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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 19

Where ‘to kill’ is the Byword for Growth

Friday 4 May 2007, by Dev N Pathak


The rampage on Virginia Tech university campus reminds us of some pessimistic predictions about the future of modern society. Be it Peter Berger speaking of the ‘homeless mind’ or Habermas dwelling upon the ‘legitimation crisis’, a dark picture of the rational world occupies our imagination. We do not attach significance to anything other than the means-end calculation in such a world. Herbert Marcuse draws our attention to the ‘one-dimensional man’ entrenched in parochial instrumental thinking. They all speak volumes on the decline of human faith in humanity. Even a sensitive proponent of reason and rationality Max Weber could not hide his disillusionment in the exceedingly rational society and spoke of the ‘iron cage of rationality’ wherein humans suffer a sense of ‘disenchantment’, much akin to ‘alienation’ which Karl Marx found inevitable in a capitalist social structure. These all refer to the complete demystification in human minds eventually making it difficult for humans to sustain existence.

If we are wise and sensitive, we would not be able to brush the aforesaid references aside by considering them a result of intellectual senility gripped by some kind of dooms-day prophecy. Any underestimation of such prediction would also have to ignore the fact that the killings on Virginia Tech were prefixed by innumerable precedents. The shooting in the Columbine high school in 1999 by students was no less shocking. In 2002 Germany mourned two such incidents of killing by students in the months of February and April. It is a recurrent mishap in some or other part of the world almost every year. Instances of youth committing suicide on the pretext of failure of some kind are reported every year in India. The frequency underlines a pattern rooted in and supported by society, as sociological imagination would help us comprehend. Hence, it is absurd to have the student Cho Seung-Hui, who gunned down people on Virginia Tech, reduced into a mere abnormal individual and the incident attributed to some kind of psychic disorder.

Absurdity of Post-incident Analysis

IN the aftermath of such incidents we witness our public sphere inundated by certain misleading questions. Following Virginia Tech we had ourselves been busy discovering a thing or two which can prove the killer to be an outright psychopath, lovelorn and thus the incident as an aberration due to an abnormal individual. Seemingly we are more interested in rehabilitating our sense of normalcy than taking a real stock of the situation. It is much like that famous symbolism from Bimal Roy’s classic movie Bandini which mirrored the tendency of the society of taking everything in its stride in order to maintain a sense that ‘everything is fine’ and the show must go on. Hence we tend to trick ourselves into believing that Cho was an autistic as he was always found quiet and self-indulged. That he was visiting the psychiatrist and therefore it must be his mental disorder that wreaked this havoc, are related to age-old reduction of a sociological problem into a simple psychological one, as a reading of Emile Durkheim’s work ‘Suicide’ suggests. Hence in the popular discourse it ended with a simple but ludicrous suggestion of psychiatric counselling for any such student who exhibits predilection for quietness. Double absurdity it reveals: on one hand silence is rendered a symptom of abnormal, on the other it does not decipher the motive behind the killing. It is quite absurd in the face of details ferreted out by the investigators. After the first round of shooting, the gunman goes to the post office to mail the package of writings and videos, which he had prepared with meaningful intent. Days before the fateful incident Cho is said to have practised with the weapons in the nearby shooting range. Moreover, Cho spew hatred for all those he knew and posed with gun and knife in the video. As Cho was quoted from the video by the Hindustan Times (April 20, 2007), “you had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.” I have italicised the self-explanatory and analytically important portion of Cho’s words. Everything that Cho offers, in letter and deed, speak loud and clear about the troubled relationship between the individual and society, gruelling expectations from the individual in fast-changing socio-cultural and economic conditions, and of course the worsening complications of the individual mind. I am afraid the incident cannot be relegated as a mere problem of the individual mind?

Interpreting the Action

EVEN though one cringes on the heinous act Cho chose to execute, one of the interpretations of this act, in the manner Max Weber suggested, may help understand the larger dynamics of the incident. The killing of others and the self is more like a helpless resistance to the ruthlessness of a dysfunctional society. When individuals are marred by the sense of insignificance of the self and the superiority of a popular notion of rationality they repress themselves every now and then. Eventually individuals are susceptible to two possible results of such repressions. They undergo the process Franz Kafka described in ‘Metamorphosis’ and become a weird conformist creature who everybody only leers about. The second possibility is that they might just revolt against all the self-repressing mechanisms. Killing one’s own self and others underscores a last ditch effort to sense the significance of the self as well expression of no faith in the self as well as society.

It is imperative to note as to how a society is complicit in such mishaps. Certain features of such society, very much present in the Indian context too, impel youth to take refuge in violent fantasies and execution of the same by the use of extreme measures. In the domain of education youths are caught in the furnace of competitions and in the outside world parents dupe them into abiding by their expectations. Despite all the pretensions of humaneness, youths are told that it is by and large the society for the fittest. So well-hinged on the Darwinian logic, every mind works on the idea of vanquishing others to vindicate oneself as the fittest. To kill in competition is the byword for growth in the contemporary society of the global world.

There are indeed quite a few popular modes of release from the repression. One of those is in the high voltage carnivals on occasions which witness youths celebrating their mistaken freedom in the wildest possible manner. But there are always a handful of youth who prefer emotional refuge away from the scorching heat of expectations. What would such youths do if the emotional succor is also fuelled with instrumental expectations? In such circumstances even the emotional structure is a means for a simple give and take, jeopardising the infinitude of emotion. Consequently such a society propagates only a mistaken notion of freedom, as Erich Fromm described, whereby youths are never told about any potential crisis situation in life. Youths, thus, end up as Arjunas who have only wrong notions of freedom, education and well-being and whenever faced with a situation like moral-battle of Kurukshetra, they are all only helpless. Our new age society perhaps needs to evolve a pertinent mechanism towards the youth.

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