Saturday, September 04, 2010

Boraas Applies "Symbolic Violence" to Beck Rally

In "Occam's Razor" on this week's This American Life  two young high school students in the 1970's were forced to get married by her Italian-American parents because she was pregnant.  There was one little twist though.  The woman wasn't sure who the father of the baby was.  Was it her white boyfriend or the black basketball player she'd also had sex with?  

The baby was born, much to the mother's relief, looking very white.  But come summer, the kid got pretty dark when out in the sun.    Despite incidents such as a woman coming up to them in a store wanting to know about interracial adoption, the family used complicated genetic theory to maintain the story of their family.  Obviously there were some old recessive Sicilian genes, perhaps a Moor in the family tree somewhere. Despite growing evidence to the contrary, the child's paternity was not to be questioned.  They were family.  Any questioning of the paternity of the son threatened everything they had.

What people "know" isn't always consistent with the data - the theme of this week's show - yet despite the contrary evidence, they stick to their narrative of events.  We do this all the time.   And one of the key goals of this blog - it's called "What Do I Know?" for a reason - is to reexamine what we take for granted, what we 'know,' from different perspectives.

But probing people's stories of how the world works is difficult.  Even when there is obvious evidence as in the son's increasingly 'black' features, this is hard.  When the evidence is less tangible, it can be almost impossible. 

Terms like 'symbolic violence' are attempts to articulate this tricky territory.  They're difficult because they're so abstract and require a certain amount of investment of time and thought to truly grasp.  When they are used, they sound stuffy and they ask people to see a truth - like this kid's blackness - that the people don't want to see.

I can't find any easy definitions of 'symbolic violence.'  A website called Knol, which seems to be Google's version of Wikipedia,  had this:  [I dare you to read the whole definition and do so in a way that you get it at the end.]
The notion of "symbolic violence" comes from the work of Pierre Bourdieu. This notion represents an extension of the term "violence" to include various modes of social/cultural domination. Symbolic violence is the unnoticed (partly unconscious) domination that every-day social habits maintain over the conscious subject. Symbolic violence should not be confused with media violence. It is not the acts of murder and mayhem portrayed on television. Actually, symbolic violence is not normally even recognized as violence. For example, gender domination, and gender itself (say, in the construction of sexuality) represents one prominent arena of symbolic violence.
[See I told you this pushes us beyond how much work we are normally willing to put into new ideas.]

So, here's  what I think the examples at the end mean: we have grown up absorbing cultural and/or religious narratives (stories, concepts, beliefs)  that justify male dominance over women and the superiority of heterosexuality over any alternative.

Wikipedia's definition has a sentence that I think is critical:
Symbolic violence is in some senses much more powerful than physical violence in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the specter of legitimacy of the social order.
All this is preface to Alan Boraas' interesting Comment piece in today's Anchorage Daily News.  Boraas consistently takes emotional current events and examines them rationally attempting to peel back a couple of layers to get people to see what is really happening below the apparent facade.  In today's piece he looks at Glen Beck's DC rally through the lens of symbolic violence.  Boraas dismisses Beck's claim that the date of the rally was mere coincidence.
Glenn Beck's assertion that it was mere coincidence the "Restore America" rally fell on the 47th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is pure fabrication. In fact, the Restore America event is a textbook case of symbolic violence. 
Symbolic violence is a technique of dominance. Sometimes it is unintentional, but increasingly it is part of a concerted effort to manipulate public opinion. Karl Rove-style political operatives are expert at this type of manipulation. Symbolic violence is not simply attacking another group's symbols like defacing a church or mosque. Symbolic violence is much more subtle and occurs when one faction adopts the symbols of another faction, recontextualizes them, makes them their own and therefore robs them of their original meaning marginalizing the original owners for their own gain.  [Read the rest here.]
He then goes on to give detailed examples of how Beck and Palin, in their speeches try to appropriate the symbols of Dr. King and the "I Have a Dream" speech to make it their own and literally steal its symbolism as a powerful symbol of the left and make it a symbol of the right.  

The conservatives have been incredibly successful at manipulating symbols, systematically making every major word used to describe liberals and liberal ideas into pejoratives, starting with the word 'liberal' itself, which many 'liberal' politicians are reluctant to use to describe themselves today.  People like Rush Limbaugh have worked tirelessly to make words like feminist and environmentalist into epithets, so that there are no positive words, no positive symbols, for liberals to call themselves.  This is I believe an example of 'symbolic violence.'  

After giving detailed comparisons of King's words and Beck's and Palin's manipulation of King's words, Boraas concludes:
The Beck/Palin Restore America rally was a classic act of symbolic violence capturing the spirit and rhetoric of King at the very place he spoke and recontextualizing the civil rights movement in a tea party framework trying to give the latter the same legitimacy as the former.
Now the Tea Party folks will probably reject Boraas' interpretation totally and probably call the term 'symbolic violence' elitist nonsense.  (The term 'elitist' also has been subject to symbolic violence by both the left and the right.)

However, if Boraas had written about how U.S.  history books characterize the civil war as about slavery rather than about states' rights, surely many Tea Party folk would understand the concept and agree that symbolic violence has occurred.  

I can't help but come up with additional questions.  Does symbolic appropriation always need to be violent?  I'm sure philosophers have debated this.  Was the creation of Martin Luther King's birthday an instance of symbolic violence?  Clearly it was a conscious attempt to put King - and the issues of equality - into a national status that had been reserved for only Lincoln and Washington previously. (And now their birthdays have been combined into Presidents' Day.)  Is there a term for non-violent symbol creation?  Or is any attempt to change the power structure necessarily 'violent'?

What about how many African-Americans have reclaimed the word "nigger"? By using it themselves about themselves, they're deflating the previous symbolic meaning of the term.  They're appropriating a word that dehumanized them and are reconstructing its symbolic meaning.  Is this a form of 'symbolic violence' or something else?
Such extra questions as these are the reason why posts that I think are going to be quick and easy, turn into  longer and more complicated ones.  I'm NOT going to pause and research the literature of symbolic violence, though I suspect these questions have been addressed.  Perhaps some philosopher might get here by accident and help out. 


  1. I thought Boraas stretched logic to make facts fit his case. More interesting is what he missed: Beck was reported to have praised King. Praise? Is Beck a patriotic American? Praise flies in the face of how King was viewed by conservatives of the time, J. Edgar, and a lot of the news media, who mostly saw him as an anti Vietnam war communist agitator. To hear Beck praise King should show us how little Conservatives and others, maybe including Boraas, know of recent history.

  2. Jeremy, Your point adds historical context, but I don't see how it diminishes Boraas' logic.

    If Hoover's view of King had prevailed, there would be no need for conservatives today to appropriate the symbol. But because King is now a strongly positive symbol that 'belongs' to liberals, and because the Republicans have trouble attracting minority voters, there is a need grab some of that King magic dust for the Republicans. And to deprive the Democrats of King's symbolic benefits. To do that they aren't going to point out that their side fought King in the past. They just want to get the King symbol to reflect well on themselves and less so on the original 'owner.'

    I'd say this is similar to what some of the oil companies have done with environmentalism. In the old pipeline days they reviled environmentalists. But slowly over the years, as polls showed the public concern for the environment, their ads began to link their logos to environmentally friendly images, most notably caribou cavorting under the pipeline.

    Boraas had a word limit, he had to edit out all but the most pertinent points. Something I should do more of.

  3. "Bourdieu’s anthropological work was dominated by an analysis of the mechanisms of reproduction of social hierarchies. In opposition to Marxist analyses, Bourdieu criticized the primacy given to the economic factors, and stressed that the capacity of social actors to actively impose and engage their cultural productions and symbolic systems plays an essential role in the reproduction of social structures of domination. What Bourdieu called symbolic violence is the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural, thereby justifying the legitimacy of existing social structures. This concept plays an essential part in his sociological analysis."

    I appreciated Mr Boraas' piece a great deal though it and your post here have set me off on a jaunt to try to understand what he and you meant.I'm not sure how much I understand...

    I am of the mind that Mr Beck, et al are clearly attempting to co-opt what we NOW feel, in general, about Dr King's work... that he spoke up for everyday people held down by a social order which denied them their full humanity.
    Mr Lansman's historical view is a good reminder of the cognitive disconnect shown by Beck et al and maybe some measure of how far we have come that folks have forgotten Hoover and gang but it is the general view now which tea party folks are playing with.
    Posing as David to the Goliath of whatever it is tea party folks think America is IS a powerful symbol already.
    Co-opting the power of Dr King's work to add to that ...yes, the mythmakers a la Rove are terribly good at that.
    I'm not sure about your questions Steve...
    have always thought Dr King's birthday celebration was a wreath laid on the grave of one much maligned in life in hopes the work he started will grow in our hearts and our lives...
    A hopeful penance perhaps...
    Alaska Pi

  4. The "symbolic violence" inherent in the Beck rally makes a lot of sense to me. I found the whole rally so disturbing when I read about it, but could not explain why. This terms helps me put a term to my feelings. It's true that nobody should "own" MLK as a symbol or as a hero, but to see such hateful, narrow minded people "claim" him is deeply disturbing. Clearly, there are some ulterior motives here (pandering to get minority votes, pandering to show that "we like black people too").



Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.