Humanity – language, conflict, and violence – part one

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

On the path towards the outbreak of armed violence, frequently enough we find a simple thought or proposition: “The opposed party prefers the means of violence over negotiations, dialogue or discourse, as a means of conflict resolution.” Such a proposition also often suggests that the opposed party is violent or aggressive, or in a sense barbaric and, most importantly, deprived of key property we customarily relate to the notion of humanity – the latter is normally considered as residing in our ability to use natural language (French, English, Chinese…) as a tool of constructive problem-solving including the peaceful resolution of social or political conflicts.   

However, let us immediately note a number of facts that add some complexity and perhaps controversy to the said thought or proposition. First of all, in a legal sense, there is the possibility that, under the ius ad bellum (‘ultima ratio’ provision), the proposition may lack the aforementioned suggestion – it may simply mean, and suggest, that, following the exhaustion of all diplomatic means of conflict settlement, the opposed party arrived at the conclusion that, now, they have to resort to violence to try to defend, or protect, their just interest. Of course, it then remains to be seen to what extent the part of the ius ad bellum applies generally as well as in relation to the specific situation.

Second, obviously there is a political sense to the proposition: normally it means that a war is imposed on us, that the opposed party leaves us no other choice but to accept their, perhaps only implicit, declaration of war. Normally, the said proposition could also simply mean that the opposed party, not ours, is aggressor in the case. This, of course, may be untrue.

Thirdly, as we will see, the said proposition is released not only immediately prior to the outbreak of armed violence; it can be given also months before such an outbreak. Prima facie this means that the said proposition does not have to lead immediately to the dangerous situation. Its use may be tactical: to achieve some purposes other than simply placing the blame on the other side or preparing the population for the upcoming war.

Now, what do I want to suggest by pointing to the variable sense of the proposition, or to the variability of its uses? I suggest that the proposition is in fact fairly complicated despite the initial appearance, and that it may be in fact more empirical than we normally assume it to be. Additionally, I suggest that the proposition offers a pertinent venue to start a discussion on human nature generally and also within the context of the international politics, polemology in particular. If humanity is marked as ens loquens, or zoon logon echon (Aristotle, Politics I), is not it strange that, in the condition of a critical, perhaps even defining, importance to human beings, someone prefers the use of violent means over the means of negotiation and dialogue?

More specifically, we can pose a number of questions on the said proposition as follows: 

First, do we really deal with mutually exclusive options or alternatives? Is not there an area that falls between the extreme options, the condition of neither violence nor language?

Second, do we really have the case of a deliberate choice when one consciously form the intention to use force, and leave the field of discourse? This is, of course, important from the perspective of the issue of accountability of the object of moral assessment. 

Third, does the notion of ‘violent language’ make sense? Does this notion cover the area between the means of violence and the means of discursive interaction?

Fourthly, are not there some conditions in which the question of who is, or was, to strike first is of no consequence, or perhaps even cannot be posed meaningfully? And should that be the case, are not there some conditions in which it does not really matter if one party actually showed the preference for the violent means of conflict settlement over the peaceful dialogue or the means of negotiation?

Fifthly, is the launch of an actual strike the necessary precondition for our being able to say that one really prefers the use of violence over negotiations? Or, is it fair to claim that one really prefers violence and war even without their having launched really a violent action? Here we need to recall simply the fact that their signal to the effect that they prefer violence may be a bluff.    

Summarily, I would like this essay to serve the purpose of emphasizing one key fact as follows: expectedly and normally, we are all against violence. And, of course, violence ought to be condemned and to an extent possible removed from this world. However, an insufficient number of people are aware of the fact that some conditions naturally create in one a need to respond violently; and a few people are indeed willing to try to identify, understand, and scrutinize, such conditions.

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.  

1. Some cases, with their provisional implications

Let us start with some concrete examples and focus as much as possible on the details of the context within which the said proposition was used: 

      1)  One of the first examples that can tell us something of importance in relation to the aforementioned proposition comes from Pericles, with his famous speech delivered before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, recorded in Thucydides I 140-1.[1] By the time of the speech it was clear that Sparta thought that the state of war between them and the Athenians has already taken place. Prior to Pericles’ speech, Spartans have even placed some demands on Athens that the latter must have understood as a sheer provocation intended to motivate them to accept the state of war as official one.  For instance, one of the demands was for Athens to dissolve its coalition and grant full independence to the members of the Athenian league. Hence Pericles states as follows: “it was agreed by the treaty that the mutual disagreements must be handed in to a court, and that in the meantime we both keep the possessions that we already have.  However, they did not seek a judicial settlement/arbitration, nor do they accept an offer of one when we give it; they prefer war to negotiations as a means of the settlement of the issue of judicial complaints. They have already reached the point when they issue commandments to us, not complaints.” 

Furthermore, Pericles adds (I. 141.1) that now Athenians must not retreat because, if they did so in relation to a matter that they viewed as minor one, the Spartans would, a day after, have pressed for additional demands in major matters. One of the key paragraphs of the speech reads that, when one who is equal to his neighbors (literally ‘tois pelas’ = Gr. “those who live near”), places on the latter his own diakiosis (his arbitrary, individual assessment of justice) as a claim, or demand, prior to the binding judicial decision (dikaiosis pro dikes tois pelas epitassomene), then this counts, or should be officially designated, as doulosis i.e. a case of slavery (or, more precisely, a slave-holding attitude). Dikaiosis is an individual estimate of justice, one that suits only a single party, and is proposed prior to a consideration of the estimate within a forum of public deliberation, where it should be assessed through an exchange of reasons and counter-reasons and decided by a binding, legitimate, possibly judicial decision-making body. In other words, Pericles here poses a critical claim: the Spartans demand that the Athenians accept a position of full obedience and submission, i.e. a relation in which one party cannot use argument to correct an invalid, or corrigible, or simply unproved, claim by another party in the conditions of assumed fundamental equality of the two.

This seems like a pretty simple accusation or qualification. However, the issue is fairly complex. Pericles may be right in relation to the specific claim by the Spartans.  On the other hand, are Athenians really free of all charges? Can they plead innocent without any doubt? Have they treated the Spartans as their equals throughout the process?  

Let us recall a key fact: the Spartans have declared the state of war primarily because of the Athenian attitude to the Thirty Year Peace Treaty; hence, when they pose very unjust claims against the Athenians, the Spartans view the whole affair as if the peace has already ended and given rise to another state of war.  Namely, prior to the Athenian proposal to Sparta to accept arbitration as a means of the dispute settlement, the Athenians did something that motivated the Spartans to think that Athens have already left the space of the treaty. Athenian Assembly decided to intervene in the dispute between Corinth, a Peloponnesian/Spartan league member, and Corcyra, a neutral city-state, and side with the latter. The intervention was problematic due to the fact that, despite the guaranteed freedom of all the non-allied states to join either alliance, Corcyra was at a war with Corinth; hence, Athenian intervention de facto meant that Athens declared a war against a member of the Spartan league; it is true that the Athenian Assembly made the decision to name its alliance epimachia (alliance for defensive purposes only), in contrast to symmachia (alliance for all purposes including offensive ones). However, the decision involved an act of interpretation that dealt with a critically important matter to both alliances; and, sadly, it was made unilaterally, without any consultation with the Spartans. Hence, despite the fact that Athens did not violate directly the 30 Year Peace Treaty, their decision was arguably not too a smart way to address one loophole in the treaty that addressed the issue of the non-allied states that were at a war with the members of either of the big coalitions. In other words, prior to its decision, imagine that Athens consult the Spartans on the desirable interpretation of the Treaty in the case of ‘Corcyra-Corinth’ dispute. Then it becomes clear why the Spartans viewed the Athenian intervention in the dispute as problematic, as what Pericles was later to call ‘dikaiosis as doulosis’.  

In other words, both key parties were culpable. Had the parties been ready and willing to admit their own errors, the state of war could have been avoided. Both parties were right to point to the questionable moves by the opposite party, but both were wrong in the sense of not being able to confess their own errors and seek correction through dialogue and mutual understanding. In light of those empirical facts, how should we characterize Pericles’ claims on both ‘Spartan preference for force over negotiating’ and doulosis

The former proposition is conditional, but also misleading. Spartans do prefer war over negotiations, but do so for a reason. They on their part believe, too, that the Athenians stepped out of the legitimate space of discourse, and that they were deceived by the Athenian interpretation of the treaty. A larger narrative stands behind the proposition, and failing to explicate it means making one’s own contribution to the emergence of the state of war, and thus to the preference of the means of violence over the means of negotiations. Secondly, the second proposition, one on doulosis, is much more significant – it gives us an avenue towards understanding of the kind of relationship that a party establishes between itself and a partner party by assuming a specific discursive attitude to the latter. If you combine equality with the imposition of dikaiosis, as a problematic claim unsupported by a generally valid argument, you will get an insult, a harm, an injustice, i.e. the features of slavery-like interaction; thereby you will also create the state of war as ‘free Athens’ cannot stand to be one’s servant, subject, or slave.[2]

Of course, the problem with Pericles lies in his inability to see, or recognize or acknowledge, the fact that the Spartans relate to the Athenians as well in light of the Athenian position on the Corcyra-Corinth conflict.  Summarily, when Pericles states that Sparta is the only one that prefers violence to talks or discourse, he makes a leap to a premature inference, on unjust grounds, and without giving a due consideration to the Spartan experience, and thus he himself contributes to generating the state of war. This means that, perhaps unexpectedly, the proposition ‘the other party prefers violence over the use of language’ has the potential to produce the state of war under some conditions. In other words, the proposition needs to be perhaps uttered only with an extreme caution. In the condition when the proposition is erroneous, or unjust, it will be interpreted as being a sign of the utterer’s discursive immorality, hence, will lead to the conclusion that the latter may her- or himself prefer violence to the use of discourse in tackling the issue under dispute. Hence, perhaps one can conclude provisionally from this that ‘violence’, or an inclination to violence, is evinced primarily through one’s attitude to discourse?  

       2) In an earlier case of historical work, in Herodotus, we find a section that deals with the notion of the preference of violence over language. However, it seems that the notion is referred to only for a rhetorical effect. At the start of Book 7, the Persian military commander Mardonios narrates about the Greeks, the Ionians, on the European soil. He produced the speech as an argument before the king Xerxes, in support of the view that the king needs not hesitate to launch a military action against the Greeks. As part of his argument (7.9), Mardonios states that, since they all speak the same language, the Greeks should settle their differences by diplomatic means, and negotiations, rather than by wars “that they customarily start…in the most senseless way, through thoughtlessness and stupidity.”[3]

Hence, here too one is viewed as preferring the use of violence over negotiations; however, interestingly, the proposition is not used as a part of argument by a party against the opposed party against which the former needs to defend itself by the use of arms. The proposition concerns a number of actors and a net-effect of the relationship between the actors on the party represented by Mardonios. He simply states that the Greeks are unable to achieve the degree of unity required for their effective opposition to the Persians. The Greeks, according to Mardonios, are not only prone to unnecessary quarrels; when engaged in armed combat they fight in irrational ways destructive both to the victor and to the defeated party. Hence, Mardonios attempts to presents the Greeks to Xerxes as harmless, or weak, opponents, as a sitting duck. Of course, later it will turn out that the Greeks are able to achieve unity, and that they can fight very cunningly and efficiently. However, altogether, we need to note that, here, the proposition on the preference of violence over language is interpreted as a proposition on the lack of intelligence, and also as proof of the inability to achieve unity that would otherwise, under different conditions, be very useful (to the party concerned, i.e. the Greeks).  

2500 years later, it seems that nothing changed about the pragmatic, political or instrumental uses of a serious proposition. At the modern age it seems that the expression ‘force as the only language that Party A understands'[4] seems to have gained more prominence. Of course, when one claims that somebody prefers the use of force over language as a means of the resolving of conflicts, this also means that, to somebody, language of force is the only language s/he understands. However, some connotations are more emphasized with the more modern idiom. It’s not only that s/he chooses force instead of language; s/he is somehow a priori more inclined to use force, s/he knows no other language than the language of force, s/he is barbaric, or comparable to a child who cannot follow argument, or control her- or himself.

      3)  Interestingly, Madeleine Albright described Slobodan Milošević exactly in such terms in late January 1999.  After the meeting in London between key NATO members, Russian Federation, and the EU, Albright emphasized that NATO would preserve a credible threat of force, “the only language Milošević understands,” as it is known from before, she added.[5] Milošević’s record was, in such a sense, pretty colorful, but one should not forget that, a few weeks before the London meeting, the “Račak massacre” was probably staged, and it is in its light that the public and media at large interpreted Milošević’s conduct at the time. Also, during the meeting itself, Albright drew a nearly explicit analogy between Hitler and Milošević.

Now, what is the most interesting aspect of the case? Albright proposed the said description of Milošević only a few days before the start of the Rambouillet talks the official purpose of which was to produce an agreement between the representatives of Kosovo/a and of Serbia/Yugoslavia, on the basis of an American draft. This means that, immediately before the start of the talks, Albright directly stated that negotiations were highly likely to fail. Moreover, her statement devalued the process in the sense that it indirectly involved a threatening signal, a pressure on one of the parties – hence, the negotiations that followed could not have been characterized as taking place in good faith. In other words, Albright’s proposition delegitimized the US as a participant/mediator to the negotiations, and did the same to the process itself.

Viewed in light of the later developments, this seemed to be actually the goal of American politics at the time. Interestingly, none on the American side seems to have tried to cover the ‘nature of the game.’ And even more interestingly, we can draw some critical implications from Albright’s use of the proposition: if you utter it just before the start of the negotiating process, it means that the collapse of the process is highly expected, hence perhaps also very much desired. Hence, it was not at all strange when, one or two months after the Rambouillet talks, it became eye-strikingly clear that the US aimed at a military action against Milošević and Serbia, and that the talks served two purposes only: to adapt the views of the European allies to the current reality, and to convince them that Kosovo-Albanians were ‘good guys’ who were the victims of Milošević’s aggression.

On 22 April 1999 the ultimate hypocrisy was shown: at Chicago, in his speech on the doctrine of international community, which was opened by a reference to the close connection between the American and British financial-commercial interests, Tony Blair stated that, ‘We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo,’ by which he meant that all diplomatic means of conflict settlement were tried and tested, and all have failed.[6] Hence, according to Blair, NATO had the right to intervene and persist in its actions. In other words, Blair stated in April that the NATO allies came to the conclusion that Madeleine Albright, without a sufficient evidential base in the specific case, formed already in late January of the same year.

Of course, everything was controversial about those conclusions and statements. First, the time frame: serious negotiations may drag on for years, and the duration of the negotiations in itself proves nothing about an attitude of a party to the conflict at the center of the negotiating process. However, at Rambouillet, the parties were faced with a two-week deadline, and this too put pressure on everyone including the key mediators; this created very unfavorable conditions for any negotiating result. Therefore, American diplomacy at Rambouillet was not diplomacy at all – it boiled down to a preparation of war. This hypothesis is the only one that can explain the fact that the statement by Albright and one by Blair are divided by no more than a two-month period. To believe that the NATO allies used the period to falsify Albright’s view makes no sense; in fact, they were busy preparing the plan of implementation of her statement, while Blair’s manipulations served to blindfold the public and wash away the guilt conscience, if there was some.[7]

All in all, in light of subsequent developments, NATO strikes etc., Milošević had no time to use any language, one of military force or otherwise; when the language of diplomacy was used, all was done to discourage the Serbian representatives from accepting the diplomatic solution. Perhaps more importantly, have in mind that Blair’s Chicago speech was framed in terms of ius ad bellum. He obviously referred to ‘ultima ratio’ as he implied that the US, and the UK, exhausted all diplomatic options and came to the conclusion that the last resort was in the use of force: “sadly, NATO allies were not able to convince Milošević of their just cause despite their best effort, hence the force had to be used as a last resort”. But, of course, this claim was a fabrication. Hence, the whole edifice of the ius ad bellum can be employed to mislead, to a degree successfully, the public towards the view that the force is a last resort, or that the opposed party prefers the use of violent means over negotiations, dialogue or diplomacy, despite this not being so in reality.

In other words, the Rambouillet talks were a clear case of violation of some fundamental norms of a fair use of discourse, and in such a sense, the negotiating process actually did not take place, while NATO allies at no point in time showed the real will to prefer the use of discourse over the use of violent means. Throughout the process, negotiations served clearly the purpose of preparing against Milošević a military action of a major proportion.[8] In other words, both Albright’s and Blair’s statements (on Milošević’s preference for war instead of negotiating) were false and inaccurate in a very basic empirical sense.       

       4)  The following case is imagined as set during the Crusades of the 12th century; it is a part of fiction, a movie directed by Ridley Scott, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ (2005).

Before the scene of the first military duel in the movie (the ambush in which Godfrey’s crew defends Balian against the Lord Bishop’s police), a dialogue takes place as follows (Odo, Godfrey’s squire is played by Jouko Ahola, a Finish strongman):

“SHERIFF: You have with you a man, Balian, who killed a priest. I’m charged by the lord bishop to bring him back. BALIAN: What he says is true. They have the right to take me. SQUIRE (‘ODO’): I say he is innocent of the charge. If you say he’s guilty, then we’ll fight. God will decide the truth of it. HOSPITALER [with a smile]: My German friend [the squire] is a close student of the law.”

Odo tells us an important thing: the view of the ‘language-violence’ relationship is also determined by cultural conventions dominating one section of historical space-time. Odo does not have to be represented as violent or aggressive. His behavior is guided by the interpretation of larger structures. In Odo’s view, properly put, human language is insufficiently effective to tackle the social-political conflict. Divine language stands far above the human, and, unlike the human, is manifested through the actual effects of the natural world. We are not able to predict such effects, but they are the Divine Word in the most conspicuous form. What we see here as violence is simply a God’s way to pass a truth on a legal, social, or political, dispute. If one is killed as a result of violence, Odo views this as a collateral damage of the Divine Decision and as a sacrifice to the Glory of the Almighty. In other words, by ‘violence’ Odo does not mean the meaning as is circulated today. Importantly, I do not claim that, due to the cultural convention, Odo is not responsible for his understanding of ‘violence’; such conventions should be interpreted in the spirit of methodological individualism.  

The same convention dictates the following view of the notion of truth in the context: truth and killing are inseparable – they are an effect of a Divine Decision concerning a case. Truth survives fully, while untruth disappears fully. Note that truth and untruth of a claim are deemed as coinciding fully with their respective carriers. Also, untruth is literally killed, but also taken again as a necessary sacrifice through which Divine Truth can reveal itself. Furthermore, one should note that, in light of the cultural convention, the concept of language gets much wider than one which is in use today: Divine Language is simply a series of events as ordered by Divine Being. Consequently, morality is as well modeled in a different way: Divine justice has nothing to do with the human notion of justice – if one survived, that means that s/he was right in God’s view; if the same person is then killed in a later dispute, this means that God changed its view. Every effect is a part of Divine Morality, and each and every one is a part of the Divine Judgment [9].

Hence, have in mind that Odo is not an aggressive or violent warrior; he is simply one who views his opponent as an enemy, and takes him as an existential obstacle, as one who hinders Odo’s work; secondly, Odo interprets a duel by the means of a cultural code, which is again a part of human language, perhaps a part of a cluster of metaphors that one society projects to the social world in some critical moments. It is a part of a doctrine: imagine that you fully believe that everything that happens to you is God’s will. Then there is nothing to be afraid of. Even when you are killed in a duel (like Odo himself a few minutes after he pronounced those words), that’s a testimony to a Divine Design; your case was important only as part of something bigger: Godfrey’s crew defended Balian, so that was God’s word on “the truth of it.”

Could we say that Odo prefers violence over language? In a way, he considers human language as being of no importance at all, but to him violence, in contrast, is a part of Divine Language. Hence, from his perspective, both violence and human language serve their own, narrow purpose, which is to contribute, in the ways mysterious to us, to God’s implementation of its own plan: God through human language creates conflict, and then violence contributes to God’s decision on the rightness of the conflict. Odo indeed prefers violence, but only from our 20th century, not his own, perspective.

In a way, Odo’s world is marked by some weird fairness in the sense that all outcomes are deemed divine, hence perfect, and the issue of responsibility is settled well in advance. All humans are viewed simply as instruments of God’s will. Additionally, perhaps we should not draw a too stark contrast between Odo’s and Albright’s world. The latter, too, believed in a nearly divine character of American foreign policy. Once she stated that, “we [USA] stand tall, hence we see further into the future than other countries.”[10]

This of course means that America’s policy is incorrigible, which further means that Milošević should need no convincing; he needs simply to follow American decisions and orders; should he fail to follow those, he will be automatically treated as one who understood nothing but the language of violence. In a sense, it seems that a few things have changed since the 12th century as the age of Crusades.[11] In a sense, if the other countries simply follow America’s lead, this means that the premise of equality is effectively removed from the world of international relations; and since the other, or at least some more self-confident, countries simply will not be led, this means that, in a sense, there will be a perennial state of war similar to one that marked the world as viewed and presented by Odo.   

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.

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


  1. My quotation from, and presentation of, Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, is based on the versions published at the Perseus Digital Library:
  2. Peter Hunt claims that Pericles here employs the concept of slave as a metaphor; I disagree with such a view mainly for the reasons I will explicate in Part Two (For Hunt, see his (2011), “Slaves in Greek literary culture”, in Cambridge World History of Slavery (eds. Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 22-47 (p. 24)).   
  3. I refer to Herodotus, The Histories, as published at the Perseus Digital Library:
  4. For instance, following Anschluss in March 1938, Chamberlain stated that it is “perfectly evident now that force is the only argument Germany understands;” see
  5. See Kempster, Norman (1999), „Warring sides in Kosovo get ultimatum“, LA Times, Jan 30:
  6. See 
  7. For a more detailed account of the Rambouillet talks, see Pehar, Drazen (2005), ‘Diplomatic ambiguity: from the power-centric practice to a reasoned view’, Polemos 15-16, pp. 153-182; Pehar, Drazen (2016), ‘Serbs v. USA and others (Rambouillet negotiations and ‘Allied Force’)’, Transconflict, 19 February: 
  8. For my more detailed discussion of the just war tradition, see Pehar (2016) “War/silence/dehumanization, bellum iustum and discourses of war”, and “War/silence/dehumanization, bellum iustum and discourses of war – part two”; 25 March and 1 April: and  
  9. Some theorists of violence lay a considerable emphasis on the notions of ‘foundational/sacred sacrifice’ and ‘divinization of violence’; here I refer specifically to Caillois, Roger (2001), Man and the Sacred, translated by Meyer Barash, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 163-183; and Girard, René (1990), Nasilje i sveto [La violence and le sacré], translated into the Serbian by Svetlana Stojanović, Novi Sad: Književna zajednica Novoga Sada.  
  10. See; cited also in Huntington, S. (1999), ‘The lonely superpower’, Foreign Affairs 78:2, pp. 35-49, p. 37
  11. Of course, here I say nothing new; for more detail, and further support, to my claims, see, for instance, Galtung, Johan (1990), “US foreign policy as manifest theology”, in Culture and International Relations (ed. by Jongsuk Chay), New York: Praeger, pp. 119-140; and, Sardar, Ziauddin, and Merryl Wyn Davies (2003), Why Do People Hate America?, Cambridge: Icon Books, esp. pp. 171-191. 

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