Do we love violence – not the sight of it, but the act of it? I ask this because some people claim to be pacifists, which seems to be a counter-evolutionary view to take. I ask this also because of the increasingly violent path that our public discourse seems to be treading on. Be it the killing of journalists, the murder of minorities, violence against immigrants or the aggression in media discussions – it seems that this is the new normal.
But was it ever the other way round, especially in India? In India, journalists have more or less always been detested by the ruling party with scant support from the public, minorities have either been passively tolerated or their existence neglected, immigrants have been looked at with suspicion and vilified in cities while TV studios have rarely telecast cool-headed discussions (except Doordarshan, maybe). So, what is different today, say from a decade or two ago? Did we ever hate violence?
There is no denying the fact that we love violence – if not the act of it, then the sight of it. It is evident from the kind of movies and stars who have become popular in Bollywood. But this was violence in a context that was limited to cinema halls. While the villains were regularly from the minority community, there was an assurance that this was fiction. While minorities – religious and caste – were never loved or accepted wholeheartedly, they were tolerated because the state betrayed secular inclinations, however shallow or meek. The law enforcement, however inefficient, didn’t always sit around and enjoy the violence. The media at least tried to report the facts without confusing the people with biased opinions. And finally, people didn’t feel enabled to kill freely without repercussions.
I think we hate violence only in the ‘wrong’ context – someone beats another person, it is not good. But if that beating takes place because of a dispute, then the violence may become socially acceptable. Some may want to inquire into the details of the dispute to comment on the morality of that aggression. This is what can be called ‘context’. And it is this context that is sought to be changed and has changed for the worse in this past decade.
It is not that violence against minorities was non-existent before, it just wasn’t accepted to most of the society whatever the perceived context. It repelled us even if we did nothing about it. Or at least, we didn’t overtly support the perpetrators. Now, the narrative of preserving Hinduism, criminal nature of immigrants and minorities etc. has created a context for the violence to be justified. A man is murdered on the suspicion of carrying beef, another is killed on suspicion of killing a cow. A woman is raped and killed because she belongs to a different community. What would have ordinarily disgusted most Indians is now gleefully topical and comically discussed on the nation’s prime time news shows. Overt and implied support for perpetrators pours in from ordinary people to powerful politicians.
What was earlier seen as an act of cold-blooded violence is now being portrayed as hot-blooded aggression. Or worse, aggressive defence! The latter is definitely more palatable to a public that has long enjoyed the sights of violence, especially those that show minorities being the victims. This also feeds into the narrative of fear – of minorities, immigrants, dissenters – who have been cunningly categorized as anti-national. Whatever the similarities or differences between these groups, the dominant mainstream categorical thinking makes them irrelevant.
A concerning implication of this is the resultant ambiguity about the right thing to do. Does a person, who sees a Dalit or a Muslim being killed, call the police? If yes, will the police help the victim or the perpetrator? Does one record the incident for everyone to see? Does one intervene and risk being violated as well? But before all these questions, comes the most important of all – is this person being beaten up really a victim if they belong to some particular caste/religion?
The answer to this last question comes from myriad sources – social learning from family and friends, the presence of a mob, fear of or hatred of a group induced by social media, education etc. Fear can be easily induced by associating people who betray certain group connotations with threats. But this doesn’t normally result in violence – we all have these associative tendencies. Violence is triggered by how emotionally frenzied that association is made. And fear conditioning lowers the threshold for that to happen.
The connection between fear/hatred and violence is likely when aggression evoked is reactive and frenzied. The latent social and political context has been engineered by media and politicians in a way that senseless acts of violence are seen as more palatable, passionate acts of aggression/self-defence by the people. The mob is never blind. It clearly sees who it kills. This will, in time, tear apart our social fabric.