Vandalism vs. Violence: A Few More Thoughts

Posted on | May 3, 2012 | Comments Off on Vandalism vs. Violence: A Few More Thoughts

In response to the Pulitzer Prize winning Eli Sanders and some other folks, Brendan Kiley posted Two Additional Notes on Violence vs. Vandalism on the Stranger’s Slog this morning.

Once again, his post engendered a bunch of comments. At #84 in the comment thread, Brendan posted the following:

Again: I *do not advocate* any of this stuff. But I do not believe that vandalism and violence are the same thing. Smashing a person and smashing a window are both scary, but they are not moral equivalents and should not be regarded as such.
I’m surprised by how difficult that idea seems to be for some of you.

I agree with Brendan. Vandalism does not always imply violence. But as I said yesterday, vandalism and violence are both acts of aggression.

Along the continuum of aggression, violence is morally worse than vandalism. An act of violence always intends violence as its outcome. An act of vandalism, on the other hand, does not necessarily have this intent.

Nevertheless, the possibility of violence is almost always imbedded within acts of vandalism, and the two have often walked hand in hand throughout human history.

That’s why people commonly lump vandalism and violence together. And that’s why many people believe that the moral distance separating these two categories of action isn’t wide enough to be conceptually meaningful most of the time.

One of my problems with vandalism is that too often its perpetrators don’t consciously appreciate the possibility of violence embedded in their act of vandalism.

Instead, their vandalism has an aura of being mildly transgressive but mostly harmless, as when high school students drive around the suburbs kicking down people’s mailboxes.

The risk of getting caught is part of what makes it exciting for the vandal. But embedded in the fear of "getting caught" is also the unconscious knowledge/fear that "getting caught" might also mean "getting hurt," if the wrong person happens to do the "catching."

How many people have heard a story about about some kid who was out throwing snowballs at cars, hit a car with a snowball, the car stopped, a dude got out, chased the kid down, and put a whipping on him. It wasn’t an everyday thing. But these stories underscored the riskiness (and enhanced the thrill ) of partaking in this activity.

(So the violence embedded in the vandal’s act might not be violence on someone else. It might be violent retribution visited upon the person doing the vandalism.)

There’s a lack of empathy at the root of most vandalism. Perhaps the people who put the rocks through Mayor Mike McGinn’s window did not intend to do violence to McGinn and his family. But they also didn’t really show much empathy for what the experience of receiving those rocks might mean to them. In that moment, McGinn and his family weren’t people. They were just abstract symbols.

Sure, it’s different when the window is at Niketown. A multi-national corporation doesn’t have feelings. As someone else in the comments thread on Brendan’s post said: “Corporations are made of capital; people are made of carbon.”  But there are carbon life forms who work and shop at Niketown. These people do have feelings. One of them could have been hurt. Somebody will have to clean up the damage. Somebody could be hurt in the process of doing that too.

There was similar property damage in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood a couple of days ago. Every storefront involved was not a Niketown. Some shops were small businesses made of both capital and carbon, capital they may not be able to replace. But as with the Seattle property damage, at the point of impact, those people with those businesses were just symbols. In the process of making their statements, the political vandals stripped these people of their humanity.

People doing politically motivated property damage tend to be justify themselves by using the following logic:

"My vandalism is a high-minded symbolic statement. It’s no immature thrill seeking stunt. Besides, it’s minor small potatoes compared to the atrocities promulgated by the people and groups that I am protesting against. What about Mitt Romney, Bank of America, the IMF, and the US Army in the Middle East? These people and groups are hurting people. These are desperate times. People need to know we are serious."

And that’s all true. There are many cold, empathy-challenged, border-line (and actual) psychopaths who hold power in our world. They hurt a lot of people. But when we stoop to their level of non-empathy, we become them.

So while violence and vandalism are not morally equivalent, they are morally linked by the lack of empathy that is at the root of both them.

People who appreciate this linkage tend not to perpetrate vandalism. Conversely, people who perpetrate vandalism often don’t seem to understand (a) the real harm it can do to other people, even if these people don’t get whacked upside the head; and (b) just how easily it can slide into something violent, where somebody does get whacked upside the head (or worse).

Few people ever signed up for a revolution the goal of which was to liberate other people to run amok on the streets and lay waste to anything that might catch their fancy (including other people’s stuff).

Most people are motivated by a desire for security and some semblance of order. This is what frees them to think about and do other stuff besides protect themselves, their families, and their stuff 24/7/365.

Maybe sometimes violence and vandalism are the only way to get to that place. But to my mind, usually they aren’t. More often than not, this sort of approach and response just continues a cycle of aggression and violence.

So like Brendan, I don’t condone either vandalism or violence. But unlike Brendan, I’m not sure that trying to highlight the moral distinction between the two in this context is particularly useful either. Even if they’re not equally bad, they’re both bad enough that they should be avoided.


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