Nonviolence and Media Studies

by Vamsee Juluri

“Peace Dove with Book” courtesy Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Wayne State University;

Abstract: This article proposes a meeting of media studies and the philosophy of nonviolence in order to better critique the tendency, in popular media discourses about war and international conflict, to naturalize violence as an eternal and essential human trait. Nonviolence exposes certain foundational myths about violence in the media; namely, the myths that violence is cultural (as implied in the “clash of civilizations” thesis), historical, or natural. However, this exposure is possible only if nonviolence is retrieved from its present marginalization as a mere technique for political activism or personal behavior and understood more accurately as a coherent, universal, practical worldview that can inform a critical engagement with media discourses of violence. Using Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence, this essay aims to initiate just such an understanding, particularly in connection with existing critical approaches to media violence, such as cultivation research and cultural studies, and concludes by proposing a set of concrete questions for media research based on nonviolence.

The history of communication theory has been closely linked to that of war (Hardt, 1992; Mattelart, 1994). The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars, present a timely challenge for scholars to take on one fundamental question that seems to underlie numerous media discourses about terrorism and war: Do the media naturalize violence? In other words, does the way in which media present news and entertainment about terrorism and war imply that the cause of conflict is some eternal, unchanging, and essential human tendency to engage in violence, particularly if the conflict in question involves members of different “civilizations”? (Huntington, 1993) If this is the case, as I outline in this article, then how adequate are theories of media and violence in engaging with this phenomenon forcefully and knowledgeably? Although some of the leading approaches to the study of media and violence, such as cultivation research and cultural studies, have generated a useful critique of media violence, they have done so within a broader critique of social relations and power. However, what the present moment demands from scholars is the deployment of an intellectual framework that can critique the naturalization of violence as a “relatively autonomous” phenomenon in itself. The aim of this article is to show how the philosophy of nonviolence could serve as an intellectual foundation to advance communication and media theories in such a direction.

The Gandhian concept of nonviolence, or ahimsa (Sanskrit: a-himsa, that is, non-cruelty or non-injury), is not merely a political instrument or quasi-religious fad, but a profound and coherent worldview that can complement the critical edge of communication theories. In this article, I discuss the main features of the philosophy of nonviolence as they pertain to media studies in a time of pervasive media naturalization of violence and war and spell out some basic questions that would emerge at the intersections of nonviolence and media studies. My aim is not so much to advocate the injection of nonviolence as if it were a simplistic, narrow, rigid, and “ethnic” belief system into media studies, but to explore how a more accurate understanding of nonviolence as a vibrant, reflexive, universal philosophy can enable media scholars to address better what are becoming increasingly pervasive and powerful issues. (1)

Read the pdf of the complete article here: Nonviolence-Media-Studies

EDITOR’S NOTE: Vamsee Juluri is an associate professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. Please consult his university web page for further information: Our thanks to the author, and to Communication Theory, International Communication Association, May 2005. The author acknowledges B. P. R. Vithal and Andrew Goodwin for their comments and support.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi