a Muslim a person may be is by how closely one adheres to the teachings of ‘The Perfect Word of God’… teachings that vilify the LGBTQ and call for their deaths. That’s why these shooters seem to come from nowhere and yet carry out so much bloodshed: they are just ‘moderate’ Muslims or Christians or Hindus or Buddhists… right up until they commit an act of extremism. And that’s one of the most pernicious effects of the liberal religious community; offering cover and support out of which emerges a few extremists that only then the larger community denies as being a member in good standing.

        But some of us see the obvious connection and a few of us are willing to take the larger Baskin-Robbins faith community to task for doing their essential part in creating the 57 flavours of religious extremists who act on the hatred they have been ‘carefully taught’ (to borrow a phrase from South Pacific). Too bad so many talking heads in media – and their political allies – are so dull-witted, so afraid of the faith communities’ response to criticism, that they are willing to sacrifice so many beautiful people to the bigotry and misogyny they think is worth doing their ignorant part to protect and then think there is no way to make meaningful change to reduce this religiously inspired cravenness.”

      6. Oh, a perfect example: the real enemy isn’t the person who actually committed the crime, a repressed homosexual Muslim ISIS sympathizer with mental health issues who slipped through FBI protocols and bought a gun… it is disembodied “hate”, i.e. sexual morality, i.e Christian doctrine, i.e. Christians! Only took five steps to find who really did the killing!
        The real violence is not important to people like this asshole. It is the theoretical violence that he can attribute to his ideological enemies that gets him excited.

      7. Not quite. The thing is identifying ground zero. In what environment is action X possible?
        The Orlando killer grew up in a Muslim setting. His father said the other day that “Only god can punish homosexuality.” Obviously meaning homosexuality merits punishment.
        So we’ve got a continuum. A religion (clearly) states a condemnation. Those we call moderates ignore those condemnations, those we call fanatics accept them. Match, meet gasoline. The theoretical violence in and of itself devalues the victim of the “theory”, that in turn makes the victim of the theory more vulnerable to actual violence because his/her role in that society has been downgraded. He’s less than.

      8. I think we are just trolling each other now.
        Moral Majority: Look at all these social problems stemming from heterosexual promiscuity! Let’s blame the gays!
        Tildeb: Look at this horrible murder committed by an insane-gay-not-particularly-religious-Muslim, let’s blame the Christians!

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