Inequality as structural violence

By Maite Knorr-Evans

I am a Spanish and Global and International Studies major with a political science focus at the College of Wooster. In the fall of 2015, I took Dr. Kent Kille’s Peace Studies class as a part of my major requirements. In order to better understand peace, Dr. Kille first had us learn about the two categorizations of violence, direct and structural. Structural violence

Photo Courtesy of Blaise Joseph

School Art Intervention. Belgaum, Karnataka. Photo/Art by Blaise Joseph.

relates to inequalities within societies and institutions that inhibit ones right to self-determination. Direct violence is what most people would initially think of as violence; fighting, shootings, and war. Through our daily lives here in India, listening to speakers, and working in our NGOs during the first two weeks, we have learned about different forms of violence that are present within Indian society.

It is important to note that within all societies, cultures, and countries, both direct and structural forms of violence exist. As a part of the Global Social Entrepreneurship program, every Tuesday a speaker comes to talk to our group about some aspect of Indian society to increase our cultural competency. After our “Tuesday Thinkers” session on caste by Elango Stanislaus, many questions were asked about the social, economic, and, political ramifications of the caste system. During the session, Laura, one of our program directors, made a point that resonated with me regarding the way we approach looking at inequalities in different countries and cultures. We were asking questions as if the examples of structural violence that created the caste system were so far removed from our own society that the system was almost incomprehensible. In order to convey the similarities between Indian and American society, before the speaker began to answer our questions, Laura told us to think of caste the way we would think of race in the United States. She added that in the same way that Indian society has myths that have built a foundation of inequality regarding caste the United States has its own myths that have the same effect regarding race and other social groups. As Laura put it, “Exoticizing” different forms of structural violence in cultures different from ones own only gives the forms of structural violence, like the Indian caste system, more power and importance in our own minds.

Victims of structural violence all over the world lack capital; be it physical, financial, social, or human. They also often times lack the opportunities or capabilities to accumulate capital. During the seminar component of GSE in Wooster, I wrote my education paper about the Dalit experience within the Indian educational system. Dalits make up in the lowest level within the Indian caste system and through discriminatory “myths” and the course of Indian history Dalits have become one of the most marginalized group of people in India. The majority of Dalits attend Indian government schools that are much lower in quality than many of the private educational institutions. In my research, I found that one of the main reasons why so little is being done to improve the government schools is because any parent who has the privilege or opportunity to send their child to private school does. This creates little incentive for parents who have the power and resources to advocate for the improvement of government schools to do so.

When I began to think about why the quality of education for those who live in poverty stricken areas in the United States also see little systemic change to improve their schools, it became clear that the same problem exists in the US. For example, schools in the United States are funded through property taxes. This is problematic because it is inherently unequal. Those with higher property values and taxes will see a higher quality of educational resources and facilities within their school locality and the opposite effect can be seen as well. The purpose of public school in the context of the United States is to provide equal access to education, but at this point in time that is hardly the outcome. As much as some would like to believe, race, class, gender, and sexuality play a role in amount of capital and access to capital one will have in their life. My purpose in making this point is not to invalidate the adversity within the Dalit experience in India or those who live in extreme poverty all over the world. Instead it shows that western countries also have marginalized groups who suffer the consequences of unequal social structures. What differs is the intensity of that inequality which is lessened by the privileges provided from having a strong central government and economy. The developed versus developing dichotomy to me falls apart when I think about inequality this way because in my mind, until all people do not suffer from forms of structural and direct violence we must all continue to develop.

At the end of our peace studies class we were tasked with applying the forty-something peace tools we had learned about to violent conflict that is occurring in the world today. If the same tools can be used to build peace in different conflicts, then theoretically, the foundations of the present global violence have many commonalities. We must identify these similarities in order to begin to understand what social, economic, and cultural structures need to change in order to achieve a more peaceful world.

To be a global citizen means that one has an awareness, respect, sensitivity, and empathy towards the life experiences of others on an international scale. As a global community, we must identify the aspects of our lives that are attached to systems of inequality. We then must attempt to live our lives with the goal of not perpetuating those attachments. To close as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

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