Structural Violence

In the City of Toronto in 2005, a disturbing number of deaths of young people occurred through the use of guns. Only after the death of a young white woman on Yonge Street, despite similar deaths occurring in other neighbourhoods in Toronto, did these serve to illuminate a growing threat in Toronto. I will argue here that the actual problem confronting the people in Toronto is the growing economic and social disparities in its communities. This threat was not presented in the media, at least in any substantive way, or by any of the political parties shouting for votes during the last federal election. Sadly, the Mayor of Toronto and the Premier of the province did not place this fundamental issue in the forefront of their statements to the media. Presumably the failure to discuss this principal issue reflects the fact that “the problem” represents a fundamental failure at basically all levels of our society, which claims compassion but continues to put in place racist structures guaranteeing a more violent future. Thus, I present a model in which to understand these recent events and provide some remarkable, but essentially ignored data compiled in a recent United Way report (in effect hidden by the media) which reveals the deep nature of the problem and, hopefully, directions for its solution.

In 1969, Johan Galtung published in the Journal of Peace Research a paper entitled “Violence, Peace and Peace Research”. The paper represented a theoretical framework in which conflict and violence at all levels of society (i.e. individuals, communities, etc.) could be understood. At the core of this model is the definition that “Peace is the absence of violence.” This definition initially appears at odds with the notion most forcefully articulated by Dr Ursula Franklin and first stated by Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century, that “Peace is not the absence of war”. Galtung’s notion converges, however, with that of Spinoza through invocation of “justice,” which lies at the core of the idea. Spinoza states that “Peace is not the absence of war … it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” This notion of justice is reflected in Galtung’s clear definition of violence: “Violence here is defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. Violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and which impedes the decrease of that distance.” Two further excerpts from Galtung clarify these notions:

“Violence without this relation [subject-verb-object] is structural, built into structure. Thus, when one husband beats his wife there is a clear case of personal violence, but when one million husbands keep one million wives in ignorance there is structural violence (my emphasis).

Correspondingly, in a society where life expectancy is twice as high in the upper as in the lower classes, violence is exercised even if there are no concrete actors one can point to directly attacking others, as when one person kills another.”

And to make clear the latter notion of structural violence being a social construct, he states further: “In order not to overwork the word violence we shall sometimes refer to the condition of structural violence as social injustice.” Thus, Spinoza’s notion of peace becomes congruent with the more formal model put forth by Galtung three centuries later.

Galtung thus posits the notion that behavioural violence represents a significant symptom of underlying structural violence. This notion was more formally studied recently by Dr James Gilligan, a psychiatrist from the United States who worked in and studied the nature of the prison system on the US East Coast. In his 1996 seminal book, “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic,” he comes to the conclusion that the prison system represents a “structure” which has the quality of maximizing violence. His analysis hinges on the notion of “shaming,” the structural context that causes shaming, and resultant behavioural violence. Gilligan’s model invokes the notion of “structural violence” and, again, clearly places it in the context of social justice. For example Gilligan states:

“By `structural violence’ I mean the increased rates of death and disability suffered by those who occupy the bottom rungs of society, as contrasted by those who are above them.

Those excess deaths (or at least a demonstrably large proportion of them) are a function of the class structure; and that structure is itself a product of society’s collective human choices, concerning how to distribute the collective wealth of the society. These are not acts of God.

I am contrasting `structural’ with ┬┤behavioral violence’ by which I mean the non-natural deaths and injuries that are caused by specific behavioral actions of individuals against individuals, such as the deaths we attribute to homicide, suicide, soldiers in warfare, capital punishment, and so on.”

Dr. Stephen Bezruchka of the University of Washington in Seattle has also used this framework to understand the differences in health of populations being a direct result of disparities within societies. For example, while spending more per capita on health care and having the highest per capita income of all industrialized nations, the US stands 29th in infant mortality, under five mortality, life span and every other measure of population health. Indeed, the remarkable difference in life span of the people in British Columbia (80.3 years in 2000) compared to their counterparts directly across the border in Washington State (77.9 years in 2000) reveals fundamental differences in the structure of societies. As Bezruchka argues, these poor outcomes in the US have a strong relationship to the levels of disparity that exist relative to other industrialized countries, the US again coming out at the bottom by all measures.

Using the model of structural violence and readily available data, we can easily begin to understand the nature or causes of the increasing violence in a number of neighbourhoods in Toronto. Using census data from Stats Canada, the recent United Way report entitled Poverty by Postal Code, outlines the growing levels of poverty and disparity prevalent in the City of Toronto. A few of the results illustrate how Toronto continues to move towards a more disparate society. Quantifying the number of people living below the poverty line, the report reveals that in 1981 there were 26 high poverty and 4 very high poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto. In 2001, there were 97 and 23, respectively. This large increase also reflects a stunning change in the nature of the families living in poverty. The number of immigrant families living in poverty increased by 125% between 1981 and 2001 while the increase in poor families born in Canada was only 13%. There has been a dramatic change in the nature of the people living in poverty. Using the term “visible minority” only to denote non-white (European) population, in 1981 non-visible minority (“white”) families represented 67.6% of the families in higher poverty neighbourhoods in 1981, visible minorities being 32%. These proportions were inverted by 2001, with visible minority families representing 65.6% of families in the higher poverty neighbourhoods. Worse still was the increase of poor visible minorities as a proportion of the total poor families in these neighbourhoods: 37.4% in 1981 and 77.5% in 2001 (i.e. almost 4 out of 5 poor families were “visible minorities”). What we find, however, is that the poor in these neighbourhoods are not unemployed. In high poverty neighbourhoods, the unemployment rate stands at 10%, in very high poverty neighbourhoods at 12.6%, and in Toronto as a whole at 7%.

Thus, Toronto continues to progress towards a US model of urban disparity. We see a greater number of poor, the poor are increasingly prevalent among recent immigrants and are non-white. However, these “poor” people are gainfully employed. A measure of this economic disparity can be seen when comparing the average income of the lowest 10 percentile and highest 10 percentile in Toronto. Using constant dollars (2000), in 1981 the average family incomes in these two groups was $41,611 and $135, 801, respectively (ratio of 3.3). In 2001, the disparity had increased to $39,298 and $221,111, respectively (ratio of 5.6). Thus, the average income of people in the lowest economic group decreased over the last 20 years. (Actually this is true for the bottom 25% of income earners!) But, these lower income earners are generally employed despite the erosion of their incomes.

One might venture to hypothesize, then, that the youth of the city continue to live in conditions of increasing disparity. In these poor neighbourhoods, they see that their parents are gainfully employed but are unable to provide the basic necessities of life, let alone the objects perpetually advanced in the media as requirements for a fulfilled life (e.g. iPods, cars, and specific sized body parts, both male and female). These same youth are socially marginalized and, by virtue of being “visible minority” (although by 2010 this group will be the majority in Toronto), face the difficulties of attempting to acquire jobs with some dignity (youth unemployment remains very high), as well as the racism inherent in our society. These realities represent the precise conditions, as James Gilligan describes them, which lead to the violence in US prisons and, more generally, US urban centres.

I end here by mentioning another disturbing aspect of this situation. The recent federal election saw an endless parade of candidates tout a solution based on more violence (increased police, longer sentences) which the relevant literature reveals is demonstrably useless and even counterproductive. At best, lip service was paid to addressing our failure to maintain an equitable society. Of particular note was the NDP, whose roots in the labour movement and in social justice were supplanted by electoral opportunism. Rather than promote decent jobs with living wages and a society based on an equal distribution of burdens (also known as distributive justice), their leader articulated foremost a policy of more policing. (This final lack of focus on decent jobs and poverty must surely represent the best sign of the almost complete lack of democracy in this country.) Furthermore, while one might not expect that the Police Chief in Toronto to think of issues in this context (although I believe that the Toronto Police, being personal witnesses to the conditions in Toronto, should be in the forefront on this issue), the Mayor and Premier of Ontario, along with the federal party whose tradition is supposedly rooted in social justice rather than greed and individualism, must address these issues head on. Finally, the bankrupt nature of the media in this country has played a particularly important role in preventing any serious understanding, let alone discussion, of these issues. Presumably their roots among the 10% of Torontonians averaging $221,111 per year might influence the choice of questions they ask of the political and corporate elite who are directly responsible, but never held accountable, for the disparities in Toronto. Failure to recognize poverty as the most pervasive form of violence maintains the social (“us” vs. “them”) and economic disparities that are well-established determinants of health and violence. Until we read about these issues on the front pages of the media, as we do about the debt or free trade or other economic issues that benefit the rich, this city and, indeed, this country will continue its integration into the very society we typically use to define who we are not.

Whole issue on one page | as PDF

ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)