Culture and Violence: Notes on the Structures of Genocidal Practice

“The history of human violence teaches us that there are few happy endings. The only answer to violence resides in the struggle to maintain a constant state of hyper vigilance and a steadfast refusal to turn into the very same enemy and genocidaire that one most fears and hates.” – Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philip Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology

From 1975 to 1979, the charismatic leader Pol Pot ruled Cambodia (Democratic Kampuchea) under the banner of Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers in French). During this period, around 20,000 mass graves were recorded with estimated number of 1,400,000 genocide victims. The killings were attributed to the rule of Khmer Rouge, classified as state-sponsored mass murders. There were specific demographic targets during this period, namely: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian Christians, and any citizen with suspected connection to foreign political powers. The killing did not spare children and infants of slain adults, with the thinking that these people will take revenge in the future. The mass graves were later known as killing fields. Aside from executions, policies pushed by Khmer Rouge also resulted to disease and starvation, death ranging from 1.7 to 2.5 million of the 1975 country population (roughly around 8 million). It is considered as one of the biggest genocide during the Cold War Era.

What are the socio-cultural context of these killings? What made this possible? These are questions in need of deeper explorations.

What is violence?

The concept violence itself is an elusive subject. Though most of us do have a sense of understanding on what ‘violence’ is, we are actually far from pinning down its sociological definition. We tend to associate the concept with spectacular events like genocidal mass slaughter, ethnic cleansing, 9/11 attack, civil wars, and public executions. Interestingly enough, we also perceive violence from mundane cultural articles like heavy metal music, massive multiplayer online role playing games, superhero comic books, and, of course, “explosive” action-packed movies that Hollywood enjoys producing. Violence is slippery for it manifests in different mundane forms that are fundamental in our existence. It can pertain to gendered violence, or interpersonal violence, or emotional violence, or political/structural violence (the least visible, but the most vicious). The variation where violence can be projected is a reason why this concept is so hard to define and delineate. What is clear for social scientists, as of moment, is the idea that it is impossible to understand violence if it is removed from its larger social context. Even though it is quite easy for people to envisage violence as an absence of culture or as an outburst of dramatic events as opposed to the normalcy of daily life, we need to remember that doing so will just dislocate the subject matter from the context where it is being perpetrated. Separating violence from our day to day life will just make the understanding of it more elusive – even impossible. Operating under this premise, violence, then, should be framed as part of culture and not the absence of it. The social and cultural dimension of humanity give violence its power and meaning. It is manifested in different

Neil Whitehead’s research explored this dimension by looking at the cultural “poetics” that surround violent practices. His essay Cultures, Conflicts, and the Poetics of Violent Practice proposes to locate violence within the complexities of local political history and culture – arguing that violent practices are not merely facile imageries of monstrosity, madness and barbarism but are actions grounded on social meanings, logic, and rules. Michael Taussig shared this perspective in his article Culture of Terror—Space of Death: Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture (1984). After rereading Casement’s report about the terror instigated by the white men to the Indians of Putamayo in Columbia, Taussig suggested that violence invoked in the area branched out from the existing local narratives. Originally, Casement concluded that the flagrant violence in Putamayo was intended to place the Indian laborers in line. By instilling fear, colonizers expected that local laborers will be easier to manage.

Points to be clarified…

– Violence transcends socio-biological determinism – you are not simply violence because of your genes (an idea used by white supremacists before to subordinate and repress African American population

– Violence is usually more than individual decisions – most cases of of violence are shaped and conditions by social background and politico-economic structures (e.g. theft, drug abuse, etcetera)

What are the structural conditions of mass violence?

According to psychologist Theodore Adorno, acceptance of mass violence requires a strong conditioning that produces almost mindless obedience to figures. Like other cultural precepts, killing and violence is learned. Based on documented events and researches, we can even draw identifiable patterns and starting points (though it may be not linear and true to all forms):

1. It is often preceded by social upheavals like a radical decline in politico-economic conditions, and rash sociocultural changes (narratives of social problems that needs to be solved with murky means).

2. Construction of social segregation and apartheid due to the framing that the ‘Others’ are “bad”. This is usually the strong and extreme form of “us” versus “them.”

3. Identification and sacrifice of a generative scapegoat. Societal problems and ills are usually pinned down to this identified group. Thus, “validating” the act of social eradication.

4.  A broad constituency of ordinary citizens who behave as by-standers (silent and unquestioning majority). This is the kind of populace that allows the continuity of race-hostile policies.

Final Thoughts…

We can say that the killing fields produced by the Khmer Rouge is a product of these conditions. However, the bigger challenge for most of us is the eradication of these conditions in the context of today. Social segregation and racial discrimination are still social perils. Ethnocentrism is once again being relived in the public. And people, without an iota of shame, still venerate leaders and idols. We need to rethink and recognize these problems now more than ever.

“The history of human violence teaches us that there are few happy endings. The only answer to violence resides in the struggle to maintain a constant state of hyper vigilance and a steadfast refusal to turn into the very same enemy and genocidaire that one most fears and hates.” – Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois