Forms of Human Violence (Part I)

By Abel Merawi

human-violenceOctober 29, 2020 ( -- Have you ever wondered about violence? Specifically, have you seen how violent we humans can be? The act of violence fits well into its definition, which can be summarized as: An act of aggression that is manifested in being wild and turbulent and result in injuries and destruction. This definition revels the meaning of violence based on its manifestation, but doesn’t say anything about the source of violence. Moreover, it might as well be the property of humans, animals or even natural forces. Natural forces like floods and animals can also be wild and cause destruction. However, violence carries a special meaning for human beings. It becomes a special feature of our species, which employs ingenuity in execution and hidden motivation that ignite us into action.

To describe Homo Sapiens is not the same as defining them. Just as we describe the features of animals and plants, we can describe human beings. Such features can be seen as human potentialities and tendencies that arise in various contexts. I repeat that they are not definitions but elements that can be seen as part of ‘the human condition’. Of the various features, we are going to explore one dominant tendency: Violence. Here, it is important to distinguish the act of violence from the underlying reasons that create it. In discussing forms of violence, we focus on the later. The forms of violence are not detected in the act of violence but in the unconscious drives or motivations that lead to the action. In his book ‘The Heart of Man’, Erich Fromm enlightens us of the forms of violence in relation to unconscious drives. We also add one more form of violence the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, emphasizes with reference to power dynamics in a social context.

Playful Violence: This form of violence is often the most normal and acceptable one. It doesn’t originate from any pathological disorder, but rather from the desire to show and prove our abilities. Erich Fromm explains, “We find it in those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness.” The best example of playful violence is sport. Consider a boxing match and the opponents for instance. The boxers hit each other where it hurt, they bleed, stumble and fall. But neither are driven by hatred; they rather strive to show their fighting ability. Some even argue that playful violence purges violent tendencies from the competitors and the spectators, reducing the occurrence of more destructive violence.  

Reactive Violence: Such violence originates from our survival instinct or from the retaliation for self-preservation. When we encounter something that threatens us, we defend ourselves in order to escape danger. Erich Fromm explains that such violence, “is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property – one’s own or that of others.” He further explains how it is rooted in fear and can employ some rationality by linking cause with effect. For instance, when a robber enters your house, you act violently because you fear the danger confronting your family and your property.

We share reactive violence with animals when our reaction is based on reality. Nevertheless, it becomes uniquely human when it emanates from perceived reality created by propaganda. As Fromm clearly state, such violence finds its inception in “the manipulation of man’s mind; political and religious leaders persuade their adherents that they are threatened by an enemy, and thus arouse the subjective response of reactive hostility. … The psychological results of the acceptance of a belief in an alleged threat are, of course, the same as those of a real threat.” This is a pressing issue of the 21st century as it continues to terrorize and disrupt world peace.

Reactive violence from an alleged threat as opposed to a real threat has been the cause of human misery throughout history. In our ignorance, we have not learned from history as we still sacrifice ourselves and others based on irrational fears. The threats are prescribed to us by those who claim to be our leaders. It is found in the propaganda our politicians and our revered spiritual leaders.

Let us take the situation in Ethiopia and the US attack on Iraq and other sovereign nations to solidify the meaning of reactive violence based on false assumptions. When we look closer into the ethical conflicts in Ethiopia, we often find reactive violence originating from a perceived or alleged threat. To begin with, it has become a political plague affecting almost every ethnic group. We often hear the ‘self-acclaimed leaders’ of each ethnic group speaking of the threat they are facing from ‘all other groups’. Using such propaganda, they indoctrinate their followers into believing that there is an ‘actual’ threat. For the people who hear this claims, the psychological effect makes it real. And so they attack and justify it as self-defense.

Let us now see the argument of the US government for invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etcetera. The US narrative began with false intel about ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ owned by this nations, which required ‘preemptive’ strike. For those Americans who supported this move, the line between reality and assumption was utterly erased. So the invasion and terrorization of these countries by the US remains justified. As Fromm rightly remarks, “There is hardly a case of an aggressive war that could not be couched in terms of defense. The question of who claimed defense rightly is usually decided by the victors.” As seen in the above case and many more, no country wages wars to attack, but only with the pretense of defense. Then truth is dictated by the victorious!

We are seeing the same narrative when the US President Donald Trump made the utterly ignorant remark regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He falsely or ignorantly claimed that GERD blocks the water from flowing to Egypt, making it appear as if their survival is at risk. This is the age old diabolical plot used to play the victim card. Thus, I think we should just acknowledge it rather than react to it, so I’ll move on to the other form of violence.

Symbolic Violence: This is the sort of violence used by the powerful to terrorize and instill fear on members of the oppressed. it was the Pierre Bourdieu who clearly showed this violence. Bourdieu explains that symbolic violence works gradually and inconspicuously through the ‘master’ narrative until it is accepted as natural. For instance, consider Jim Crow’s segregation in American ‘whites only’ signs in schools, restaurants, and almost every social service. This is the kind of fear James Baldwin describes in ‘The Fire Next Time’. Currently, this has become police brutality on the precious lives of African Americans. When such inhumane systems succeed, they make even black people think they are inferior. A textbook example of symbolic violence is also found in Patriarchal social structures than use religious, economic and social structures in making women believe they are inferior. In its essence, feminism is fighting with such symbolic violence.  

Exploring all the forms of violence within a single article is not practical in space and inadvisable because each need time for reflection. In the next article, we will explore other forms of violence that have even more catastrophic outcomes. Simply observing how each of the aforementioned forms of violence manifests in ourselves, in our family and in our society helps us comprehend the crisis around us. If we truly desire to solve the violence we face nationally and globally, we first need to direct our focus on the root cause rather than the symptoms. I personally argue that the ‘ethnic’ problems in Ethiopia and the ‘Trump-ian’ problems of the world are symptoms of a disease. So while we must continue to heal the symptoms, we should be careful not to lose track of the underlying disease.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

The ‘Having’ Mentality

Group Narcissism

Segregated Justice


Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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