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The theory of violent sentiments

  • Published at 09:54 pm July 25th, 2019

Does the recent spate of mob lynchings prove that we are inherently violent?

Taking the law into our own hands is not new in Bangladesh, but the recent flurry of lynchings has caught enough attention for the Home Ministry to take “stern action.”

The Ain o Shalish Kendra reported about 36 cases of lynching just in the first half of this year. Most of the very recent incidents, however, are apparently rooted in mythical tales of construction and blood. 

Everyone wants to see the most challenging construction project in Bangladesh -- the Padma Bridge -- come to fruition. If everything worth having comes with a cost, then in case of bridge-building, that cost is, apparently, severed heads. 

Rumours spread on social media about sacrifices needed to see the successful completion of the bridge. With a man found carrying around a child’s severed head in a bag, the mob went in a frenzy, and so did social media. 

Rumours are hard to control in the digital age -- and so the grapevine then sang tunes of rising numbers of child abductors to get the job done. Because entrusting engineers to construct a $4 million bridge without the help of children’s skulls is unthinkable. 

Incidents of lynching rose within a couple of weeks. People beaten -- in some cases, to death --by mobs on the suspicion of being child abductors. Thieves, persons with disabilities, mothers. 

Not all the stories linked back to victims being suspected kidnappers, but anyone who had been in the “wrong” -- stealing, exhibiting suspicious behaviour, or having affairs.

Mean streets

Violence generally unsettles people because we live by sets of codes, of which the moral code (or the conscience), along with the structural barriers in the society, inhibit violent behaviour. For example, because of the laws in place, I won’t shell out a beating to anyone who crosses me; otherwise, I may have to serve time behind bars. 

But in a country where rule of law isn’t as strictly maintained as it should be, there is no reason for me to not do as I please, due to the very low chance of me facing the consequences. And I’ll be eager in my administration of violence -- and probably amass people to my cause -- if I think what I’m doing is justifiable. 

If I see a traffic police-person mercilessly beating up a rickshaw-wallah, it would make sense to gleefully imagine the police officer getting what he deserves. 

In the case of the Badda school lynching, I may become overwhelmed with rage if I believe that the person entering school premises (and not being able to clearly answer why she is there) is truly a child abductor and is here for children’s heads. It is easy to dub that rage -- and what comes after -- morally justified. 

Violence becomes acceptable when we believe that those on the receiving end truly deserve it. At the end of Reconstruction in 1877 in the US, mob lynchings of black people were commonplace not just for maintaining order, but were also wholesome events to be celebrated. 

According to a 1930 editorial in a Raleigh newspaper, in these events, “… families came together, mothers and fathers, bringing even their youngest children.” Sociologist Arthur F Raper wrote in The Tragedy of Lynching that a woman “held her little girl up, so she could get a better view of the naked negro blazing on the roof.”

“It was the show of the countryside,” newspapers wrote.

Watching the world burn

We can’t argue for the brutality with which blacks in America were (and still are) terrorized. But when is it justifiable when a rapist, thief, or child abductor is viciously beaten by angry mobs? Renu, the mother who was at the school in Badda to enquire about admissions for her children, was battered with a metal rod by a gang of young men until she died -- all on a mere suspicion that she was a kidnapper.  

Our moral conscience presents us with a self-inhibitive thread which makes up the fabric of society. Again, in order to live peacefully, most of us don’t carry out acts of violence throughout our day. 

But if that conscience starts breaking apart -- as it can when we are faced with injustice of the highest caliber -- we can easily slip into a place where acts of carnage seem second nature. 

Violence and destruction, then, become not only the site of exacting revenge righteously, but go further and becomes enjoyable. Once we start thrashing our opponent or watching them burn or bleed to death, it becomes the show of the day.

Rebels with a cause

Human beings are not inherently violent -- this much most scholars and researchers agree on. They also agree that we are capable of great acts of violence, as well as great acts of kindness. 

Human behaviour mostly arises from the cultural fabric working within their societies. This fabric is made up of institutions such as family, education, law, economy, stability of the state, etc.

The constituents of these institutions make up the social and moral conscience, which can rupture in the face of misalignment of those institutions.

In light of the mob lynching in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister’s Office has instructed local governments, law enforcement agencies, and local representatives to create awareness and social resistance. A step in the right direction, but we’re only treating a symptom of something larger. 

In many cases, young people are involved in carrying out these violent attacks. About one-third of Bangladesh’s population is under the age of 15. With this large proportion of young people, a unique opportunity stands before us. 

Young people are a country’s most productive demographic. They have the energy and the willingness to engineer their lives. When they don’t have the correct platforms to execute, the willingness can easily turn to restlessness, and the energy can be exerted elsewhere.

The possibilities are endless if we can harness the power of this demographic, and educate, train, and employ young people. 

In any case, it may contribute to curbing the spread of beliefs which require severed heads for large construction projects. Good for the progress of the country, and for the social fabric that we have been seeing tearing at its seams.

Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager, Communications, BRAC.

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