[Opinion] The banality of violence

By Aziz Ali Dad

In 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires and tried him for his role in the Holocaust. The New Yorker sent philosopher Hannah Arendt to what was then West Jerusalem to report on his trial. Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962. Arendt published a series of articles about the trial in the newspaper and later published the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The book, particularly “banality of evil” in the sub-title, enraged leading intellectuals of the day, as well as Jewish leaders. What she meant by the phrase was that evil deeds committed during the Holocaust on a gigantic scale were not committed by demonic Nazis but by average (banal) persons, like Eichmann.

The lynching of the two brothers by a mob in Sialkot on Aug 15 shows that violence has become banal for the average Pakistani. The way the two young men were brutally beaten, and from the treatment meted out to their dead bodies strung upside-down from a pole, people thronging to see the brutality and recording it on mobile sets reveals that callousness has become mundane in Pakistani society and does not shock our sensibilities. Factors contributing to this phenomenon have emerged in different times and contexts, but their intersection these days is what makes violence banal.

The 1980s witnessed the emergence of Jihadi ideology, Kalashnikov culture and ethnic violence in Pakistan. The 1990s saw the rise of the sectarian monster, and more ethnic violence. With the advent of the 21st century Pakistan faced the scourge of terrorism. The post-9/11 period coincided with the phenomenal growth of the electronic media in Pakistan, and its extensive focus on the issues of terrorism, insurgency, invasions, bombings and atrocities around the world. Since then we have been consistently bombarded with violent images, and our language has been imbued with vocabulary drawn from violent events.

Another factor contributing to the deadening of our sensitivities and sensibilities is the moral collapse of our society. One’s feeling hurt or getting offended by uncivilised and brutal acts is a faculty that is socially cultivated. Our society has become sadistic, masochistic, vandalistic and jingoistic, none of which traits is conducive to the fostering of civilised behaviour. When these multiple factors intersect in such an ambience, then violence becomes banal and civilised behaviour turns into anomaly in the overall social fabric. Consequently, human beings become impervious to brutality and fundamental structure of experience changes.

Lynching in Sialkot connotes changes in the fundamental structure of the experience and psyche of Pakistani society during the last three decades. The mob in the Sialkot incident consisted of common people who were unable to think and feel that they were committing brutal and inhuman acts. The yawning abyss between brutal deeds and the ability to think things through is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our society, which is being devoured by nihilistic tendencies. As a result, our society has lost its sense of direction and sensibility and turns gory scenes into spectacles for entertainment. This is a sign of the retrogressive movement of our society in which we let loose our primal instincts at the cost of rationality.

Many people in Pakistan, including some of our leaders, still believe that public executions of culprits or criminals can easily uplift the moral standards of our society. Such a mentality is typical of traditional and feudal society. With the onset of modernity in Europe, strategies of power shifted from control over body through torture towards making it docile by controlling the soul. The imperceptible way of controlling bodies was made possible by human sciences that have become an organised, more technically- thought-out knowledge. In other words, they developed organised political technology of the body. In a nutshell, the modern punishment system, in the words of Michel Foucault, struck “the soul rather than the body.”

The societies of today have transformed themselves into developed and progressive ones by changing the fundamental social conditions by bringing about shifts in institutional purpose and focus, not by merely subjugating the populace through display of raw violence but by moulding the mind in a rational frame. Take the example of school, hospital, prison and an asylum for the mentally ill. Traditionally, these institutions tried to produce a disciplined populace by sheer physical control. In modern times a shift occurred, with the institutions employing indirect techniques of control by influencing the mind, which in turn made the body docile.

The current state of our society needs radical changes at the structural level for a better social conditioning. This can only be done if we align our institutional roles and our approach with modern times. The difference between institutional aims and existing requirements makes our institutions dysfunctional at worst and anachronistic at best. Under the influence of an obscurantist mindset, Pakistan experienced the reduction of the aesthetic domain and entertainment spaces. The absence of such spaces produced a gap which is being filled either by pornography, drugs or watching of violent scenes with relish.

To eradicate violence from everyday life we direly need to redefine the role of institutions, engage with arts and aesthetics and provide entertainment spaces. Otherwise, we are doomed to live in a sadistic ambience, which will ultimately rob us of the last vestiges of humanity and turn our country into a place where disorder dictates the order of things.

The writer is associated with a rights-based organisation in Islamabad. Email: azizalidad

Source: The NEWS

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