Invisible violence

Mong Palatino

South Korea’s Tower Infinity will feature the world’s third highest observation deck. But the building’s main attraction cannot be seen, literally. Using an LED façade with optical cameras, the building will ‘disappear’ which would wake it the world’s first ‘invisible’ highrise. The trick works by displaying images of the building’s surroundings onto the LED screen.

This optical illusion is the key to understanding how structural violence wreaks havoc in our lives without being seen by anybody. Like Tower Infinity, it is there but it can’t be seen. It has vanished by mirroring and amplifying the other conditions of everyday life.

Structural violence is the supreme evil that cannot be named. It does not merely support the system of inequality and oppression; it is the system that every revolution seeks to dismantle.

When politicians hide their misdeeds, they use elaborate manipulations to distract our attention or redirect our gaze. But structural violence is different: it dissociates itself from the scene of the crime through a self-disappearing act. We feel and suffer its monstrous impact but we can’t easily identify it. Like the fallen angel in the movie City of Angels, he can feel the presence of angels but he can’t see them.

But victims of violence need to name their oppressors. They must condemn and punish the instigators of violence. Structural violence responds by highlighting the visible violent or aggressive acts of individuals, especially those who are rabidly trying to expose the pure evilness of the system.

Violence is the clash between activists and police in a rally and not the government decision to slash welfare funds. The barricades set up by villagers to prevent the entry of a demolition team provoked the subsequent violent dispersal of the protest; and not the sham land and housing reform policy of the state. Striking workers are causing the loss of jobs and not the neoliberal economic prescriptions of international finance institutions. Heckling is rude but not the president’s speech which justified the imposition of more austerity measures. Tribal warriors are economic saboteurs for resisting mining and logging activities in their ancestral domains; but not the middlemen and financiers of these resource extraction investments. Documenting street crimes justifies the proliferation of CCTV eyes despite issues of privacy and surveillance. Election laws are strictly enforced which lead to the arrest of flying voters and campaign supporters; but criminal masterminds of e-voting fraud remain unknown. Focus on city traffic woes while ignore issues of maldevelopment and uneven growth.

Those who are banging hard at the wall are deemed barbarians and violent. But we often forget that the wall itself is a form of violence and the decision to build it is perhaps the more violent act. Structural violence escapes blame by naming itself as an objective reality. It insists that the wall was there since time immemorial; it has no history because it represents the natural order of things. It cannot be demolished because it is contrary to natural law.

It promotes the thinking that human miseries can be eliminated if individuals will modify their behavior. Violence is caused by the immoral choices made by man. The system can be reformed through little individual acts of kindness and heroism.

These arguments become easier to accept and understand once structural violence and its essential discontents are made to disappear.

And because structural violence is already rendered invisible, it is now able to inflict more harm and suffering in the world without being tagged as the culprit. Meanwhile, the chattering and twittering classes are echoing the reasoning of politicians when they invoke the laws and legal orders of the land to bring down the visible agent provocateurs and other uncivilized forces of society. Tragic because many of these moral defenders of the law are patriotic citizens who refuse to recognize the heinous link of symbolic violence in society. For them, structural violence is a theory concocted by lawless elements to destroy the social harmony in the Republic. Theory is fun, but they require evidence that can be presented in the courts.

The great political task therefore is not simply to smash the system to smithereens but to render its mysterious and insidious operations visible. Before the permanent shutdown of governments, the first priority is to unmask the dirty history of structural violence. During crisis moments, the inner workings of the system are partly open for public scrutiny but these are only brief periods because new remedies are quickly applied which make structural violence seemingly nonexistent again. What we should do in the next period of upheaval is to follow the great lesson of history: Seize the moment!(

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email:

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