Structural Violence, Peace–And the Handicapped


Johan Galtung, 24 Dec 2012 - TRANSCEND Media Service

From Frankfurt am Main, Caritas

How do social structures and handicaps–mental or physical, spiritual or material–relate to each other?

Answer: about the same way as social structures relate to other marginalized, even stigmatized, groups: women and non-whites, younger and older, workers, the physically and mentally ill, the handicapped, and other “deviants”.  And at the world level the colonized and the imperialized, the less and the least developed countries, the pariahs.

What do they have in common?  That somebody is on top of them in a hierarchy.  They are different, hierarchies make them unequal, and hierarchies are strong and tend to be reborn.  Those on top exclude those lower down as “deviant” from “normal”, included, society.  They may even exploit them economically, use force militarily, decide over them politically, imprint their way of thinking on them culturally.  Four types of power, four ways of exercising structural violence in hierarchies.  Not strangely, we have had amazing revolts against such hierarchies in the last centuries under the banner of the human right to be different, yet equal.  From the American revolution leaving clergy and aristocracy behind and the French beheading them via working class struggle for decent livelihood, colonies for freedom, countries to shake off capitalist or communist imperial yokes to poor countries for their share, women for parity, younger people to be taken seriously.

And age: it carries stigma as in white/gray hair, care when walking. 15 years beyond retirement age, I should be in Ruhestand, quietude, on a side-track, Abstellgleis; materially well but spiritually limited to hobbies like children to playing, excluded from the challenges of real work, for individual and social development, for new syntheses.  Next stop: the cemetery.  So I refused to retire, to become re-tired, tired again and again for lack of challenge; like exploring how concepts close to me may explain the hindrances, Behinderung, for handicapped.

Great advances have been made, seeing handicapped as three percent “deviant” and 97 percent “normal”.  Material structures have been changed dramatically, making access for those in wheelchairs, children, the infirm and the aged so much easier, creating paths for the blind, sign languages for the deaf.  However, an evened track may still be a side-track.

How about the human right to be included, to contribute?  For the handicapped not only to be accepted as different–not “deviant”–yet equal in rights, but to take on the challenge of defining their own situation, and make their inputs to life and society?  The blind may have rich inner visions and the deaf inner sounds; the wheel-chaired have other angles on all.  White middle-aged, middle and upper class, Western, “normal” males have monopolized challenges much too long, telling others how to think. Major challenges ought to be shared.

Challenges are like sunshine, sources of health; like exercise, food and care.  Look at nature: flowers and trees take roots, grow, stretch and twist for water, nutrients, fresh air, oxygen, sunshine.  Deprived of that they fall ill, wilt, die.  Foresters and gardeners can help, weeding, clearing.  And plants and trees perform miracles with water and oxygen; photosynthesis, creating new realities.

The marginalized–merchants with no pedigree, workers exploited by merchants, non-whites, women, the younger and the older placed in ghettos, colonies, countries of the South–organize around the right to decide who they are and what they want: a place in the sun for all.

A hierarchy becomes a polyarchy, vertical, but with horizontal ties uniting workers, women, non-whites, young, old, the handicapped.  Periphery countries start trading among themselves: up they come; adolescents do the same, workers start cooperatives.  The handicapped will increasingly find each other, define their place in society and demand their right to shape that society, not only be shaped by well-intended others.  Like nations wanting autonomy to rule themselves.

There is a price to pay: structural overload.  Some may simplify to self-sufficiency in horizontal equiarchies; like South-South-South trade among the Third World continents; the younger taking off from the parents, etc.  At the risk of becoming isolated.  And some may even prefer individual self-sufficiency in a postmodern anarchy, with all structural tissue removed.  At the risk of structural underload.

And the handicapped?  The World Health Organization’s Schizophrenia Study from the 1970s showed that this major mental handicap was less frequent, less deep and less long-lasting in less developed counties.  Like other “deviants” they were not institutionalized, but parts of village life to the extent they managed; some as “the village idiot”.  As in more developed countries sociopaths may be kicked upstairs, these countries’ extremism is an indicative of a force bordering on the divine.  And no doubt some are treated harshly, killed, banished.  But their local societies are less stratified, less hierarchical, more inclusive.

“Development” from traditional villages to modern states means building hierarchies around omnipotent State logic, omnipresent Capital logic and omniscient Science logic.  God’s successors all, monopolizing challenges.  Not strange that many migrate to villages.

First conclusion: Handicapped of all kinds unite! You have only your “normals” to lose.  Second: relate to “normal” people on as equal terms as possible.  Third: take on the challenge to construct a more inclusive society where your way of being different is an enrichment, a plus.

And the fourth: use all four structures.  Some hierarchy deciding what is best, monopolizing challenges, may be necessary.  But organize, become strong enough to challenge.  Sometimes try to manage alone as handicapped, sometimes on equal terms with “normals”.  And alone.  The structures do not exclude each other.  Rotation may be useful.  The answer to human diversity is structural diversity, consciousness about them, and the right choice at the right time for the right inclusion.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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3 Responses to “Structural Violence, Peace–And the Handicapped”

  1. satoshi says:

    This is a normative issue. One of the main measurements for the human society should be whether the society is designed for the weak and handicapped, rather than for the strong and privileged. One of the main differences between the human society and the animal society is that the former is for the weak and handicapped, while the latter is for the strong and privileged. In other words, the “law of jungle” should not be applied to the human society. Then, what law, if any, should be applied to the human society? The “law of love and empathy”.

    We have been taught that the economy of the society requires competition that requires efficiency that inevitably requires the “law of jungle”. Two questions here: First, is that true? Second, do most people wish to live such society where eventually only the strongest – perhaps the top few percent of people of the society — can manage to survive? Besides, even today’s strongest can be tomorrow’s weakest. Needless to say, these issues are the very basic and historical agenda of normative economics, sociology and other related disciplines.

    Prof. Galtung’s editorial relates to the second question above. His argument leads the readers to the threshold of the society based on the law of love and empathy. His view point is that of the weak and handicapped. If the society is run by the law of love and empathy, and yet if the society is still thriving and growing, that is an ideal society in which, probably, most people wish to live.

    Utopia? Well, “utopia” is an ideal concept. No social revolution has brought about a utopia. History proves that social revolutions that aimed at a utopia — almost all social revolutions — have created nothing but ugly inhumane authoritarian societies, covered with beautiful political propagandas. Why was that? One of the main reasons was that they created the society for a handful of the strong and privileged whereas the revolution aimed at the society for the weak and handicapped. The revolution revolved the society; it transformed some of the weak and handicapped into the strong and privileged, while it also transformed the strong and privileged into the weak and handicapped. Meanwhile, many of the weak and handicapped remained the same. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of people in these societies were (and are) the weak and handicapped (socially, physically, mentally, spiritually or in any other sense). It is not a coincidence that serious and gross violations of human rights can be found (or strictly hidden) very often in these societies. The victims have almost always been the weak and handicapped. The utopia for whom? The question remains. If religion is opium, the concept of the utopia is also opium. Karl Marx chose the latter. Wasn’t he aware that he was choosing “another opium”? (He said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” But it can also be said, “The ‘utopia’ is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”)

    Then, what can we do to make a “better” society? (Note that the words such as “better” or “improve” can be used according to one’s value system. This is a “normative” issue as mentioned in the beginning of this comment.) We can “improve” some of or many of the current conditions of our society to make the society “better”. Prof. Galtung’s suggestions in the above editorial can be considered as excellent guidelines for the “improvement” of the society if the society should welcome not only the strong and privileged but also the weak and handicapped as well. The utopia is the impossible goal of the society. As only a “better” society can be possible to be made, the “improvement” of the society continues forever. The pursuit of “better than before” is endless. But nobody knows that to where this endless pursuit will take us. Anyway, as far as the improvement of the society is necessary for the members – including the strongest and privileged, the weakest and handicapped, and others — of the society, the pursuit continues as such.

    The year 2012 is about to end. This timing may become a good opportunity for peace-loving people (= positive and negative peace-loving people) to reflect on various events in this year in terms of the weak and handicapped, and/or in terms of “love and empathy”. If everyone, especially those leaders of the society, keeps “peace, love and empathy” in their hearts, this world, this society will be much better than now. May (more) peace, love and empathy be with you all, the whole humanity.

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