In English, violence has a relatively narrow meaning, referring mainly to violent physical actions. It means using an unnecessary and unwanted amount of physical force against another. The ‘unwanted’ is important since much of life consists of the use of force. When a child is lifted off the ground, when a doctor or dentist do their work, when we play many games, force is involved. Yet we do not call this violence. If we punch a face, knock out the tooth or embrace a person against their will, then we call it a violent act. Always physical force is involved.
The French word violence includes a much wider set of meanings. Here both physical, social and what is called symbolic violence is included. For example we can talk of the symbolic violence contained in language, architecture, gestures, painting, government directives, class or gender. The very grand building I inhabit next to King’s College Chapel is designed in a way which instills awe into visitors, just as the lofty Chapel itself compels some feeling of reverence onto all those who enter. Many of these instances do not directly involve the use of physical force, yet they exert pressures on an individual which may go against her will and interests. In this Letter I will use the broader, French, meaning of the word.