On Violence (and the silly season)

Reading DoctorDi’s blog post today on the terror attacks in Mumbai, I was thinking about our general incomprehension in the face of such extreme violence. (Incidentally, congrats to Di on being long-listed by Veruna in Aus for her novel. I know she’s busy with the rewrites so doesn’t get to leave many comments around the blogosphere, but you should read her stuff.)

Perhaps it’s too early for analysis of the attacks and I’m reluctant to even go there. What’s my interest in this? Why should I sound off on other peoples’ tragedies? But I also think that there’s something to be learned here. Regular readers may know that I’ve been preoccupied for a while with empathy and violence. How violence results from a total lack of empathy. In simple form: Anger – Empathy = Violence.

With high levels of violence in South Africa, it’s not hard to find examples. One of the dominant stories in Cape Town in the past few months has been that of a senior policeman, Marius van der Westhuizen, who gunned down his three children as a way of punishing his wife. Yesterday I read how the forensic psychiatrist described his actions as possibly the most severe example of narcissistic rage that her team had seen in the past few months.

Violence feeds the ego, as Adam Phillips reminds us. And our commercial culture is only too ready to feed our egos with gratuitous violence in the form of violent movies, news images, computer games and hate speech. Di was asking what the perpetrators of the Mumbai violence might want from this horror. And as I read her incomprehension which matched my own yesterday, I started thinking about the need for publicity and self-importance of the perpetrators which links in with the needs of the commercial media to generate media consumption. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to reflect on the rise of the 24-hour news channels in the wake of the Gulf Wars. And then to remember how 9/11 had us glued to CNN and Sky and BBC (or whatever your channel was) for days on end in absolute horror.

So what do the perpetrators want? Reports suggest a surge of hatred and hostility between India and Pakistan for a start. The cooling of ill-feeling between the two countries is clearly not good for the terrorism business. I’m sure other analysts will reflect on a general hatred for Western values which links up with narcissistic injuries of wounded and excluded identities. But I’ll leave it there for today. I know this is rather depressing talk for a Friday. This is supposed to be the silly season after all. One of our wonderfully talented cartoon strips in SA is “Madam and Eve”. The best exchanges occur between Granny Anderson and the cute black girl (whose name escapes me). Granny Anderson, a diminutive gin-and-tonic-swilling expat from England, is usually goaded into locking the cute black girl (CBG) out of the house for disturbing her afternoon nap with funny and pertinent questions. “Now?” asks the CBG. “How about now?” “Now?” She’s wearing a false nose and glasses and is asking Granny Anderson if teh silly season has started yet. Well, it’s clearly not today. But my online Xmas shopping started yesterday. Books and CDs. *purr*


8 Responses to On Violence (and the silly season)

  1. Litlove says:

    ‘Violence feeds the ego’ – now that’s an interesting remark. I think of violence as power, ultimately, and terrorism as sick, overblown, desperate power. Power that doesn’t know what to do with itself apart from demand submission, but even that isn’t enough. An imperative cut off from meaning.

    I have no idea what can be done about it, but the only force strong enough to undermine it completely is love.

    Very thoughtful post, Pete – and a necessary one. We all have a responsibility to think about this.

  2. verbivore says:

    “the business of terrorism” – a very astute comment. Everything seems to be about selling one philosophy or another. Your post today is very much in line with some of the things I’ve been muddling over since finishing Roussea’s Discourse on Inequality, what is it that makes humans so awful to each other? Why do we find it so difficult to live together peacefully? I’m not quite happy with Rousseau’s answers, although I think he makes a few good points about competition and private property and some flaws in our civil systems. Hmmm….

  3. Emily says:

    your post today is in line with an article i am working on and struggling with about my childhood. i think your point about egos is fascinating and will be mulling it.

  4. doctordi says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Pete, that’s very kind. In response to your post, I’m bothered by the idea that violence feeds the ego, but I suspect it’s probably true. Exerting power over others is an interesting means of feeding an ego, don’t you think? It’s an external act for the benefit of an internal drive… maybe that’s why it doesn’t work. I agree with Litlove that the only force that can combat it is love, and I would add that I personally believe the work of love has to start from the inside out, so it’s on some level related to the very thing it alone can quash: ego.

    And yet isn’t writing an act of supreme narcissism too?

    It’s a question that reminds me of Don DeLillo’s Mao II, in which he examines art & violence, the writer and the terrorist.

  5. Pete says:

    Litlove – Very true. Reminds me, in line with the 16 days of activisim against gender violence, that most often it is violence against women and children that is the worst abuse of power. I agree about love being the way to counteract it. But that’s another whole discussion.

    Verbivore – Thanks. Will be interested to read your views on Rousseau since he’s not someone I know much about. But it sounds like he’s raising important questions.

    Emily – Thanks. Am intrigued to hear more about your childhood now. Good luck with the article.

    Di – Pleasure. I agree that love has to start from the inside out. If we hate ourselves for example, then it’s easy to hurt others. As regards narcissism, I think there are different kinds of it. I think good writing can be a form of impersonal narcissism. The ability to empathise at such a detailed level, to take in and describe broad areas of experience – that’s going beyond the self. Anyway, a dicussion to come back to.

  6. Dick says:

    At the risk as a non-psychologist/sociologist of stating the obvious… Within the perpetration of violence – whether from the lone gunman picking off passers by from a high building or the terrorist working with others – there seems to be a capacity to perceive ‘persons’ only as ‘people’. The narcissistic self-empowerment can only come about when the perpetrator is able to objectify his/her targets, investing in them responsibility for the self-abnegation that drives him/her.

    And it appears increasingly easy to achieve this detachment. The word ‘solution’ is so prevalent within commercial culture now, implying that minimum effort and maximum expenditure can solve the most obdurate of challenges and problems – that individual will and enterprise are no longer a prerequisite for the managing of pain, loss, invalidation, defeat. Small wonder, maybe, that a solution-based ethic underpinned by an acceptance of mindless violence as a mere component of entertainment have contributed so powerfully in the West, directly or obliquely, to the horrors to which we are becoming accustomed.

    If love is the key, then, as doctordi points out, it has to start with authentic self-love. Now, how do we set about actualising that process at a point in the development of then individual so as to counter the global drift towards the objectification and detachment that makes such hideous violence possible?

  7. doctordi says:

    Well, and here’s the contradictory conundrum, I think (and you may of course disagree!) that part of the possibility of self-love lies in the capacity to empathise with others. The more I think about this, the more I think it’s pretty chicken-and-egg. And I think detachment from others seems to lead to this hyper-detachment from the self – or what people with medical qualifications (I have none – I’m not that kind of doctor) might call a dissociative state – that makes such horrific acts possible.

    And Pete, ever since I wrote that comment over the weekend, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think the act of creation is predicated on some kind of self-love (you have to think that what you’re writing, painting, sculpting, photographing, even cooking is worthwhile enough to propel its completion, or in the case of procreation, worth replicating), but it’s a self-love that conversely extends outwards, because I think the act of creation is usually an attempt not only express something of the self but to connect and communicate with the other. Certainly I as a means of expressing my place in the world, but there’s no question that I write primarily as a way of reaching out to others. So… back to the chicken-and-egg.

  8. So sad what happened. I can’t believe the newspapers didn’t do it justice.

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