Last week I met Judith Butler GRD ’84. I didn’t just “meet” her amongst the 300 or so people who showed up for the Tanner lecture series; I had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with her, along with 15 or so current Directed Studies students, to discuss Frantz Fanon’s “Concerning Violence.”

To put it lightly, I was nervous about the event; all 15 of us were. We stammered out our names, which usually roll so readily off the tongue. Even those of us who were usually the most confident students in philosophy section tentatively asked questions, tripping over simple words like “how” and “can”. But, in spite of our nerves, it was worth it.

During lunch, Butler talked about a metaphor that Fanon consistently uses in his work. Fanon — an important critical theorist and revolutionary thinker — primarily discussed topics of race, colonialism, psychoanalysis and class in his texts. When describing how colonized bodies must overcome colonialism, he often says that we must “gouge out our eyes;” in other words, we must learn how to see for ourselves and create a form of pedagogy that is distinct from that of the European tradition.

Butler also discussed the role of violence in our daily lives. When we talk about violence we often think of it as physical. We view violence as a blow to the head or as a shot to the body. But it can be more than this. In her lectures, Butler referred to violence as an ethos that is systemic, and that works through our bodies, emotions and power structures. Is it not violence when one is emotionally abused? Is it not violence when systems of power work to deprive certain bodies of resources that they need to survive? And, perhaps most pertinent to Yale students, is it not violence when our education is carefully constructed to exclude certain perspectives? In another lecture that I attended this weekend as part of workshop on African intellectual history, Achille Mbembe — another contemporary critical thinker — echoed this sentiment. He argued that colonialism operates through the university, because it is responsible for institutionalizing and framing the ways we think about language and power.

Although I am often critical of Yale, I am glad that Butler made an appearance for the lecture series. These lectures spoke to many relevant questions about the nature of racism and of violence itself. Although much critical theory today seems to be framed by academic institutions that are steeped in white supremacy, theory is often a necessary starting point for developing practice.

While I’m not sure if I agree with her method of adopting a complete politics of nonviolence, I do agree with her composite depiction of nonviolence as an ethos. When discussing issues of police brutality, faculty diversity and the hypersexualization of certain bodies, it is worth remembering the interlocking character of these forms of violence. Violence operates on a higher level than microaggressions or assaults to political correctness. It is real. It is not simple, nor is it reducible to a single man being killed for selling loose cigarettes. Now that we have the theoretical language to describe systemic violence, we must find the tools to address it.

Isis Davis-Marks is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at isis.davis-marks@yale.edu .

  • The Noble Saybrugian

    “Is it not violence when our education is carefully constructed to exclude certain perspectives?”

    No, it is not violence when that happens.

  • ShadrachSmith

    As desperately seeking to justify grasping $ and power as the self-appointed Vanguard of an imaginary proletariat gibberish goes…that’s some 🙂

  • Scott Foreman

    As a proud inheritor of white male privilege, I would like to argue two points. First, we deserve the privilege, because we have created most of the good stuff. Second, “violence”, including but not limited to the kinds described in the above opinion piece, seems a perfectly rational response to the “violence” of those who would destroy what we have created. I came to this conclusion after witnessing the “re-education” of Dr. Christakis by a bunch of social justice savages.

  • vincent

    “Is it not violence when one is emotionally abused?”

    Unless the emotional abuse is the result of force or the threat of force than no.

    “Is it not violence when systems of power work to deprive certain bodies of resources that they need to survive?”

    Unless the “systems of power” are depriving you of resources to which you are entitled through force or the threat of force than no.

    ” And, perhaps most pertinent to Yale students, is it not violence when our education is carefully constructed to exclude certain perspectives?”

    No. Just ask your conservative peers. Its annoying, wrongheaded and a betrayal of traditional liberal principles, but it is not “violence.”

    Violence has a specific meaning. There is no need to dilute that meaning to have it encompass other scenarios when we already have language that is perfectly adequate to describe those scenarios.

  • Man with Axe

    if “violence” means “everything I oppose” then it means nothing. Once you have appropriated that word to mean “a curriculum that doesn’t require me to read the books that i would prefer to read,” what word are you going to use to differentiate, say, a violent from a non-violent protest?

    Or how about this. “My boss was violent to me today.” “Did he physically assault you?” “No, he deprived me of resources I need by turning me down when I asked for a raise.” “Oh, that kind of violence.”

  • aaleli

    NOT SPAM:
    A hyphenated female freshman who has been at Yale for like 5 minutes, who admits she is often critical of Yale (while simultaneously attending). So not interested in your wealth of knowledge and experience.

  • aaleli

    Looked back on some comments- stop marking ones with which you disagree as SPAM. It’s childish.