Can art cut the fuse? | Daily News

Can art cut the fuse?

The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives.

- Sir Salman Rushdie, Indian-born British novelist

Every new burst of terrorist violence is naturally followed by an artistic surge. Both pre and post-terrorism works of art attempt to open the human mind and peek inside. Heavily influenced by the trends of sociology, political science, anthropology and psychology, these works may have the capacity not only to challenge a would-be violent mind but also make a raid on human consciousness.

Where does violence stem from? Can anything offer a remedy to the phenomenon? With the hypothesis that aesthetic arts can fight the mindset shy of violence, Daily News reaches out for veterans in three different disciplines: Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe, Senior Lecturer in Mass Media at the University of Colombo and Daya Rohana Athukorala, former Professor of Education at the University of Colombo.

For a period of one decade, Sri Lanka was designed to be terror-proof. Terror-free lifestyle was a defining element in the island. Less than one month into the 10-year-old war victory celebrations, there came back the roar of fully-fledged terrorism. The country’s undisturbed atmosphere came to be badly singed.

The attention was subsequently drawn to a domestic terrorist group with alleged international links. The country had to revive the old debate on terrorism and suicide bombers. The phenomenon is nothing novel for the country which had grappled with another locally-originated terrorist-led suicide bomber cadre.

However, Time Magazine, published in the aftermath of the April apocalypse, makes reference to the LTTE with a different attribute.

“The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, didn’t create the phenomenon of suicide bombing, but they did institutionalize the tactic during their guerrilla warfare against the Sri Lankan government forces from 1983 to 2009.”

In ‘The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism’, Scott Atran begs to differ.

“During this time the global rate of such attacks grew from an average of three a year in the 1980s, to about once a month in the 1990s, to almost one a week from 2001 to 2003. Most literature on suicide bombing is related to Jihad and allied groups.”

Suicide attacks have also been portrayed as an essential armament of psychological warfare to instill fear in the target population, a strategy to eliminate or at least drastically diminish areas where the public feels safe, and the “fabric of trust that holds societies together”, as well as demonstrate the lengths to which perpetrators will go to achieve their goals.

Terrorism and violence

The motivation of suicide attackers varies. Though different in form, terrorism and violence remain neighbours engaged with each other.

Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara accredits the violent mindset to new media. Sri Lanka’s first exposure to new media took place in 1979 with the advent of television.

“The debate of whether violence on television begets violence in children existed even then. I remember attending workshops focused on television and violence. They were the nascent stages of the violence. One classic example is wrestling programmes. It has been my experience with these students in the past that now causes me to expect more aggressive behaviour and rougher play at recess. Students practice what they see at matches. The students also use inappropriate language that they have heard either while attending matches or watching them on TV.”

Television is no longer new media, Dr. Abeysundara adds. Today’s new media has become central to the genesis of terrorism. That has absorbed culture and arts as well.

“For instance, modern literature is unnecessarily focused on sexual elements. I won’t say we should do without them. Even religious literature has sexual elements, though with a specific objective. But what we get to see today is quite different. I keep watch over children who watch pornography. They have become addicted to it. All this has come handy with the ease of access through new media,” Dr. Abeysundara remarks.

The antidote to violence was clearly the religion, culture and art. But the three spheres are now enshrouded with alien unwelcome elements. The people question religion. They challenge culture. They contest the arts.

Dr. Abeysundara observes four sociological structures in a human: spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical status. The balance of power prevalent in these four structures is ample evidence that human is healthy.

The question, however, is that the four structures have bred strangers from within. Religion, for instance. The new sects are being introduced to the mainstream religions of the world. They extract the teachings from the original text but delineate the output. Therein lies the path to fundamentalism and extremism in the name of spirituality.

“With this, we get lost in the very source of solace. We used to think religion, culture and arts as our way out. But that has now confused us with various new elements. So we need to be extra careful if we are to introduce aesthetics to children. We need to be quite selective when we impart religious, cultural and literary studies to children. For that, we need to understand the principles and fundamentals of all these three. We need teachers to address this issue.”

However, that is exactly what the teachers abstain from, adds the anthropologist.

“They are busy with other affairs like earning money. During our school days, even the mathematics teacher used to recite a poem before starting the lesson. They had a broad view. One of my friends said she doesn’t give much chocolate to her son. If he eats too much, she lets her play to burn the calories.”

Dr. Abeysundara then shifts the question to Socrates who stressed on a balance between sports and aesthetic activities.

“That’s what most schoolchildren lack today. They are glued to smartphones. We also need a noble company. On television, most programmes are focused on gossip. The programmes hardly offer anything to the mind. I teach anthropology. But we have only a few people to share the literature we read. At our university, such a discussion hardly exists. We need to reread this society.”

Global platform for terrorists

For Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe, whose expertise is philosophy and mass media, violence existed since the inception of human civilisation. The peaceful environs went hand in hand with conflicting situations. The conflicts stemmed from the diversity among tribes, ethnicities, nations, civilisations and social systems.

“The increase of population led to a similar rise of terrorism. Then the nations fell down to the massive difficulties. Destruction affected not only the physical effects, but it also severed the spiritual and human connections. The rise of terrorism put spiritual values to almost death.”

The seeds of terrorism were first sown with the French Revolution in 1798, Dr. Weerasinghe adds. The event continued to have an impact in the 1960s and the subsequent decades. The 20th century was a turning point in terrorism which evolved from the regional sphere to the global platform.

“We are now passing such a phenomenon. What happened recently is a global activity. Terrorism aimed at individuals at first. But later it reached the masses. This is a serious situation. The damage was done mentally, physically and spiritually. Although we might not have heard it in Sri Lanka, many terrorist activities took place across the globe. When these were broadcast over media channels, the masses tend to misinterpret it. They think the terrorism stems from a certain ethnicity.”

Violence is not a psychological affair, Dr. Weerasinghe adds. It is essentially an offshoot the prevailing social phenomenon. Consequently, it is doubtful whether literature or any other aesthetic domain can soothe the ailing grounds.

“There is a psychological aspect to humans, of course. But at the same time, we need to understand the link between society and culture. There, we see a social and political connection. It is the society and state that shape the human or their psychological conditions.”

Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe also notes the need to understand how the human is different from the animals. The human thinks of the other. He is equipped with values. This empathy leads to the consensual agreement in society.

The human connection is linked by religion, philosophy, literature and arts. That’s where mythology and elements fit in. That’s where culture fits in. This elevates the human to a more human level. With education, we need to evolve into dialogues, humanitarian values, aesthetics and emotions. This is how humans could be equipped against terrorism.

“But what happened was quite the opposite. Over time, we were taught that diversity leads to conflicts. Actually, conflicts are not borne out of diversity. The diversity is essential for the prevalence of humanity. But this phenomenon was reversed. The tendency towards culture and human qualities began to reduce.”

Neoliberalism is a global trend that emerged in the 19th century to subordinate humanities-related subjects. As a result, technology-related subjects flourished. The Information Age became synonymous with technological advancement. The neoliberalism, born in Europe, continued to seize religious freedom, as they originated in the east. The ideology will be remembered for legitimating the conflicts, which ultimately led to terrorism.

“It drew attention to the rise of the new global elite. It consists of super-rich also different from yesterday, more hardworking and meritocratic, but less concerned about the nations that granted them the opportunity. This bred terrorist organisations such as ISIS. These organisations hire children and women in addition to their already available sophisticated means: technology.

The teachings of any religion can be manipulated and moulded to brainwash the human mind. The fault of Islamic terrorist organisations does not lie in the teachings. It is the powers that be at work behind the scene aggravating the condition to their own betterment.

“The Western model took it for granted that we could flourish with prominence given to technology-related subjects over humanities. As a result, the labour, intelligence and altruism were replaced by technology, management and wealth management. They thought they could evolve the world by economic values alone.”

But the results came with a price.

“It gradually led to social violence. It later turned into terrorism. Most people mistakenly link Islamic terrorism with religion. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It was nurtured in Europe. The three major religions, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism had coexistence for decades and centuries. The philosophical teachings were instrumental in co-existence. Even the terrorists are clueless as to who controls them.”

In such a backdrop, Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe has no heavy hope on literature and arts. Even though they may provide answers, it may take time.

“Our education should be more systematic in the first place. We need to understand how violence stems. It stems from the state. For instance, the French revolution began with the state. The state unleashes terrorism. It is the only legal institution that can unleash terrorism legally or otherwise.”

This is a reaction to the liaison between the global elite and the national state. To maintain its integrity, the global elite state needs to unleash violence from time to time. They provide funds to all parties in countries. Then they create conflicts. That was visible in Iraq and Iran. They create unstable national governments to penetrate the countries.

The people must understand this phenomenon.

Professor Daya Rohana Athukorala draws parallels between Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe where the human instinct for evil is concerned and Dr. Praneeth Abhayasundara in his Socratic ideology.

Any religion is born to address the human itch for savagery. The human has a natural tendency for evil, sin or whatever term designated by the respective teachings. The urge to do good needs to be forced by cultivating. Professor Athukorala dwells on three salient points that lead to natural humanism: hunger, thirst and sexual desire. Both animals and humans have a more or less share of the traits, though humans have understood the need to keep them under control.

“Whenever you are exposed to a real or even perceived danger, your amygdala becomes active. If a motor vehicle approaches you, your amygdala ensures that you jump out of the way. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to adrenaline. That’s where we take a quick decision on whether to fight or flight. Generally, that’s how humans are provoked to fight. This is the gift given to us by nature. But we need to keep this in check. We have the intellect to choose between being reactive and proactive.”

With that prognosis, Professor Athukorala refers to Dr. Abeyasundara’s Socrates quotation with the student of the Greek philosopher, Plato. Renowned for his magnum opus, The Republic, divided the soul into three parts, the mind, heart and stomach. The head is the part of the body in which the mind was located. The reversal of this flow will lead to a conflict.

That leads to violent elements such as killing and terrorism.

And where does literature fit in? It syringes the head and equips it with intellectual capacity.

“If your head is powerful, you will stop to think before reacting to an incident. That’s how we can lessen violence. Impulse or impulsive behaviour is natural. It exists even among animals. That has been there in the evolution.”

According to Professor Athukorala, human strength is a part and parcel of controlling emotions. The one with the utmost ability to control emotions remains unshaken whatever happens outside. Such a human also has an unshaken power.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of three elements of humanity cannot be forgotten. Known as id, the ego and the superego, these elements interact engagingly to create complex human behaviour.

“Id is what you feel deep inside. You feel like crying. But you won’t do that in public, because you are surrounded by social norms. That gives you a personality. It is the superego created by society, literature and other elements. The teachers would advise them. Those influences are in charge of us above us. Most of those in the prison were not exposed to this. They have no superego grown. Either they have not gone to school. They have watched violent movies.”

Literature and other aesthetic arts are required at this point. The conflicts happening in the real world have entered literature at some stage. They are fictionalised along with the solutions. When a human comes across conflicts, they realise that it has happened before. Then he knows how to behave.

Professor Athukorala also points out the subsystems of the brain: blue zone and red zone.

“The more you get angry, you naturally activate the red zone. It looks like you have switched on the bulbs. Even your face becomes red. The opposite is the blue zone. For instance, the brain of the people like Mathieu Ricardo who is the happiest person on the earth has a widely grown blue zone.”

Professor Daya Rohana Athukorala adopted these digressions to identify how the humans resort to violence at some stage despite whatever the intellect grown.

“There are certain instances where the intellectuals or the educated give in for emotions. They are basically the religion, ethnicity, language and caste. This is natural. All of us love our own religion, ethnicity, language and caste. As speakers, we make sure not to make reference to any particular religion, ethnicity, language and caste offensively. Once the word is out, you cannot reverse it. The people will stop attending your speeches.”

Role of media

Such elements can shape your attitudes. People fond of one element tend to form groups or mob cultures. Over time, those groups become tend to the world outside their ideology. Even they are not aware of the consequences.

“So it is essential that the media plays a responsible role. They need not wallow in the tragedy. They need to discuss how to overcome the consequences of the tragedy. Such an exercise will avoid people from being reacting.”

Going back to the Platonic philosophy, Professor Athukorala cites ‘The Republic’. The philosopher-king, who ought to be intelligent, shall have soldiers under command. The people shall be under the command of both soldiers and the king. Any reversal will only result in a conflict.

Aesthetic arts can prevent a terrorist mind. But it is doubtful whether it can offer a cure once terrorism has spread.

When you throw a stone to a dog, it will bite it. The same thrown to a lion, the reaction is different. The mighty animal will trace the source without opting to chew the stone. Terrorism must be addressed in a similar vein.

“Terrorism is like an octopus with wings. We can clip the Octopus wings. But they continue to grow. You cannot stop the octopus of terrorism by clipping wings. You need to smash the head. That means a natural death to the wings. The LTTE had a natural death with Prabhakaran’s death. The JVP insurgency had a natural death with the elimination of its leader. The same strategy should be adopted with the incumbent terrorist trend,” Professor Athukorala explains.


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