THE TIMES OF INDIA Tuesday, November 22, 2005In the book For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway poignantly brings out the dehumanisation that occurs when two or three hundred persons surround an exploitative landlord and beat him to death with sticks and stones. An opportunity to beat a person to pulp and feel indignant patriotism comes by only rarely. The thrashing of a pickpocket is more like an everyday expression of righteous indignation, with a number of people participating in it. Besides, the act of inflicting some body blows generates a sense of power and hence pleasure. Violent behaviour can be linked to a general sense of frustration and powerlessness. Almost all of us experience the indignities of life and at times feel like retaliating violently against the agent of oppression. Righteousness apart, the links between masculinity and violence need to be explored. Physical strength is the sole parameter which permeates the little boys' world. Bigger boys prey upon the smaller, deriving perverse pleasure from causing pain and distress. No laws, courts, wardens, principals or parental authority are able to act as effective checks. The socially acceptable mask of 'ragging' is fortunately coming under question. Yet, at the core are gender stereotypes which play a crucial role in the formation of the psyche. In sharp contrast to the ideals of feminity such as fragility, sensitivity and docility, machismo, strength, callousness remain prized qualities for men. In fact, 'sissy' — hiding as it does contempt for girls — is the worst abuse that can be given to boys. Boys considered 'girlish' or effeminate can have a rough time growing up. Pulling the wings of insects is a favourite hobby of many a small boy; as an adult, he might derive pleasure out of inflicting pain on a hapless victim. Feelings of righteousness also play a major role in loosening control over anger and violence — a relaxation of the grip of the super-ego on the Id in Freudian terms. Righteousness, in almost any context, is inherently based on subjective perceptions of injustice. Whether it is the Jordanian woman with explosives taped on her body, all set to explode them in a hotel, or the blasts in bazaars tearing apart innocent men, women and children, the perpetrators feel righteous in their own eyes. They feel not merely justified, but also noble and selfless at risking their life for a cause.This is not to equate acts of individual aggression with large-scale wars in a post-modernist way. However, in seeking to understand the psyche that is used for larger events, one needs to link the big, bad world supposedly 'out there' with familiar, everyday occurrences. A husband who beats his wife thinks that she deserves to be beaten for not putting salt in the vegetable or giving him cold food. A jilted lover in righteous anger throws acid at the loved woman. A teacher feels that the child talking in class needs to be thrashed for her own good. US intelligence operatives as well as our own special cell police feel that third-degree methods and torture inflicted on suspects is for the good of the country, society and the world. In fact, from Krishna's exhortation to Arjuna to put his qualms aside and take up the bow, to righteous calls to pick up arms for jehad since Islam is in danger, the mandate of religions seems clear.
In the non-religious terrain, the justifications offered for annihilation of class enemies in Marxism-Leninism are well known. Entrenched social and political structures perpetuate violence in society, as the state plays a partisan role. This can be seen in the branding of Dalits, the slave labour of children in zari units, the rape of lower caste and class women and illegal exploitation that occurs on a routine basis. Yes, human beings are fallible. Yet there are some steps that can be taken to make our society a less violent place. Take the arbitrariness involved in the concept of capital punishment, and the stubborn opposition to abolishing the practice. The cold-blooded execution of a person dehumanises the society and individuals inflicting the punishment. In sum, there are no easy answers to the conundrum of cruelty — only some pointers. The writer is a Supreme Court advocate.