the invisible violence

image: Oleg Magni


Considerations on Chris Rock's Symbolic Violence and Will Smith's Physics

At the end of the XNUMXth century, when violence finally came to be seen as a public health problem, public policies in many countries began to be structured based on the premise that this phenomenon would go far beyond the so-called “physical violence”.

The definition of the World Health Organization (WHO) contemplated this new perspective, understanding violence as “the use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person or against a group or community that results in or may result in suffering, death, psychological harm, impaired development or deprivation” ¹.

In this sense, it came to be understood that “violence” would be a much broader phenomenon than the physical act that produces materiality, which affects the physical body and which produces immediate effects on the individual. In his concept now would be immaterial, invisible, symbolic violence, which does not necessarily produce immediate effects, but which can become devastating in the long term. It is violence produced by the simple exercise of power, which can be as serious or more serious than physical violence.

Despite these definitions and all the debate about the different manifestations of structural violence that constitute racism, machismo and other systems of domination, the still hegemonic tendency is the overvaluation of physical violence to the detriment of symbolic violence. There is a tendency, depending on the context and convenience, to form the judgment that physical violence, which produces materiality, would be much more serious than psychological, moral, symbolic violence, which are responsible for denying the dignity of the person and, most of the time, more naturalized and invisible.

It is precisely from this hegemonic perspective that we tend to distort the real expression of the phenomenon, sometimes giving a hyperbolic visibility to physical violence, sometimes conveniently making symbolic violence invisible. Evidence of this is in our daily lives.

At the beginning of this year, many people from the so-called progressive segment revealed their liking for Big Brother Brasil da Globo. Some even agreed with the discourse that the current season is boring because it does not present exacerbated conflicts and, moreover, that the attempt by the program's participants to ease conflicting relationships would be absurd, in view of the nature of that television attraction.

Here, at a certain point in the reality show, during an activity that encouraged confrontation between participants – asking them to pour water on their rivals’ heads –, a woman hit her colleague on the head with a bucket after verbally attacking her. This physical aggression was immediately repudiated by viewers, resulting in the participant's expulsion. However, at no time was the humiliation present in this activity questioned, in which people bathed in a bucket of water after being verbally attacked.

Another example: in the last two weeks, the same program made the so-called “leader tests”, which forced participants to stay almost 24 hours on their feet, without eating, drinking, sleeping and, on top of that, receiving jets of water and air. These explicit situations of torture did not cause indignation. On the contrary, many even cheered for the victory of the transvestite who was going through that torture. Such violence is extremely naturalized by society as a whole, as well as by the reality in question. What becomes hegemonically condemnable to conscience is not torture, the symbolic objectification of the other, but exclusively physical violence.

Indeed, these questions must be posed in the case of Will Smith's violence against comedian Chris Rock at this year's Oscars. There are many absolutizing assessments of the irrationality of Will Smith's physical violence, which condemn any kind of relativization of the case. On the other hand, there are many relativistic evaluations of the symbolic violence perpetrated by the comedian who, not without novelty, uses jokes to humiliate people who are already socially inferior. The assessment that physical violence is worse than symbolic violence again became absolute.

An example of this is the article published on the website the earth is round by Julian Rodrigues “No, you can't slap the face (never)” ², in which the author evaluates the violence of Chris Rock and Will Smith in the following way: “a weak joke, for sure. In bad taste, even. Until then, it's part of it. What's the bad, embarrassing joke going around... What doesn't make the cut is Smith's reaction. No, guys, you can't. It's not cool. It's not chivalry. It's not legit." Later on, he contextualizes the humorist’s joke: “jokes in good, and especially in bad taste are recurrent, especially in the hegemonic type of humor in the USA – which, incidentally, has greatly influenced standers and new comedians here in Brazil”.

The most symbolic is the sentence that closes the text: “Don't normalize violence. Don’t normalize physical aggression.” According to what is written – and this is certainly not the author's idea – the violence that should not be normalized is physical aggression. That is, this dominant view is reproduced that violence is restricted to its physical materiality.

In psychosocial care for women victims of violence, unfortunately, we often see the reproduction of this idea. Many live for years in an abusive relationship permeated by control, surveillance, psychological torture and which, however, never materializes in physical violence, which leads them to reproduce a common sense saying: “but he never hit me”. What we lose sight of is that, although symbolic violence is farther from a possible femicide compared to physical violence, its power to disintegrate the subjectivity of the other can be exactly the same. This is why women try to kill themselves much more than men. This is why black women kill themselves more than white women.

Anyway, both forms of violence are reprehensible and irrational. Of that there is no doubt. However, the relativization of symbolic violence becomes extremely dangerous, as it is the foundation of any structural violence that focuses on markers of gender, class, race and ability. It is enough to remember that before the implementation of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, there was strong propaganda symbolically denying the Jews, through cartoons and mockery about the meaning of their existence.

Symbolic violence is responsible for the naturalization of all non-material, invisible forms of violence, present daily in cultural industry programs and which we are normally blind to. It even prepares the naturalization of physical violence, which often manifests itself a posteriori.

Chris didn't just make a bad joke. This is to moralize the aggressor's violence and deny the deep structure of domination present in that sublimated attack on the dignity of a black woman who has a disease.

It is urgent not to lose sight of the fact that violence is strongly present both in torture and in the programmed humiliation of reality shows, as well as the spontaneous and impulsive slap at a movie gala event. It is necessary that we do not become just attentive observers of physical violence and blinded by the convenience of non-physical, invisible violence.

* Thiago Bloss de Araújo is a doctoral student at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at UNIFESP.



[1] World Health Organization. Global consultation on violence and health.Violence: a public health priority. Geneva: WHO; 1996.


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