Facing Violence

In a week during which several deaths have been recorded in India – in each, the perpetrators belonged to a social group who did not wish to enter an economic or social contract with individuals from another social group perceived as simultaneously inferior and locally oppressive, and wherein each symbolic action (words, raising the national flag on Republic Day) was the offensive trigger for violent retaliation (Chandan in Kasganj, Manjunath in Bangalore, Ankit in Delhi) – I connect the news to an incident I witnessed in Kolkata.

On Jan 28th, 2018, late at night in Kolkata, India, I observed three women being threatened with violent communal retaliation by an Uber driver because one of these women questioned the driver’s peremptory ride cancellation after the car was loaded and the trip had started. The driver told them to get out, physically intimidated them, declared he would block their street departure location with his car all night, and if the women didn’t shut up he would bring people back from Kidderpore. (The driver obviously guessed enough about his passengers to threaten them with violence from a different religious community). All this under the benign and smiling presence of local traffic policemen, who blamed the women because they couldn’t detain the driver.

Violence becomes real when it is personal. Up close, it is also a large emotion, inciting us to large actions. If we have learned to exteriorize and blame all our misfortunes on the ‘Other’ and its deliberate malice (person, group, entity, event), we enter the justificatory realm of virtuous scapegoating.

If I say my city has changed in 20 years, I will likely be called a bigoted bhakt or worse in India, a vile Islamophobe in the U.S., and a Modi-moron in my old discursive academic world (which told me to leave since I was an un-progressive settler colonial anyway). My good interlocutors will throw Ayodhya, Kashmir, NE India and Trump at me (lumped under an imagined category in their heads that they mis-read from Anglophone media; they still ask, ‘You speak Hindu?’ To which I say I don’t).

In that accusatory and reformist narrative, women such as these in the Uber tale are collateral damage in the necessary revolution of the world and the righting of historical wrongs.

In my reasoning, retaliatory justice is short-sighted and unpardonable, especially when supported by history shortened to 500 years. Violence, no matter how ‘halal,’  neither purifies nor resolves.

And yet this is how the world begins to burn again. I invite you to think on this article: https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/civility-and-rebarbarization

The PhotoBooth app on iPad tells you in childlike ways how the user’s face can be distorted and changed. The world is the same. How we see distorts what we see.

On the taboos and permissions of community belonging

Brief notes on the limits and rigidity of our communitarian taboos. Linked together by the following memes:

Chaos and instability are limited by delineation of taboos. The divided parts become either sacred or profane in a complex social symbolic system. The parts may have crowning examples, essences of the collective identity — a person, an exalted object, a concept. The shape of taboos at any time marks the weakest and strongest links in a hypothetical social fabric.

1. From October 11, 2014: On anti-statism.

Many in the world of letters find it prudent and convenient to identify as anti-statist (and as some sort of minority group member or supporter). In order to avoid charges of empty word-trade, these folks display behavior where attacking the idea of a state precedes supporting all those who attack existing states. I am bothered by the implications: a state is composed of history, geography, demographics, economics, and politics, of the culture of a region and its changing peoples. If Robert Kaplan’s “The Fear of Greater Chaos” is to be believed, many states have fallen to other regimes (religion, drugs, etc.). More will follow. Why it is so important to pull down before local/indigenous restorative socio-economic-political structures have had a chance to develop? What will take the place of the shell of the state, with its nominal safety and security, its benefits of citizenship, its role as an appeals court and whipping boy for the grievances of its population? No supra-state body will entertain the responsibility of those people. Unless those peoples who support the world of letters against their own state regimes know what they’re doing, where they’re going, and what they will do after tearing the house down. Some of them do. The next question is: what is waiting to take the place of all that is falling down?

One doesn’t mind a cosmopolitan world, a world republic with world citizens, all equal and nice. It just isn’t likely to happen. Mimetic empires are vastly more likely.

2. From June 1, 2015: On ‘males,”men,’ taboos and religious platforms:

So many reading this bit of news about the IS’s indoctrination of young males right now.

This reader refuses the adamant innocence of those who are outraged at children being corrupted and made to fight, and of those who insist that this is another bit of propaganda for Islamophobia. She is more interested in this quote in the article: “Many people are just male and not men. Those taking up arms and fighting for the sake of God and defending Muslim women’s honour are men.” Because it illustrates so compactly the reasoning behind the anger and sense of victimization haunting many voices that identify themselves as Islamic in this century.

Interesting, is it not? That a boy may repent of his extremes and his weals but will still be roused to anger by any perceived lessening of the weight of that cluster Islam-honor-right? That manhood is defined within the scope of gender and religion so explicitly? Men fight for something, and women and God are fought for. The simplicity of moral manichaeanism. ‘People’ (unqualified singular common noun, as if all the world could only be Muslim, and not many peoples) may be born male but cannot become men nor be recognized as men without fighting for honor.

Would that boy allow that any enemy man might also fight for his women and God and honor? He might perhaps admire a brave man’s death, one who died without crying out. The warrior culture, it is supposed to be. Or do ‘infidels’ by definition not have honor until they can translate their reactions into a code recognizable by violence, perpetual aggression and steadfast refusal of communal parity tolerance? Are Muslim women the only ones who are targeted in the entire world? Are they minorities everywhere, as a percentage of the world’s population?

I wonder that on perfectly level platforms in civilian life, the very identity of being Muslim is enough to guarantee both perfect victimhood and perfect resurrection as the ‘one who fights back.’ This is a very modern psychological figure — the resurgent, revived hero/heroine. We LIKE those who fight back, and detest those who won’t. We like those who step up, seize the fire, brandish the club, and want to rule. Or rather, ‘Americanized’ thinking likes such psychology. So it is perhaps ironic that it is America that is targeted as the evil head of all things plaguing Muslims anywhere. And America that is the breeding ground for the attitude that militant Islam’s civilian cohort emulates and projects.

It continues to bother me that the logic behind the indoctrination of younger fighters and the impact of their ‘pure’ fight against ‘the oppressor’ on the heart of every believer in every country is only allowed to be discussed as an affective logic that is both ‘medieval’ (codes of honor, death for religion, the protection of virtue, the earning of merit by dedication and trials-by-fire) and ‘modern’ (the idealization of childhood, the righteous anti-imperial rage, dreams of the recovery of Islamic empire).

We tend think in so many ‘worlds,’ explicitly or implicitly –Islamic world, Christian world, and a Jewish world, Hindu world, or Buddhist world, or Zoroastrian world, or Baha’i world. The news we like to hear is the news of community, a chosen selection of a chaotic total globe. An imagined reality binds us within the chaos, makes us hopeful and warm in kinship and allegiance.

And each world is walled in with what we can say or do and what we cannot. Our taboos are postmodern, that is, eclectic in their preference for some past century or other, this or that past regime or golden age. With this century’s greater freedom to choose among and be mobile across spaces and experiences, we compile our preferred reality, the substitute for the mythical ideal kinship community we did not and still do not have.

What are our new zones of discursive untouchability, then? What kinds of political speech and resistance define the links in our social community (or breaks therein)? What is sacred, what is profane? And when confronted with the sacred, why it it taboo to counter it with the sacred? Religiosity as the core of identity is spoken about as a reaction to profane imperialisms. And in response to ultra-religious anger, witnesses appear compelled to resort to profane, civilian, pedestrian languages of law and ethics, languages which have already been brushed aside as oppressive, western, and insulting. Religion, once removed into a realm beyond the common law, beyond planetary good, beyond equitable justice in the present, can no longer be touched or countered with anything. It does not belong to this world, and is therefore unassailable and incorruptible. Caliphates and nations and international communities of religious kinship are but the shadows, the reflections of transcendent taboos.