Humanity – language, conflict, and violence – part two

If something repeatable within a human relationship precedes the outbreak of violence, what is it exactly? Viewed with a cold eye, the violence creating conditions should be deemed morally more problematic than violence itself. However, we don’t hear the call, and protest, against ‘the violence creating conditions’ as often as we can hear one against violence.  

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

2. A violence eliciting structure 

Of the four examples, it is only in Pericles that we find partially an explanation of the nature of the conditions that elicit violence. Recall that, in the first part, Pericles explains that the Spartans prefer the use of violent means over the use of discourse; however, in the second part, he describes in full the nature of the Spartan attitude to Athens in light of which an Athenian decision in favor of war must be reasonable. Hence, the second part aims at the center of the language-violence relationship. Now, what are the conditions that elicit violence, or what is, according to Pericles, the violence eliciting structure?

Pericles names the structure as ‘doulosis’, which is ‘slavery’ or ‘a treatment of one as a slave’, ‘a slave-holding attitude’. He claims that Sparta treats Athens as unequal, while in reality the two are equals. And the reason why he claims so is in the nature/structure of the demand Sparta places on Athens: the former expects from the latter to accept their demand without any problematization, discussion, debate or a critical evaluation. Athens believes that, whatever it means more precisely, the Spartan dikaiosis, which is an individual assessment of justice, needs to be subjected to scrutiny and a joint assessment in light of reasons and counter-reasons, possibly at an appropriate, legal forum. Sparta does not believe so. It demands that Athens take it as if it’s already the word of law. This is why Pericles deems the structure of the Spartan attitude to Athens to be reflective of the notion of slavery.

Slavery is primarily a discursive relationship. One, the master, is one whose verbal morality cannot be assessed by the other, who is his or her slave. The former cannot be corrected verbally, or asked for reasons, by the slave. The master simply issues commands or threats to the slave. The latter is one who simply obeys the orders, and cannot act on his master by any discourse-based or -related means. For instance, he cannot sue his master. That is why the most precise definition of ‘the slave’ is one that we find in Seneca’s De Beneficiis: “bodies that can be harmed without legal sanction and are attributed to the masters.” (“corpora obnoxia et adscripta dominis”) [1] The bodies are envisaged primarily as ‘headless’, thus non-discursive, due to the demand to surrender their will, and their deliberative capacity, to the master’s.

Therefore, Pericles in fact tells us as follows: X poses to us his claim or demand. However, he makes no attempt to found his demand on generally valid reasons. We are simply supposed to follow his injunction without reflection and without examining its cognitive value. Even when we firmly believe that strong reasons can be offered to defeat, or seriously undermine, X’s demand, the latter is one that must be taken as superior or binding. Furthermore, the door is closed to an open and frank dialogue with X – you cannot correct X, or hope to correct him; he is beyond your discursive reach. You must remain silent, and he will be anyway deaf to your attempts at correction regardless of the issue of their inherent validity.

That is exactly what Pericles has in mind. We think of ourselves as equal to a party, but the latter does not think the same of us. S/he poses some dikaiosis as binding on us without allowing us to discuss it even when it is plainly wrong, or when it violates unjustly our own interest. (Interestingly, and fully fairly, the Spartans could have stated the same about the Athenian intervention in the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth.)

A section of the Phoenician Women by Euripides (lines 390 and on) contains a story on a very similar structure. As part of a dialogue between Jocasta and Polynices, the mother asks her son as follows: since you spent your time in Argos, how was to be a refugee in the city, and why it was so miserable, as you claim? Polynices replies as follows: “The ugliest part is that I have not enjoyed the freedom of expression (ouk echei parrhesian)”. Jocasta then replies: “Now you speak of a feature of the slave: not speaking one’s mind (doyloy tod’ eipas, me legein ha tis phronei)”[2]. Yes, replies Polynices, “one needs to bear the incompetence/ignorance of those in power (tas amathias ton kratounton)”. Jocasta adds: “that’s miserable then too, to have to deny one’s wisdom in the company of the unwise (kai toyto lypron, synasofein tois me sofois)”. Western literature does not offer a more concise and pertaining account of the essence of the slave-holding attitude, or relationship.   

What is it that Polynices and Jocasta tell us? They additionally clarify the brief remark by Pericles on the diakiosis-doulosis connection. The two explain the sense in which the relation of slavery is based on a particular kind of violation of discursive morality. The slave is one who primarily lacks the freedom of expression, which is due to the need to block his attempt at the correction of his master. He cannot supply the reasons, he cannot improve the propositions of his master, and he must follow and implement his master’s injunctions even when those are irrational, or harmful to him, or even harmful to both. One analogy can be pertinently applied in this context:  when Polynices sensed the need to correct the powerful, as a child is corrected by a caring adult for everyone’s benefit, he experienced a paradoxical or inverted situation: he had to accept the ‘child’s perspective’ even though it was inaccurate, wrong, harmful or misleading.

The violence eliciting structure can be presented by a simple visual scheme as follows:

Individual A:   proposition X with its implications 

Individual B:   proposition Y with its own implications. 


Y contradicts X.

Y is provable. Stronger reasons speak in favor of Y than of X. 



B cannot make Y to hold for both A and B, e.g. by dialogue. 

A is one who decides, or determines, that, contrary to logic and the basic standards of reason, X holds for both A and B. 

B is forced into the state of silence, or is met with silence, or is institutionally placed as inferior.


Hence, B (possibly) explodes; harm to both A and B.


It is clear that something like the visual scheme relations hold not only between Polynices and his host, and master (and later, a father-in-law), Adrastus in Argos, but also between Polynices and Eteocles in the Phoenician Women. A war breaks out between the two brothers, Oedipus’s sons, because their relationship follows the pattern in the visual scheme. The same applies to Pericles and Spartans from Thucydides I. 141. And for hundreds of times a war broke out due to the fact that the relationship between (at least) two agents followed the pattern as presented above. Look at the Yugoslav wars in 1990s, look at the Dred Scott and the start of American Civil War, look at the American war of independence; Rambouillet and the aforementioned NATO action against Milošević, 1973 Yom Kippur War, etc. etc.[3]

Now, what is wrong with the interaction as depicted in the above visual scheme? Obviously, first, the relationship is asymmetrical: A does not care about some discursive-moral values; B cares about such values. B is one who carries the burden of the contradiction. But, we need to note that A in fact does not at all care about the contradiction – he simply adheres to X regardless of the strength of Y that B stands for; to him, Y is inconsequential; B also sees an easy way out; in his world the contradiction is easily resolved; but A prevents this from happening in a social sense. This means that, to B, contradiction is reflected at three levels none of which pertains to A: contradiction between X and Y; a resolution of the contradiction in favor of Y; and social irrelevance, and denial, of the contradiction-resolution due to (what seems to be) A’s superior or determining position.

Hence, a social relationship is determined by one discourse-unfriendly agent; the other, perhaps more discourse-friendly agent is treated not as a source of possible improvement, something that should go pretty much without saying, but as an inferior being in accordance with the premise of slavery or inequality. Of course, additionally, the condition is one of injustice, and it is the most painful form of one exactly due to the fact of its non-mandatory, or contingent or socially constructed/imposed, nature or cause.[4]

Now, a good and pertinent question in the context of this essay is as follows: how to classify the kind of relationship? Obviously, it is primarily a relationship of discursive kind, but the positions of the agents have clearly also a moral character – they contribute to the moral rightness or wrongness of the interaction between the two. But, is this a kind of violence, a violent but discursive act? And, provided that one responds violently to the relationship, can he be met with understanding? In a sense, he can. However, equally obviously, the violence would not improve the relationship in a discursive sense, or restore balance.

I think that, here, one deals primarily with the kind of violence inflicted on one’s mind, one’s entire personality in the sense of someone who otherwise needs to be treated with a considerable degree of discursive dignity. One attempts to numb the mind of another personality, to make it immobile or insignificant, or, metaphorically put, ‘mentally dead’. It is a kind of psychological, and discourse-based, torture.

The situation resembles closely the ‘double bind’ situations.[5] It is indeed a kind of violence, but of a moral-discursive nature. However, have in mind two possibilities as follows:  first, this kind of violence may be, and it has been for ages, institutionally normalized; one does nothing against one’s condition as a slave – B simply shrugs his shoulders and admits that he needs to continue co-existing with A in the conditions determined by A.  Secondly, in the Phoenician Women Polynices, after having described his slave-like position in Argos, adds that he had to endure in such a condition for some gain, probably the hand of King Adrastus’ daughter.[6] That is, Polynices thought that his bad situation was a sacrifice by which he bought a future bounty, the lady’s hand i.e. marriage. Or, you can even say that Polynices voluntarily participated in the violence and embraced his role of a victim for the sake of a future payoff. Of course, some do not want to let their minds be numbed. Some would perhaps oppose Adrastus, or terminate all their dealings with him [7].

Summarily, we should emphasize two aspects as follows. First, the road to violence is opened by a party’s termination of its (just and moral) discursive relationship with another party. Or, it is opened by a self-destruction of discourse through a set of discursive attitudes of a party; note that the road is not opened simply by a ‘preference of violence over the use of discourse in tackling social or political conflicts.’ Language is de facto taken out of the equation, and one party cannot, or does not want to, view the other party as an equal and dignified discursive being. That is the most problematic component of the said relationship.    

This has another consequence for our understanding of the language-violence relationship: there is something that is obviously worse, or morally more problematic, than the fact of overt, physical violence; and sometimes, we should perhaps consider the fact of open violence as simply an attempt at a suicide motivated by a loss of oneself as a discursive being, and thus also as a human being in the full sense of the word. Such loss of one’s discursive status, one’s degradation to the level of the animal, speechless existence, is what’s really repellent, or demoralizing, in violent acts as part of political conflicts.

This means that a human being cannot long endure in a relationship that is not regulated by discursive rules or values, a relationship to which moral-discursive parameters of language do not pertain. Intelligent persons formulate and sign the treaties before a war, hence, also before an outbreak of violence. Sadly, some humans are not intelligent. And some are even excessively non-intelligent because, by undermining the moral values of discourse, they remove discourse as a medium of relationship, and thus extend the very period of violence indefinitely. Hence, such removal of discourse should be viewed as an Ur-form of violence, or a paradigmatic form of the relationship in which violence, considered as the strategy of securing of one’s social/political supremacy by infliction of a severe bodily harm including murder, is a normal occurrence.    

3. Dediscoursification, a postmodernist image of discourse, and Thucydides 3.82-3  

Once we add up the key steps of the argument proposed thus far, some ideas assume a clear shape. First, though one could formally state that a party choose violence instead of discourse as a means of the dispute settlement, what we in fact see is a preference of a discursive attitude over a more desirable set of discursive attitudes. Violence itself is simply a byproduct of such a preference. Hence, what Pericles actually states is that the Spartans choose one attitude to discourse rather than a different, more positive and productive one. In such a sense, the central dynamics is located in the space between violence and language, but it is still the area that, properly speaking, belongs to language – ‘words as weapons.’  By the end of the essay we will get an increasingly clear view of the meaning of the proposition.

Secondly, despite the fact that violence can take the shape of an explosion of accumulated aggression, it can as well take the shape of the seemingly innocent attitude we find in Polynices in his relation to King Adrastus. Polynices accepts his own inferior position as an effect of a discursive attitude, and views it, in irrational terms, as something by which he would pay some later gain. More specifically, Polynices endorses a lie, as characterizing the life of a slave, to get a marital relationship. Of course, the problem is that the lie then continues indefinitely to poison all his relationships, and it remains as a stain on his character forever.

Speaking of the Phoenician Women, we also know that Polynices brought along the Army of Argos against Eteocles after a suggestion, or encouragement, by King Adrastus (lines 426-9), which casts a different light on his otherwise just demands against his brother. In other words, when the violence broke out between Polynices and Eteocles, partly it may be an effect, or a misdirected outcome, of the ‘quieter’ kind of violence between Adrastus and Polynices. Hence, the above examples suggest in fact that violence gets modified and constantly re-channeled and reshaped, from one discursive form to another discursive form, and then to a non-discursive, or less discursive, form etc. 

It is in light of such facts that I proposed the theory of dediscoursification as a theory of one of the major types of causes of war.[8] The theory stipulates that a discourse-user needs to be dediscoursified to ‘wish’ to apply violence in a relationship with a party that produces dediscoursification. This means that the latter needs to violate typically a number of values of discourse, by his or her use of discourse, to remove from the relationship the possibility of discourse-based solution to the conflict. Then, at the very end of the process we see some propositions, such as one by Pericles, indicating that a party thinks that negotiations are unlikely to be of any help. The other party is deemed such a user of discourse that s/he stands beyond the reach of a fair discursive influence: for instance, s/he will not bind herself reliably, or her discourse is full of contradictions, or s/he does not allow to be corrected…Then we see the period of silence in relation to the party, the impression that the party forces us to keep silent, despite the fact we have something to talk about, and it’s objectively advisable to talk about it. At the same time, one senses that the relationship is unjust, or unjustifiable in moral-discursive terms.

Now, where do Odo, or Madeleine Albright, stand in this regard? Albright relies on the myth of ‘a divine nation that sees better than the others’, while Odo is immersed fully into a cultural matrix that views violence in light of the discourse on Divine Words written, that is, acted out, by the real events. Obviously, such myths and matrices serve to dediscoursify Odo’s and Albright’s interlocutors. For instance, how to discuss issues with those whose thinking is based on the premise that their policy is inherently, without examination, superior to all the others? It is hence clear from both cases that violence that ensued was to a great extent produced and enabled by some words/discourses uttered by some individuals in specific contexts. 

Therefore, dediscoursification does not assume a single shape of a discursive interaction between specific individuals who replace the medium of discourse with a medium of force as a dispute-settling means. Sometimes, some traditions operate in the background, producing dediscoursification, and sometimes everyone has simply deliberately accepted to act as a madman or a non-human. For instance, there is an intellectual tradition which does not draw the distinction between the period of war and one of peace; it is a kind of political realism that views war as a perennial, never-ending state; a kind of political theory that includes some ethical, legal, and anthropological assumptions [9].

Or, considering the Nazi-ideology, one can quickly realize that the philosophy or the world-view is pretty simple, and that it is a part of a tradition – it dates back, for instance, first to Nietzsche, and then one can go back as far as the age of Greek Sophists, for instance Thrasymachus with whom Socrates debates in the first book of Plato’s Politeia. As part of the same tradition, there is also the understanding of ‘power’ as a key motivator of politics and such a view can be, for instance, traced back to Thucydides [10]. However, it is of importance that one is able to spot and recognize some propositions that go back to the fathers of the traditions including sometimes even proverbs, and then one can see easily if dediscoursification is promoted or brought in through a backdoor; for instance, the proposition that a nation X in time of peace loses its gains from the time of war; or the thought that diplomacy is simply a continuation of war by other means.

Interestingly, speaking of traditions, those do not have to be focused on the issues related to violence, or human acting in general; those may be focused simply on language.  Dediscoursification consists in the fact that one’s partner to discourse has been deprived of some key moral attributes due to his or her violation of key moral values of discourse – s/he happens to be designated as irrational, or deceptive, or dishonest, or confusing and incoherent, or unreliable with his promises, or prone to ignore the counterarguments….In other words, for dediscoursification to take place, at least one party must cease to believe in the applicability of some moral-discursive values; now, this can take place also by a party’s membership of a tradition, or a culture, that removes such values, or promotes some language-related views that subscribe to the thesis of the inefficiency of such values. Hence, dediscoursification can be produced through a model, or paradigm, of language.

Take, for example, some of the key thoughts of postmodernist hermeneutics: “there is no stable meaning; only a chain of many open-ended interpretations shaped by the power-relations;” or, “the distinction between truth and untruth is a violent product of a social ideology,” and similar. Imagine further that you apply such thoughts to a politically relevant conflict over the meaning of a peace treaty provisions – you immediately produce an undecidable condition, and thereby transform the state of a possible peace into a state of interpretive/hermeneutical war. Of course, postmodernists are not the only source of the propositions that can lead to dediscoursification; Umberto Eco described a hermetical-gnostic attitude to texts and languages, closely resembling the postmodernist attitudes, but practiced centuries ago [11]; and scholars have already pointed to some striking similarities between the sophistic doctrines debated by Socrates, on the one hand, and some contemporary postmodernist philosophers on the other.[12] However, again we need to emphasize one key fact: the attitude to language is one that shapes a general relationship between individuals including the issue of whether the relationship contains a potential for violence, and to what an extent.

Thucydides 3.82-3 offers one of the best illustrations of the state of dediscoursification in an especially sinister context. It’s his famous description of stasis (Gr. ‘uprising/faction/civil war’) at Corcyra. Perhaps he was not aware of the tragic irony related to the fact that the Peloponnesian war broke out because of, among other things, the Athenian support to the city that became a site of some of the darkest developments pertaining to the war. Perhaps, had Athens been able to predict such developments, it would not have intervened in the Corinth-Corcyra dispute in the way it has prior to the start of the Peloponnesian war. 

Thucydides starts with the fact that “the established (common) evaluation of (morally relevant) names/phrases (he eiothyia axiosis ton onomaton)” was reversed, and that the designation of the negative became a sign of positivity, and the other way around. For instance, to be truthful and honest (and also reliable) became synonymous with ‘naïve, or stupid, or inattentive’. To be considerate, and prone to a moral calculation, started to be taken as a sign of cowardice. In other words, the citizens of Corcyra lost the foundation for an assessment of verbal actions as also moral ones: in the given conditions, it became impossible to condemn one as a liar, or as a promise/treaty breaker. Hence, no agreements of some duration were made in the city at the time; in fact, Thucydides points out that the parties in Corcyra perversely found it appealing to deceive each other by a temporary adoption of a treaty, as a means of first feeding each other with trust, but then promptly breaking it to produce some narrow, selfish, and transient gain. 

As he further points out, the struggle for power or dominance, arche, was the fundamental drive to all such actions, and the power-hunger went together with two further vices: filotimia and pleonexia, vainglory and greed. And down below, at a still deeper level, was a fundamentally pessimistic, depressive view of reality: the only aim of the citizens was purely negative, to ‘avoid death, or fall’; to them the condition was, as Thucydides put it, one of permanent hopelessness. This, according to Thucydides, explains the ‘stasis’ that, first of all, destroyed the moral-discursive parameters of language. Also, he adds, the family values ceased to be honored, while the parties were creating the bonds of mutual dependence, and friendship, not by upholding, but by breaking the laws. Murderer, thief, smuggler… – all those terms ceased to mark negative, undesirable, or morally repellent attributes.

A commentator of Thucydides, Macleod describes Thucydides 3.82-3 as an account of “the undoing of human progress by the very means of that progress.” [13] Macleod’s comment is perhaps the best one can get on this section of Thucydides. Dediscoursification can be described exactly as such “undoing of the human progress by the means of the progress.” Language normally is a means of human progress, but it can be used to undo the progress itself, for instance, when it is used to spread confusion, to lie, mislead, or achieve by a treaty not a common good, but a private gain, etc. Of course, we need to note that Corcyra is not a city in which all vestiges of sociality, or the use of discourse, were fully removed; the maximally extended undoing of the human progress, including dediscoursification, results in people becoming indifferent or numb; then, the conditions become both unpredictable and unguided by human language, hence also impenetrable by human hope. This is what lies at the foundation of violence in Corcyra in the condition of ‘stasis,’ according to Thucydides 3.82-3.   

Dražen Pehar, Croatian-Bosnian scholar, and public commentator, is the author of Peace as War: Bosnia and Herzegovina, post-Dayton (CEU Press 2019), and a bilingual Alija Izetbegovic and the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina (HKD Napredak/Mostar 2011); his PhD with a thesis on diplomatic ambiguity is in politics and international relations from SPIRE (2006), Keele University. He contributed to TransConflict on numerous occasions, esp. in 2012, 2016, and 2017.


  1. This ties one end of my theoretical baggage to the tradition of republican political theory; for more detail, see: 
  2. Have in mind that here Jocasta does not claim that, at the time, Polynices’ status, as Papadopoulou put it, “resembles the status of a slave;” she claims literally that, with his words on a lack of ‘parrhesia,’ Polynices addresses the attribute of a slave (doyloy tod’ eipas), which amounts to “not speaking one’s mind” (me legein ha tis phronei); see Papadopoulou, Thalia (2008), Euripides: Phoenician Women, Duckworth: London (the misquote is on p. 59), which is otherwise an excellent introductory analysis of the play. For the text of the play, I use both Greek and English editions as published on Perseus (Tufts) Digital Library:
  3. For a work supportive of such interpretation of those outbreaks of violence, in addition to my second piece on Rambouillet referred to in endnote 7 of Part One of this essay, see also the following links: ;; and 
  4. See also Pehar, Drazen (2019), Peace as War: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Post-Dayton, Budapest, New York: CEU Press
  5. See, for instance, Kutz, Angelika (2016), Toxische Kommunikation als Krankheitsursache in Unternehmen, Wiesbaden: Springer; and, Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J.B., Jackson, D.D. (1967), Pragmatics of Human Communication, New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 211-219.
  6. In Plato’s Philebus (78a) one disciple of Gorgias claims that, “Gorgias taught us how the art of persuasion makes of us all slaves, not by force but voluntarily.”
  7. It is clear from the Phoenician Women that, even during his conflict and war with his brother, Polynices acts as a loyal slave to Adrastus without being aware of it. Adrastus supplied Polynices with an army, and Oedipus’s son figures as the former’s extended hand. In a sense, once you accept the heavily compromising position, it’s nearly impossible to rid oneself of the humiliation and restore one’s basic humanity: this is perhaps the key message Euripides aimed to convey through his incredibly influential tragedy which is very much related also to the events from the Peloponnesian war. 
  8. See, for example, Pehar, Drazen (2013), “War and ‘dediscoursation’: a research frame”, Desmond Tutu Center for War and Peace Studies, Liverpool Hope University:; or Pehar, Drazen (2016), „Dediscoursification: a discourse-ethical critique of discursive production of the state of war“, Političke Perspektive vol. 6 no. 1-2, pp. 35-65: For a kind of summary statement, see my (2016) Dediscoursification—How Discursive Attitudes Cause Wars. TransConflict, 29 January to 15 April (Extracts of a book manuscript published over twelve issues. )  
  9. What I here have in mind is a rough version of classical Realism in International Relations, emphasizing the notions of self-help and anarchy, as proposed in Morgenthau, combined with some Carl Schmitt of the Der Begriff des Politischen, and some kind of Foucauldian knowledge/power-thesis inspired by Nietzsche. 
  10. More precisely, to some characters from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
  11. Eco, Umberto (1992), Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 29-43
  12. See, for instance, Engel, Pascal (1994), “The decline and fall of French Nietzscheo-structuralism.” In European Philosophy and the American Academy, edited by Barry Smith, 21-41. La Salle IL: Hegeler Institute; Crick, Nathan A. (2016), “Post-Structuralism”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, John F. Nussbaum (editor-in-chief), Online, DOI:  10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.49; one could also add here the theory of linguistic relativism initially proposed by Benjamin Lee Whorf, according to which an accurate interlingual translation is an impossibility because each language colors one’s experience of reality in a unique way that is not reproduced in the other languages. 
  13. Macleod, C. W. (1979), “Thucydides on faction (3.82-83)”, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, NEW SERIES, 25(205): 52-68 (p. 54). Here I should perhaps also add that similarity in views, and messages, between Euripides and Thucydides was noted long ago: see, for example, Finley, John H. Jr. (1967), Three Essays on Thucydides, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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