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This quote is from Howard Zinn’s article called the Force of Nonviolence which appeared in The Nation in the 1960’s.  Identifying one of the precursors to violent action is information useful in arming oneself in a myriad of situations – the process of rationalizing the unjust treatment of ‘those people’ happens in all of us, almost unconsciously most of the time.  Hopefully we can arm ourselves against our violent tendencies toward others or at least be aware of the process and move to intercede before we act.

  “The human ability to abstract, to create symbols standing for reality, has enabled man to compound his material possessions, to split the atom and orbit the earth.  It also enables him to compound his hatreds, and expands his capacity for violence.  But while there is no incentive to distort in the scientific process which changes reality to symbol for purposes of manipulation, and back to reality for purposes of realization, there is incentive, in social relations, for distorting the symbols of communication.   With man’s use of symbols, the potentiality for hatred and therefore violence is enormously, logarithmically, magnified.  And with word-symbols the possibility for distortion is infinite.  In fact, distortion is inherent here, for while particles of light are sufficiently similar so we can express the speed of all of them in a useful mathematical equation, human beings are so complex and particular, and their relationships so varied, that no generalized world can do justice to reality.  

   War is symbolic violence, with all people who happen to reside within the geographical boundaries of a nation-state constituting “the enemy”.  Race persecution is symbolic violence directed against all individuals, regardless of their specific characteristics, who can be identified with an abstracted physical type.  In the execution chamber, the state puts to death anyone, regardless of individual circumstance, who fits the legal symbol: murderer.  The law forcibly deprives of freedom everyone who falls within the symbolic definition of a criminal; sentences are sometimes meted out to individuals, but mostly to dehumanized lawbreakers whose acts match an abstract list of punishments. “

-Howard Zinn.  Howard Zinn on War p.14-15.

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