Licence to Violence. Thought of the Day 101.0


Every form of violence against fellow human beings is a problematic proposition for the overwhelming majority of people. With the exception of small minorities of individuals who are either morally indifferent to violence or categorically opposed to it, whatever the circumstances, the rest of the population operates in a context of ‘cognitive dissonance’ .

This state of mind is determined by fundamental conflicts between what is psychologically desirable, practically feasible, pragmatically expedient and morally justifiable. Violence against ‘contestant others’ may be (or may have become, depending on the circumstances) desirable to a number of people. Yet, the desirability of a life without others is usually offset by the much more profound notion of moral inadmissibility of the violent action per se, by a belief that such a prospect is impossible, by a fear of the consequences of such an action or by a combination of all these concerns.

With regard to the desirability of a violent encounter with ‘others’, nationalism, nation-statism and racialism had already made a significant contribution, accentuating the psychological distance between the national community and its particular ‘others’, often dehumanizing or delegitimizing them and fermenting negative passion against them. An act of physical elimination, however, requires much more than the mere desirability of violence or its outcomes. It is not just linked to a result but also to the action itself that involves a particular repugnant (violent) method. Therefore, authorization of violence and participation in its discharge require a negotiation of the state of cognitive dissonance, whereby desirability and expediency outweigh (even marginally or in ad hoc circumstances) the moral, legal and political impediments to violence or trivialize the problematic nature of the means used to achieve the desired goal.

The leap from abstract intention or desire to strong targeted passion and finally to concrete violent action presupposes a convincing resolution of the inner personal tension underpinning the state of cognitive dissonance. For genocide to take place, and for ordinary individuals to become active participants, this dissonance has to be first escalated by rendering the option of elimination more desirable or accessible. Then it has to be resolved one way or another by making the individual feel their actions are broadly consistent with their overall worldview. Cognitive dissonance may result either in the abandonment of the proposed action as irreconcilable with one’s ethical outlook or in the endorsement of the action through a process of changing the parameters of the dissonance itself-by endorsing new definitions of what is acceptable in the given circumstances, by ‘relativizing’ the problematic nature of the action in the light of expected outcomes or by altogether evading the dissonant mindset.

Cognitive dissonance, therefore, revolves around a tension between three main considerations: the psychological desirability, practical feasibility and moral admissibility of the action. Only a very small minority of people do not experience such tensions – either because they axiomatically reject any form of violence or because they do not see violence itself as problematic.

The majority usually find themselves pulled in different directions by each of these three considerations. They may distrust, fear or even despise ‘others’, but have fatalistically accepted the condition of coexistence, unable to conceive of a different scenario. They may long for a life without particular (or all) ‘others’, but perceive this condition as utopian, choosing instead to adapt to the awkward realities of living side by side. Alternatively, they may strongly desire the prospect of somehow ridding themselves of ‘others’, but nevertheless refrain from any violent action against them, either because they fear sanctions/reprisals or because they consider this course of action inadmissible in spite of the ostensible desirability of its effects.

In negotiating such tensions, the notion of external, authoritative licence is crucial in turning dissonance from an impediment into an incentive to unbound freedom of passion, behaviour and action. Licence is not a positive, normative freedom to act, but an ‘authorized transgression’, a special dispensation that creates a new, temporary and exceptional domain of diminished accountability. Its element of permissibility refers to particular circumstances of time and space, as well as goals and limits. Every licence redefines what is permissible in an expanded way, but it does not do so irreversibly or without caveats – conventional or new. Every new domain of licence constitutes a new moral order that is synonymous with the removal of sanctions and of accountability.

Whether authorized from above or claimed spontaneously in the absence of authority, licence makes sense only because of the awareness of the taboo nature of what it entails. However, its nature, scope and targets are determined by the authorization or by the circumstances that generated it. Like violence, it is not blind but is linked to predispositions and specific opportunities – there and then. As a form of special dispensation – exceptional in its devices, goals and particular targets – licence involved the conditional suspension of those hindrances that usually kept the exercise of sovereign violence at bay and prevented full decontestation. By removing, cancelling out or weakening constraints, it enables individuals and groups to accept the desirability of a violent scenario – even if the latter contradicts generic cultural understandings of defensible or just behaviour.

Licence may facilitate the acceptance of a particular course of violent action against a particular ‘other’ in a particular setting by strengthening the scenario’s relative desirability and/or by reducing the force of inhibiting factors and, little by little, through precedent and repetition, it may also redefine the moral universe of an individual or community by rendering previously taboo feelings and actions less troubling and more admissible. Thus, licence can be both an ad hoc dispensation and a long-term strategy for preparing a group for a new form of moral conduct they would previously consider unacceptable or problematic.