David Graeber’s “rape, torture and murder” test

I’m reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, which is about the Occupy movement.  I came across this passage which I like so much that I’m going to make a separate post about it.   He started out by talking about how writers use phrases such as “human rights abuses” or “unsavory human rights records” when they mean “rape, torture and murder.”  He went on to write:

… I find what I call the “rape, torture and murder” test very useful.  It’s quite simple.  When presented with a political entity of some sort or another, whether a government, a social movement, a guerrilla army or, really, any other organized group and trying to decide whether they deserve condemnation or support, first ask “Do they commit, or do they order others to commit, acts of rape, torture or murder?”

DGCIt seems like a self-evident question, but again, it’s suprising how rarely—or, better, how selectively—it is applied.  Or, perhaps, it might seem surprising, until one starts applying it and discovers conventional wisdom on many issues of world politics is instantly turned upside down.

In 2006, for example, most people in the United States read about the Mexican government sending federal troops to quell a popular revolt, initiated by a teachers’ union, against a notoriously corrupt governor in the southern state of Oaxaca.  In the U.S. media, this was universally presented as a good thing, a restoration of order; the rebels, after all, were “violent,” having thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails …

No one to my knowledge has ever suggested the rebels had raped, tortured or murdered anyone; neither has anyone who knows anything about the events in question seriously contested the fact that forces loyal to the Mexican government had raped, tortured and murdered quite a number of people in suppressing the rebellion.

Yet somehow such acts, unlike the rebels stone throwing, cannot be described as “violent” at all, let alone as rape, torture or murder, but only appear, if at all, as “accusations of human rights violations,” or in some other similarly bloodless legalistic language.

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4 Responses to “David Graeber’s “rape, torture and murder” test”

  1. Steve Consilvio (@steveconsilvio) Says:

    Perhaps you should include throwing stones in the definition you are using. A small act of violence is commonly met with a larger act of violence.

    You mentioned ‘selectively’ applied standards. Government employees (teachers) attacking the government teach what lesson, exactly?


    • philebersole Says:

      I think there are ways to respond to the throwing of stones, or even of throwing of Molotov cocktails, that do not involve rape, torture and murder. Maybe you think I or David Graeber meant the latter phrase figuratively. I didn’t, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t.

      Violent revolution is sometimes justified. The American Declaration of Independence provides a good set of criteria for when it is justified. I’d like to point out that neither of the opposing armies in the American Revolution engaged in rape, torture or mass murder.


    • Anar Cho Says:

      “A small act of violence is commonly met with a larger act of violence.” So does that make the excessively violent response justified? The initiation of violence rests on the state and on the capitalist system in this case and it pretty much all cases.

      Government employees (teachers) attacking the government teaches the lesson of justified resistance to systemic violence and oppression. A reaction including rocks and even molotovs is still very mild.

      In any case, just like the corporate media, the liberal reformist, the hypocritical pacifist and the reactionary, you are missing the point entirely and choose to focus only on the mild violence of the resistance and ignore the systemic violence which is the initiator of the cycle.



    One must bear in mind here that the rocks and molotovs in Oaxaca were directed at heavily armed riot police carrying shields and dressed in flame-retardant armor. Such acts are largely symbolic, or a way of stopping or slowing the advance of those preparing to use much more serious violence against unarmed and unarmored protestors. No one was injured beyond cuts and scratches. By the protestors, that is.


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