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Violence is a central concept for describing social relationships among humans, a concept loaded with ethical and political significance. Yet, what is violence? What forms can it take? Can human life be void of violence, and should it be? These are some of the hard questions that a theory of violence shall address.
In this article, we address psychological violence, which will be kept distinct from physical violence and verbal violence. Other questions, such as, "Why are humans violent?," or "Can violence ever be just?," or "Should humans aspire to non-violence?" will be left for another occasion.
What Is Psychological Violence?
In a first approximation, psychological violence may be defined as that sort of violence which involves psychological damage on the part of the agent who is being violated. You do have psychological violence, that is, any time that an agent voluntarily inflicts some psychological distress on an agent.
Psychological violence is compatible with physical violence or verbal violence. The damage done to a person that has been the victim of a sexual assault is not only the damage deriving from the physical injuries to her or his body; the psychological trauma the event may provoke is part and parcel of the violence perpetrated, which is a psychological sort of violence.
The Politics of Psychological Violence
Psychological violence is of the utmost importance from a political point of view. Racism and sexism have been indeed analyzed as forms of violence that a government, or a sect of society, was inflicting on some individuals. From a legal perspective, to recognize that racism is a form of violence even when no physical damage is provoked to the victim of racist behavior is an important instrument for putting some pressure (that is, exercising some form of coercion) on those whose behavior is racist.
On the other hand, as it is often difficult to assess psychological damage (who can tell whether a woman is really suffering because of the sexist behavior of her acquaintances rather than because of her own personal issues?), the critics of psychological violence often try to find an easy apologetic way out. While disentangling causes in the psychological sphere is difficult, however, there is little doubt that discriminatory attitudes of all sorts do put some psychological pressure on agents: such a sensation is quite familiar to all human beings, since childhood.
Reacting to Psychological Violence
Psychological violence poses also some important and difficult ethical dilemmas. First and foremost, is it justified to react with physical violence to an act of psychological violence? Can we, for instance, excuse bloody or physically violent revolts that were perpetrated as a reaction to situations of psychological violence? Consider even a simple case of mobbing, which (at least in part) involves some dose of psychological violence: can it be justified reacting in a physically violent manner to mobbing?
The questions just raised divide harshly those who debate violence. On one hand stand those who regard physical violence as a higher variant of violent behavior: reacting to psychological violence by perpetrating physical violence means to escalate violence. On the other hand, some maintain that certain forms of psychological violence may be more atrocious than any form of physical violence: it is indeed the case that some of the worst forms of torture are psychological and may involve no direct physical damage be inflicted on the tortured.
Understanding Psychological Violence
While the majority of human beings may have been a victim of some form of psychological violence at some point of their life, without a proper notion of a self it is difficult to devise effective strategies for coping with the damages inflicted by those violent acts. What does it take to heal from psychological trauma or damage? How to cultivate the well-being of a self? Those may possibly be among the most difficult and central questions that philosophers, psychologists, and social scientists have to answer in order to cultivate the well-being of individuals.