Toch and violent men

Toch and violent men

TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

In 1969, marking the end of a phase of his research into the patterns and causes of violence in the area of Sacramento, California, Hans Toch published the Violent Men. The book explores interactions between individuals that give rise to a phenomenon Toch described as “the degeneration of an interaction” (Toch 1992, 58)–a series of interactions that result in an individual’s belief, or impression, that s/he has no other option but to resort to force. The most interesting part of the book is focused on the encounters between Caucasian police officers and the African-American citizens which frequently turned into a dangerous collision between at least two violent bodies. Toch’s is not a book about war, but it is a book that attempts to account for those small American wars that carry wider social and political significance, and involve individuals to whom the outcome of their battles was more or less predictable. The Caucasian police officer is without exception victorious simply due to the fact that he is an armed enforcer of the law and order; however, this in no way discourages or prevents the African Americans from attempting to enforce their own cause.

Toch’s book is filled with excerpts from reconstructed dialogues as well as reports drafted or issued by those very same police officers. That is why this section is focused on that book. How do those dialogues unfold? Are they characterized by some typical and recurring patterns? Is it possible to trace a part of the causal explanation of those outbreaks of violence to the ways in which the parties to such outbreaks are communicating?

The response to the last two questions will be affirmative. However, prior to giving some illustrations that may be of help in the process of formulating of the theory of “dediscoursification,” I need to emphasize two things. First, Toch does his best to remain neutral. When he directly addresses the question of the violent encounters between the Caucasian lawmen and the African-American citizens of somewhat rebellious disposition, he does his best not to accuse, indict, or side with, either party. In other words, he attempts to be politically correct. I do not deem such a research strategy the most promising. Objectively, there are some instances when we cannot avoid indicting one party who, due to his or her way of communicating, has brought about or reinforced in another party a motivation to initiate a more violent interaction. In other words, at times the indictments of some individuals against others are of such a nature and weight that one has to pose the question of their inter-subjective, rational validity. At such times we in fact commence dealing with the issue of justice.

Secondly, Toch builds a theory of violent behavior that rests on the notion of gradualness and draws on the idea of “constructive problem solving” as a missed opportunity. For instance,

“Ultimately, violence arises because some person feels that he or she must resort to a physical act, that a problem he or she faces calls for a destructive solution. The problem violent persons perceive is rarely the situation as we see it, but rather some dilemma they feel they find themselves in. In order to understand a violent person’s motive for violence, we must thus step into his or her shoes, and we must reconstruct his or her unique perspective, no matter how odd or strange it may be.” (Toch 1992, 7)


“In our view, games spring from personal orientations that produce characteristic opening moves. Therefore, sequences are cumulatively determined, in the form of actions and reactions by the players. In violence-prone encounters, we find violence emerging rather than intended. As we see it, the successive moves of game participants carry increased probabilities of destructive consequences: They carry decreased probabilities of constructive solutions” (Toch 1992, 36).

Toch here claims that, in the course of transactions that result in violence, there are two distinct levels that co-exist throughout the process: the level of the constructive problem solving and the level of the use of destructive means, i.e. violence. The first level is marked by a decrease in the probability of its sustenance; interactions accumulate in such a way that an individual senses that s/he has been cornered, that s/he has been actively, bit by bit, prevented by his or her interlocutor from adopting a peaceful and non-violent perspective of problem-solving. Hence, Toch here actually claims that, as part of a series of interactions that lead to violent outcomes, the discursive aspect of human existence becomes increasingly submissive and irrelevant. Toch, in other words, is aware of the following correlation: “less language, more violence,” as his following claim attests: “Probably a majority of violence prone persons may be classed as deficient in verbal and other social skills. In some instances, violence is clearly related to clumsiness, as in cases of armed robbery where the bluff is unconvincing, or in situations where forcible rape substitutes for courtship and seduction” (Toch 1992, 151).

In some conditions language thus seems to retreat and is replaced by something else: force, battle, aggression….The problem ceases to be addressed through the medium of language; such increased “distancing” of the problem from the medium of language evolves gradually through a number of identifiable stages each of which can be independently clarified. Such stages reveal, as Toch points out, “who contributed what to bringing the conflict to culmination” (Toch 1992, 103); they reveal one’s contributions to the process of transformation of the verbal communication into a communication by violence. It is from such stages, or steps, that we should be able to learn something about the kind of communication that is increasingly remote from the language itself; we should also be able to learn something about what kind of communication would manage, throughout the different stages, to retain the perspective of constructive problem-solving and remain open to the possibility of tackling the contested issues within the medium of language, not outside of it.

I take two examples from Toch’s book that tell us something important about the degeneration of the interaction involving individuals whose overall communication ends in violent behavior. The first example concerns a young, 16-year-old African-American who, at the start of the interaction, is simply sitting (Toch 1992, 103-110). A police officer approached, and asked him “what are you doing here?” to which the boy replies by explaining that he has been sitting there. Now, the police officer asks the boy to come closer to him. The boy, however, demands an explanation; he would like to know the nature of his misbehavior before responding positively to the officer’s request. This is when the troubles begin. The officer starts to chase the boy who starts running away simply because, to him, the officer seemed not reliable, nor sufficiently serious. The officer later revisited the chase in the following words: “…at this point I think he’s either under the influence of alcohol or dope or something, ‘cause he’s got a goofy, dreamy look about him, and he gives me a little cynical laugh…” (Toch 1992, 104)

Hence, from a communication point of view, the young African-American does not understand the motivation of the officer, or why the latter started the searching, identification, or whatever he had in mind. The boy does not understand “what is it that he has done wrong.” He insists on the fact that he did nothing wrong and wished no trouble. He also never gets an explicit explanation of the aims of the police officer–what was the latter up to? Next there is a sort of a hunt which at one point in time turns really serious; after having realized that he could not chase down, or grab, the young boy, the officer mentions the possibility of using a gun. He says, “Now look, I don’t want to shoot you” (Toch 1992, 106). Later, the officer will try to soften his message, or, if we stick to the letter of his realization, he conceded that he had no legal ground to mention a use of gun (Toch 1992, 106). The boy responded to this as if he was dealing with a mad police officer. Hence, he now decides to come closer to the officer who forces him into the police car where a violent interaction takes place.

Later, when referring to his mention of the use of gun, the police officer explains his “move”: “Which was the classic statement, I did not have my revolver out, and I would have never taken it out ’cause naturally a misdemeanor (refusal to identify, 647E of the Penal Code) is certainly no grounds. But it did shock him enough…” (Toch 1992, 106) The African-American boy, on the other hand, describes the later parts of interaction in the following words: “And he says, ‘Come get into the car and we’ll talk.’ So, I knew right then that that was a lie, right there. First of all, he wants to talk, now he wants to get me into the car.” (Toch 1992, 106-7)

To sum up: two aspects of the interaction need to be taken fully into account: first, the boy does not understand, and does not see, legal grounds for the police officer to act when he approaches the boy and seeks identification. Upon the boy’s explicit request for some explanation, the officer fails to respond. The officer will later claim that the boy seemed to him somewhat goofy, but the boy was not explicitly told so. Now, even if he had been told about the impression of goofiness, the boy would still have had the right to ask for reasons for such an impression, and in turn, the game would have probably escalated in the way it did in the end.

Secondly, the mention of the use of gun was considered both by the police officer and by the boy as an act that goes beyond the frame of a proper legal relationship. The officer had no right to threaten with the use of weapon unless there was a clear legal ground for such a threat. However, he did issue such a threat; even more disturbingly, he pointed out that it was a phrase that the police officers used routinely. But, in this bit, the young African-American was probably familiar with the law, hence was able to recognize illegitimacy of the said phrase/threat. As can be expected, the boy is incited to a rebellion and responds to the demand by the officer (to enter the officer’s car) with increased sensitivity, which results in a kind of wrestling and physical coercion by the police officer.

My second example (Toch 1992, 121-130) is similar to the previous one. Following an allegation of a family fight, two police officers arrive in front of a house and meet “a suspect,” an African-American wearing a long coat. He is told to take his hands out of his pockets, which he refuses. The officers immediately approach the man, apply force, take his hands out of his pockets, and forcefully move him into the police car in which, as can be expected, following developments take place: wrestling, handcuffing, face-slapping…As the police officers later reported, “During the entire time the suspect kept threatening Arresting Officers by saying, ‘Me and my Black Brothers will get you. If I go to jail for anything, Oakland will burn just like Watts. We have plans for Oakland, Richmond, Marin City, and all those.’” (Toch 1992, 122)

One of the officers who took part in the processing of the “suspect” later emphasized that there was nothing personal in their relationship, and then complained about the attitude by the majority of the (black) population in the area toward the police: “ I’m saying only that the respect for law enforcement is gone, not diminishing, its gone. There is no respect for law enforcement at all.” (Toch 1992, 125) However, it is also very interesting to note that the “suspect” added two crucial details to the story, shedding important light on the whole episode in the sense of its communicational, discourse-related dynamics.

First, emphasizing that he had a beard at the time of the incident, he reports that one police officer asked him what had happened. The “suspect” said he did not know. The police officers then walked to his spouse (with whom he had an argument, perhaps even a small fight), and then returned to him. Immediately, one police officer asked the “suspect” if he was a Muslim. The latter responded to the question in the following way: “Have you ever seen a Muslim wear a beard?” (Toch 1992, 128) In other words, one of the police officers addressed the “suspect” through a scheme of classification that has nothing to do with the police work. His approach to the African-American person was obviously shaped, and perhaps even biased, by his understanding of the person’s ethnic-religious background. Secondly, as he later reconstructed the dialogue, the African-American emphasized that he asked one of the police officers to give him a reason why he should take hands out of his pockets; the following is his rendering of, and a comment on, the dialogue: “If he asked me to take my hands out of my pockets, I would ask him again why. And if he told me that he thought I had a weapon or something, or if he wanted to search me to see if I had a weapon, I would take them out. But he just said, ‘take your hands out of your pockets.’ And I said, ‘For what reason?’ And he said, ‘Just because I told you to.’ Then I would probably do it the same way.” (Toch 1992, 129-130)

Hence, we see that, first, the African-American adopts a metalingual perspective; he takes a persistent and negative view of the kind of communication, the kind of language-pattern, that the police officer employs. He considers such a pattern of communication as essential to their relationship; he clearly implies that his attitude toward the discourse to an important degree shapes the nature of his reactions that end up aggravating the conflict. Secondly, the matter he aims to get is “reason;” or why the police officers require or demand something from him. He, however, has not received anything closely resembling a defensible, or discernible, reason; he has received a statement that addresses the matter of power or status–a piece of language that does not derive legitimacy of an act from some reason, from either a fact or a contextually justified claim presented in clear and unambiguous terms; he has received a self-referential statement reiterating the demand and pointing back to the status of the demanding agent. The agent’s attitude to the African-American is one of superiority, it is an attitude very similar to the attitude of an adult toward a child: “I am the one who demands something; don’t ask why, but simply keep in mind who is the demanding agent; seek no reason, or clarification, because you are the one who owes me obedience; you are the one who, in this situation, simply follows orders and does what he is told.”

Hence, the “suspect” cannot but view such a response to his request as an implicit insult, a humiliation, even as an implied message that he may be stupid, which is why the police officer needed to repeat his demand; the officer rendered the “suspect’s” request fully unjustified, even irrelevant and superfluous, and clearly indicative of the fact that communication between the two cannot evolve in a direction that would be mutually acceptable–the “suspect” is an automaton that needs to respond appropriately to appropriate orders. Also, the “reason” requested is transformed by the officer into pure arbitrariness, in a sophism of the following kind: “I am the one who demands this; hence the demand must be deemed perfect and fully justified, with no further need for explanation.”

This leads us to following considerations. Toch’s rich examples should be presented against a background that suggests more complex narratives than those explicitly analyzed by Toch; it is nonetheless true that Toch gave us sufficient hints as to the nature of the narratives in the part of his book that deals with the Watts (a predominantly black suburb of LA) August 1965 riots.[1] Such more complex narratives concern the relationship between the African-American population, on the one hand, and the state apparatus in some states in the USA, on the other, and necessarily include the experience of slavery, as well as of neo-slavery (Blackmon 2008). There is no doubt that, throughout a long period in American history, the African-American citizens rightfully viewed white police officers as either symbols or instruments of both a race- and a class-struggle, and not as some neutral state agents who simply implement a common legal frame in public interest. Those citizens also viewed, and until today continue to view, themselves as a category of population who are from the outset placed beyond the law, as a group to whom the law had not been applied in order to implement justice, but to suppress, or exploit, them. To an important degree, this can also be clearly discerned from the second example.

Undoubtedly, the police officer seems to approach a “suspect” in a way that a priori excludes the latter from the realm of law. Additionally, the officer seems to view himself as an a priori embodiment of the law. In fact, it is precisely such distinction that makes any constructive dialogue impossible; it depicts a party as unsusceptible to rational forms of discourse, while at the same time turning another party into a secured embodiment of a rational discourse regardless of the party’s actual performance discourse-wise. The relationship is one of a Police Officer-King, whose language is considered superior, to a servant whose only task is to implement the King’s discourse unconditionally, without questioning or delay. If one sees their relationship in such a manner, it is clear that communication is interrupted at the very start; discourse had been de-discoursified, and this in turn must have played an important causal role in the onset of violence. Since a “black suspect” cannot use words in an autonomous and reasonable way, and the Police Officer-King feels no need to demonstrate rationality of his own discourse to the “suspect,” the eruption of violence, or physical assault, is highly probable. This not only deepens, or aggravates, the sense of humiliation among the black population; it also makes it almost impossible for a white police officer to do his job without facing some critical and fundamentally unpredictable situations.

It seems that one could rightfully conclude from both examples in Toch that his book deals with real sinners, that is, some individuals who have committed discernible errors in the sense of the violation of certain rules, or values, of an ethical attitude to discourse. Such rules and values will be analyzed in more detail in chapters 2 and 3; here it is important to emphasize the following. The police officer approaching a suspect should simply serve, or service, the law; he is not the law. His task is to build a relationship in which the law is gradually implemented by using a polite, impersonal, and non-emotive discourse. Whenever he approaches a suspect, his task is not to defend something (The Law) that appeared to have been already desecrated, or assaulted. His task is to determine whether something was desecrated or violated, and by whom and how exactly. By the time the officer arrives at such determination, the “suspect” should remain within the realm of law, and be treated as an adult, reasonable human being worthy of a meaningful, justified, reasonable, and grounded discourse.

It is especially in situations when the “suspect” believes that, in the eyes of “white oppressors,” he is already placed beyond the realm of law, that the police officers owe him a defensible answer to the question “why.” If he does not get a proper and valid answer to such a question, he should justifiably view himself as having been already evicted from the realm of the law in an arbitrary fashion. This would reinforce his belief that a contract with “white oppressors” is impossible to form, and that the latter would never cease treating him as a “slave.”

It is here that we find the source of either general violence or a continuation of a political, social, symbolic, cultural….struggle against slave-holders, a struggle that may take the form of destruction of property or admission into one of the numerous criminal groups. Hence, it is here that we see how an attitude toward discourse, and toward the individual users of discourse, opens the door for occurrence of violence; such an attitude does so by discouraging some individuals from further participation in a common discourse, or from continued reliance on discourse as a shared medium for constructive resolving of socio-political problems and conflicts. For such basic insights we are indebted to “Toch’s” police officers, their victims, and the discourse as practiced and interpreted by both.

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of theGlobal Coalition for Conflict Transformation

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. In contrast to his, for the most part, politically neutral and “correct” comment on violent interactions between the Caucasian police officers and the African-American citizens, Toch raises the issue of justice when he (pp. 192-201) reproduces the results of an inquiry led by the USA National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders from 1968. For instance, “at the initial juncture of collective violence, the Riot Commission isolated a group predisposed to action by many un-redressed grievances. Such persons arrive at the situation with a level of outrage sufficient to fuel their participation. The motives impelling them to rioting, however, are not yet born. In the words of Ralph Turner, these are ‘an emergent norm.’ They must be created, in the sense that the anger must attach itself to the precipitating event and must convert it into an unacceptable affront.” (Toch 1992, 201)

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