Defining taboos of violence: who sets the threshold of legitimacy?

Following up on my previous post, I would like to discuss today the construction of taboos surrounding violence, or, in other words ‘why some forms of violence are regarded as ‘legitimate’ while others are portrayed as ‘illegitimate’?’ Just to make it clear, please note that I am not apologetic to any kind of violence. I would rather live in a violence-free world. But I don’t, so it seems important to open the question of how violence is classified and why.

Let me start this reflection with a quick story. Back in 2012, while I was conducting a focus group in a rural district in Northern Mozambique, participants mentioned that they were struggling with thieves who often stole their produce. Whereas thieves always existed, they noticed that in previous times they could sort this problem by capturing the thief and beating him up, thus constraining future thefts. Now, ‘because of human rights’, they were not allowed to do so. If they did, they were the ones who would go to jail. At the same time, the police action was not efficient, so, ultimately, the thieves did as they wish, while the community had to endure with the problem of theft.

I found the way the way the story was portrayed fascinating. Technically, human rights are one of the pillars of the liberal peace, having become embedded in the whole peacebuilding package. Yet, in this story, 20 years after the signing of a peace agreement, and all sorts of institutional reforms, at the micro-level this agenda was linked to an actual problem that directly affected the livelihood of this community. Ultimately, the community had no efficient institutional support to sort the problem and were now taken away the means to deal with it the way they used to.

As simple as this story is, it actually represents a big problem in the context of peacebuilding. Since the state became the main model of social organisation it has become a given that the only ‘legitimate’ use of force is the one that belongs to the state. The idea that a social contract actually exists is so embedded in social sciences and in policy practice that it tailors the whole peace project. In this context, any violence that jeopardises the state (and its monopoly of the use of force) becomes delegitimised, even if, in practice, its social function would be similar — that is, a violence to contain other kinds of violence and maintain social order.

The implications of such philosophical givens are wide and affect the study of peace in many ways. First, there is a tendency to give a different weight to the violence that somehow affects the sovereign state (war/armed conflict) as compared to other forms of violence.This is because if the state is challenged so is the monopoly of violence and the system that sustains social order and provide security to society. Of course this perspective stems from a very biased view of the state, a view that emphasises its bureaucratic and institutional dynamics, while ignoring other elements, such as culture and even history (see, for example, Kleinman, 2000; Pinker, 2011). In practice, as we see, quite often the state is the main perpetrator of violence against its population. And in fact the liberal peace agenda preaches that states need to be of a certain shape (liberal and democratic) to fulfill the social contract. But this argument is also based on a linear understanding of how societies work and it does not problematise other issues that derive from the prioritisation of the state when it comes to violence.

For instance, the state bias affects important forms of classification of violence which, in turn, inform political narratives, laws, as well as people’s taboos about violence. One of such separations is between the violence that takes place in the private sphere (in the household) and the one that takes place in the public sphere, which has informed the very development of human rights (Eisler, 1997). This separation, which is formally based on the right to privacy, has historically worked to the disadvantage of women and children — who are the main victims of domestic violence. It further implies the negation of any connection between domestic violence and other forms of violence (a factor explored in the field of criminology, yet not in the peace debate).

Another problematic separation is the one between political violence and crime. As pointed out by Schuld (2013), this distinction is mostly theoretical rather than empirical and can be questioned by many standards. For once, these categories refer to the motives that lead to violence, but who defines these motives and how clear are they? Actors themselves are not purely ‘political’ or ‘criminal’, but in most instances it is reasonable to consider that actors have mixed motives to exert violence (see also Boyle, 2014). This distinction has moreover influenced the way certain armed conflicts have been depicted after the end of the Cold War. The portrait of the ‘new wars’ as criminalised, driven by greed, supposedly more violent than traditional wars (if not ‘barbarians’) became so common that it practically blinded us to see the many aspects of continuity that also characterised many of those violent conflicts (Schuld, 2013; Roque, 2016). Notably, these ‘new wars’ take place in the global south, so, ultimately, this narrative delegitimises the conflicts that do not respond to a ‘western/northern’ logic (ibid.).

In practice, not only are these exercises in categorization problematic, but ultimately they impose a specific standard about what is ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ violence, obscuring the fact that even such definitions are extremely contested. So, for instance, whereas there exist many attempts to establish an international parameter of legitimacy of violence, in practice these parameters vary across and within societies. For one, states have different regulations about specific violent behaviours, the death penalty and the use of the sharia law being a case in point. Moreover, there are many instances where the legitimacy of violence varies in the context of informal behaviour. For example, while many countries have clear regulations to prevent violence against children, in practice it is very difficult to assess the occurrence and intensity of violence within the household and how individuals relate to the idea of some degree of violence as a pedagogic instrument.

Ultimately, what marks the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence is the definition of specific criteria and the perception of efficiency linked to the use of violence. The justification of the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of violence is based on the understanding that some violence (organised, regulated, accountable) is needed to contain other forms of violence (unorganised, uncontrolled and unaccountable) (for an eloquent discussion on this, see Keane 1996). Of course, as we see in many states, the police does not necessarily act in the sense of containing violence, sometimes it is actually one of the key perpetrators. Other times it is simply inefficient or even act as a bystander of violence. Moreover, opinions about the use of violence vary greatly within civil society.

Recent episodes in Brazil, were brutal massacres took place in 10 prisons in the space of 15 days killing over 130 prisoners, offer a picture of how complex and subjective the portrait of violence is. After the first massacre, President Temer waited three days to finally say it had a been a ‘terrible accident’, whilst his Secretary for the Youth publicly applauded the event, stating that there should be one of these episodes per week, so more ‘bandits’ could be killed. All throughout the internet opinions were extremely polarised, human rights activists point to the deep rooted problem of Brazilian overcrowded prisons, drug trafficking and gang wars, while many from the extreme right applauded the events, as they meant ‘less criminals in the streets’.

But the questioning of the legitimacy of violence is by no means a privilege of developing countries. Smith (1997), for example, compares the 1984 shot of four people in a New York subway and the United Nations’ legitimation of the 1991 Gulf War and how complicated and disputed the construction of those narratives was. Ultimately, there is an enormous difference between the state claiming the monopoly of legitimate violence and civil society’s acceptance of this claim (ibid.). Of course, states have many mechanisms of promoting such consent, not least by influencing the media, but other factors play a role as well, and spots of resistance to narratives always exist, making this process highly competitive (even if asymmetrically).

The challenge in the analysis of violence in peacebuilding settings relies in the identification of the thresholds of violence legitimacy (or the definition of the taboo line): on the one hand, international actors (mainly Western developed countries) try to set a legitimacy threshold that reflects their own and which translates into the devolution of legitimate violence to the state; on the other hand, not only are there dynamics that are remnants of the previous armed conflict, but also in many cases other forms of social control through violence exist in parallel to the state, such as vigilantes and community police.

Thinking of the social functions of violence and the subjectivities that influence the definition of the taboo line between legitimate and illegitimate violence is a means to better understand potential zones of friction in the context of peacebuilding, as well as the dynamics of both continuity and change. Regardless of how ‘senseless’ a violent act may, in fact most violence “is not deviant behavior, not disapproved of, but to the contrary is defined as virtuous action in the service of generally applauded conventional social, economic, and political norms” (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, 2004: 4). The challenge is thus to grasp its meaning and work with it.


Boyle, Michael J. (2014) Violence after War. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Eisler, Riane. (1997) Human rights and violence: integrating the private and public spheres. In: Turpin, J.; Kurtz, L. R. (eds.) The web of violence. From interpersonal to global. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 161-185.

Keane, John (1996). Reflections on violence. London, New York: Verso.

Kleinman, Arthur (2000) The violences of everyday life. The multiple forms and dynamics of social violence. In: Das, V.; Kleinman, A.; Ramphele, M.; Reynolds, P. (eds.) Violence and subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 226-241.

Pinker, Steven (2011) The better angels of our nature. Why violence has declined. London: Penguin Group.

Roque, Silvia (2016) Pós-Guerra? Percursos de violência nas margens das Relações Internacionais. Coimbra: Almedina.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Bourgoius, Philippe (2004) Introduction: making sense of violence. In: Scheper-Hughes, N. and Bourgoius, P. (eds.) Violence in war and peace. An anthology. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1-31

Schuld, Maria (2013) The Prevalence of Violence in Post-Conflict Societies: A Case Study of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 8:1, 60-73

Smith, Philip. Civil society and violence: narrative forms and the regulation of social conflict. In: In: Turpin, J.; Kurtz, L. R. (eds.) The web of violence. From interpersonal to global. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 91-116.


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