First published in The Jakarta Post, February 12, 2005
DETACHING OURSELVES FOR THE CULTURE OF VIOLENCE
Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta
From the pre-independence to post-Soeharto eras, violence has marred the history of this nation, perhaps prompting some to ask: Are we born violent? It would be shameful to answer "yes", but we might also argue that violence occurs everywhere in the world. Jawahar L. Nehru once bitterly admitted, "Violence has played a great part in the world's history".
However, although violence is not exclusively ours, it cannot be denied that violence has been constantly disturbing the life of this nation. Examples abound, from the burning of a petty thief by an angry mob to religious and ethnic conflicts in some parts of the country. Such violence occurred because certain conditions had not been met, such as decisive law enforcement and a resolute end to discrimination. According to sociologist Joel M. Charon (1992), "Violent action...is often caused by relative deprivation. Groups in society compare what they have to what they expect, and where their expectations are not met, violent collective behavior is encouraged."
Nevertheless, Charon also argues that "violence should not be seen simply as irrational frustrated action." For example, at one junction of the nation's history, the concept of violence had been transformed into the power of words, which might have passionately inspired people to pursue violence. Mochtar Lubis (1980), one of the greatest journalists this country has, in his book Catatan Subversif, quotes a poem written by a communist poet in March 1965 but published in one newspaper on Dec. 5, 1965: "What is the use of having many (military) generals if peasants have no security? People...get ready... take (the generals) to their graves!"
But violence breeds violence. After the mysterious murder of the generals blamed on the communists, reprisal was recorded by historians as even more vicious with millions of PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) members or sympathizers brutally murdered. No trials, no accountability, but life went on as if the large-scale massacres had been trivial.
This means violence is not only caused by frustration, but may also be socially engineered to reach specific goals such as ideological or religious fanaticism. Unfortunately, we have never had truly national leaders who consistently promote peaceful means such as Mahatma Gandhi of India.
We, conversely, have both political and spiritual leaders who seem to have let violence take its course as a "normal" feature of our lives. During the New Order regime, mass violence was suppressed, ironically by violently repressing individual liberty. After the collapse of the New Order regime, mass violence sanctioned by lack of tolerance and a feeling of majority-superiority erupted amid a euphoric atmosphere.
After the euphoria died down, however, the violence reemerged taking new forms. The suspected political assassination of rights activist Munir, the beating of military-critic Farid Faqih, and the alleged shooting of a bartender by tycoon Adiguna Sutowo illustrated a new face of violence that is steadily taking root under this new democracy. The trend is disturbing, particularly if the powerful might increasingly perceive this violence as a "practical" way to tackle their power-related problems.
Nevertheless, there is another "new" form of violence that has barely been detected: "Media violence" and its profound influence on our youngsters. Kevin Browne and Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis of the England's University of Birmingham have recently reported their research findings that "the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behavior in younger children, especially boys," has been evidently enhanced through violent imagery in TV, movies and videos and computer games.
Likewise, several other studies showed that those who were exposed to violent programs were increasingly reluctant to mediate or to call for assistance when faced with a group of people fighting.
In another aspect, this has arguably resulted in increased youngsters' hostile aggressiveness, manifested such as in bullying and student brawls. And in our country, particularly in big cities, student brawls have tragically cost many lives and caused injuries.
This hostile violence, which seems aimed purely at hurting others, is equally dangerous to previous forms that had been caused by frustration or orchestrated with specific goals in mind. It is horrendous to imagine this hostile violence of our youngsters gradually developing into a component of our social structure.
So, we are probably not born violent, but learn to be violent. From the top level of society (the state) to the very bottom (families), violence is cultivated.
This nation may never be able to detach itself from the culture of violence when the spirit of impunity is still attached to the apparatus, where law enforcement is toothless when facing the "haves", where discrimination exists among certain people and where our youngsters are encouraged to view violent behavior.
All segments of society, therefore, need to take responsibility for breaking this circle of violence.
For the authorities, upholding law enforcement and respecting human rights, demanding social equality and ending discrimination once and for all are among the most pressing issues.
For parents, scrutinizing TV violence and cautiously but critically discussing its social costs and realities with their children is necessary, but stations should also consider reviewing their program selection criteria.
This is, after all, no light matter; we cannot afford to let violence develop into an accepted form of conflict resolution.