On social violence

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

RECENT events have brought to the fore the issue of social violence.

Everyone shares the lamentation over the specter of Filipinos killing fellow Filipinos. That is why the recent signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro seemed like a welcome development if indeed it will resolve the Mindanao problem with finality. But the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the New People’s Army cast a doubtful shadow on the prospects of total peace in this land.

Is violence endemic to human societies? If sociobiologists and ethnologists, those branches of social science that equate primal instincts and behavior to human action, were to answer this question, they would respond with a resounding yes. For in the world of animals, violence is the primary language of the wild. The specter of human beings killing each other from this perspective is merely a reflection of baser instincts surfacing.


But Father Joel Tabora, SJ in a recent speech creates an important distinction. He brings to attention that important difference when human beings kill each other for “humanity.” I believe he was intimating at the varying ideological bases for violence. He was not talking about random acts but the organized and deliberate wars we wage on each other for varying reasons whether it be religion, nationalism, or a class war. Among all the species, I believe he was calling attention to the fact that we are the only kind that justify killing one another on the bases of divergent ideas regarding the varying types of humanity we are willing to kill or die for.

Quite interestingly, he even shoots down the popular view for nonviolence that many expect him take on but he instead argued for the right of the oppressed to defend themselves, violently if necessary. He offers a caveat, however, by leaving us with a question worthy of deep reflection. And I quote, “we want to rediscover what is it in our humanity that makes us want to kill one another in the name of humanity, and – in humility – what it is in our humanity that compels us to stop.”

It is an interesting take given that he delivered such a speech before policemen and generals, active participants on the opposite side of the class war our society still remains embroiled in; and the absence of the other group confirms the existent divide.

It was a summit in support of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law or (CARHRIHL) and I have my own humble musings spurred by his provocative assertions.

So what is it that makes us kill one another in the name of humanity and what is it in our humanity that compels us to stop? I believe any contemplation on this social violence driven by clashing ideological convictions must take into account two things: history and asymmetry.

First, ideas in general and even those that justify social violence do not occur in a vacuum. The tenacity of a set of ideas in capturing the hearts and minds of people over time is a reflection of their continuing import to those who wield them. This ideological position is a product of the proponents’ dialectical encounter with unchanging social conditions of economic exploitation and oppression.

For illustration, the use of thugs with the protection of the police and armed forces in Hacienda Luisita is a showcase of how systemic violence is a means by which the ruling order maintains itself which begets an ideological understanding why a violent response is necessary from the victims.

Second, the players in the field of organized social violence are hardly equal in terms of strength and ideological dominance. They are engaged in an asymmetrical war where one side enjoys the monopoly of official violence and the convenience of ideological dominance because of their control over cultural institutions.

Truth be told, the organized violence of the weaker group is resorted to because it is the only means by which they can maintain their humanity given the onslaught of government-sponsored economic disenfranchisement in the form of land conversion and mining among others.

The ideological type of violence that they wield thus assures them of the space to maintain and practice their humanity given the onslaught of official violence coming from the State.

Thus, the challenge by these contemplations on social violence that recognize its historical and asymmetrical nature is to go beyond acts of lamentation per se. The demand for us is to actually to choose sides.

Realizing this, we are really not that far off in terms of evolution from our primal instincts where violence is the language of the strong predator. But our innovation is that we are capable of wielding the same language of violence as a counter-argument to the excesses of the strong with the hope that, at some point, they will be compelled to stop. Given these state of affairs, some types of social violence are necessary to allow space for this kind of social hope to flourish.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on April 01, 2014.


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