Force and Resistance

Last week I wrote about the term “violence specialists” as a description of police officers and military personnel. It’s nearly impossible to discuss violence without encountering disputes about the definition of the word. Not surprisingly, violence is defined differently depending on the context, and on the political consequences of using that label. So should we just avoid the word violence? Some argue that violence is inevitably associated with illegitimacy and wrongfulness, and so prefer to use the word “force” when describing physical restraint, compulsion, or injury imposed by state officials. I’ve recently come across an official definition of police force that suggests that this word may be equally contested. Does force require the target’s resistance? Must a subject “resist to the utmost” before we say the police have used force against him? More after the jump.

When Is Police Violence Justified?” asks Rachel Harmon of UVA in a fascinating recent article. Though “violence” appears in the title, most of the article refers to “use of force” instead. What counts as force? Harmon quotes a federal consent order to define “police force”:

any physical strike or instrumental contact with a person; any attempted physical strike or instrumental contact that does not take effect; or any significant physical contact that restricts the movement of a person. … The term does not include escorting or handcuffing a person, with no or minimal resistance. (emphasis mine)

Under this definition, an “ordinary” custodial arrest involves no use of force, even if the suspect is handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser. He’s been subject to physical contact that restricts his movement, but unless he resists, no force has been used. Even minimal resistance is not enough; the arrestee must really fight back before the arrest is forceful.

This is not the only context in which force has been linked to resistance. Under the common law, the crime of rape was defined as “the carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will.” Force and non-consent were two separate requirements, and to convict of rape, the state had to establish that the defendant used force. Many courts interpreted the force element as a resistance requirement: if the woman didn’t resist, the sex wasn’t forced and it wasn’t rape. One (in)famous opinion called resistance the “sine qua non [of] the crime of rape,” and went on to explain that minimal resistance wouldn’t suffice for a conviction. Instead, the woman must give “her utmost” resistance; “there must be the most vehement exercise of every physical means or faculty within the woman’s power to resist the penetration of her person….”

In the past few decades, many jurisdictions have abandoned formal force or resistance requirements as elements of rape. And rape reform advocates have urged that we view all nonconsensual sex as not just forced but violent, whether or not the victim fights back or winds up bloodied and bruised. It’s unclear whether these reform efforts have had substantial effects on actual rape convictions. But the old force-resistance link of rape law seems strikingly parallel to the force-resistance requirement in the above definition of police force. My own view is that the resistance requirement defines force too narrowly. In the context of policing and punishment, it leads us to forget what Robert Cover urged readers to remember—“that most prisoners walk into prison because they know they will be dragged or beaten into prison if they do not walk.” Like Cover, I “do not wish us to pretend that we talk our prisoners into jail.”

[Cross-posted at Balkinization.]

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2 Responses

  1. This comes down again to the difference a focus on rules and values. Words are always value laden: we use terms that support in rhetoric the role we wish to imagine we’re playing in society at any given time. The police use the terminology of force, even when the force is later found to be inappropriate. Others will use the term ‘violence’ regardless of context. More than anything its important that people who use force have a moral understanding of its role as violence. At the same time, those who imagine an ideal of themselves under ideal circumstances as ‘free’ should pay more attention to whether or not that’s even possible.

    One of the limitations of liberalism as theory, rather than as documented behavior, is the focus on imagining ourselves as individuals in relation to rules rather than on how we actually constitute ourselves as communities based on obligation. Obligations are foundational -not rules- because they’re always conflicting but not mutually exclusive. You have obligations to family, to friends, to spouse as opposed to parents, to the community, as represented by government and not.

    Liberalism spends too much time trying to resolve contradictions that can’t be resolved and trying to imagine boxes with hard walls where in daily life those walls are permeable membranes of various density. Laws are hard walls, in society and language, placed at approximate points for concrete purposes. They’re vulgar oversimplifications: blunt instruments. We shouldn’t imagine blunt instruments as ideal or ourselves as no more than the servants of blunt instruments any more than we should imagine ourselves as blunt instruments.

    As to violence and coercion if you ignore the terminology of resistance, that can lead to the situation where you might consider legal action against an aggressive seducer who preys on weak-willed women. And if you mandate that resistance be the measure than what do you say to a woman who was criminally blackmailed into unwanted sexual activity?

    You can’t mandate maturity, but you can foster it, and specialization does the opposite, As words and ideas have rhetorical direction, a preference for methodological individualism has moved us towards political individualism as much as water moves downhill, and political individualists are specialists in nothing but themselves.

  2. Just to add: why would man the rule maker/follower ever create a fictional character like the Joker? And why would his “gleeful nihilism” as you describe it here be seen as in any way compelling? The answer would have to have something to do with the unresolved tensions among our various desires and obligations, which laws less do less to resolve than paper over.

    I’m only writing all this because my background is with ideas as understood in literature not analytic philosophy, and law as dealt with by the ACLU not the academy; by which logic Rawls and Cohen are seen less as opposed than as related in their academic interest in rationalism and rules rather than experience. Both, seen from outside their little worlds are a bit silly.