By Godswill Vesta UTONG
I drifted in and out of consciousness. It was the fourth time I was watching the fourth entry into the Transformers franchise: Age of Extinction. Not a particularly spectacular movie. Beset with all the ills that follow critically (and commercially) successful trilogies (who remembers Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Terminator Salvation? POTC: On Stranger Tides? Star Wars Episode 1? No one? I thought so too.), I had started watching the series again earlier in the week because I had nothing else to watch on my laptop.
I was skirting between sleep and non-sleep when a particular scene—one I’d paid little attention to previously—startled me into wakefulness:
Galvatron (one of the “bad bots”) had just sliced an oncoming car cleanly in half.
What caught my attention wasn’t the precision of the slice, nor the amount of force the Decepticon would’ve used to cut a speeding car like a warm butter knife through butter. No. What caught my attention was that I had not thought enough about the fact that within that moving vehicle were people who, it is safe to say, had just lost their lives. From that particular moment, the movie seemed so completely different to me. It stopped being entertaining. It became a bloodfest, a concatenation of seemingly different horror scenes.
I have been thinking about the mind a lot lately. About its machinations and quirks. About how little we understand it. About how little acknowledgement we give to it for the enormous work it does protecting us from the world, from society, from nature and most importantly, from itself.
ON VIOLENCE AND THE MIND
It was Freud who once remarked, “Life is hard!” The mind—that virtual space created by the brain for all its thoughts, analysis and computation, not unlike the way the RAM in your PC operates—is really wonderful. The mind receives, analyzes, processes, interprets, and accepts/rejects a mind-numbing amount of data daily. And on top of that, it has to deal with powerful forces around it: society, biology, reality. Occasionally, these conflicting data, these seemingly disingenuous forces, can overwhelm the mind, can stretch it to limits once thought impossible to reach and can cause it so much stress.
One of such stressors—one I’m particularly interested in, is violence.
In movies, in video games, on social media, in our daily outdoor activities, in newspaper tabloids, in books, we’re confronted by a worrying amount of violence. Ignoring the sadists among us (or should I say the ones that display worrying levels of sadistic tendencies because, in a sense, aren’t we all sadists, just located on different points on a broad spectrum of sadism?), our minds, over time become numb to these violent inputs. The mind is like a muscle. With overexposure to so much violence comes this level of acquaintance.
We cheer when the protagonist in a movie shoots down a military helicopter or performs an unreal vehicular stunt that causes other motorists to drive into themselves or off bridges, setting up an explosive scene with different models of cars flying around. Goosebumps from adrenaline-induced excitement riddle our skins as Superman throws General Zod into a skyscraper, completely collapsing it. But rarely do we stop to think that the one whose car was thrown off the bridge or mangled in a head-on collision with a truck had a daughter at home excitedly waiting for the father to show him her report card. Hardly do we stop to think that in that collapsed skyscraper was a tired secretary just closing from work and eager to go meet his newlywed bride at home. Perhaps movies would seem different to us if we imagined that all those police cars destroyed by reckless protagonists in movies like Fast and Furious all had stories, all had families, all had pains and struggles, and were all doing their part to make their societies safer and better. Perhaps if we imagine them to be the real heroes, those movies would not be as exciting as we think them to be.
How does the mind cope with stressors like violence?
In Freud’s psychoanalysis of the Ego, he identified some ways the mind protects itself from external pressures (see picture 1 above.) Over the years, psychoanalysis, psychology and neuroscience have identified more ways the mind deals with stress. They’re called defense mechanisms and I’m particularly concerned with just three: denial, repression and rationalization. The first two are pretty self-explanatory so I’ll deal with the third.
Sometime last year, something happened in my office that prompted me to study more on the machinations of the mind. I was printing some documents when I noticed a senior colleague, with disgust in his face, showing another colleague a video on his phone. I could hear screams of anguish, so I asked him what video he was watching. He replied that it was a video of a woman being burnt alive (after suffering horrendous beating) in some African country on the accusation that she was a witch. Knowing the fragility of my mind, I humbly passed on viewing the video when he offered to show me. Another colleague got up from her seat ran down, screaming “what is it? What is it? Show me” towards the one with the phone. As soon as she saw the burning woman, her face contorted in a weird mix of anguish, shock, disgust, fear and sadness.
“Oh my God! Why are they burning her?” she asked. You could taste the salt in the air from the tears welling up.
“they said she’s a witch” he replied her.
The switch was instantaneous. I swear, I have never been that stunned in my life!
“Oh! Ehn let them burn her. It’s good! If she’s truly a witch she deserves it. Correct.”
Where did all the anguish and sadness go in a blink of an eye? At the time, I was so mad at the fact that seemingly normal humans think it is wise to burn others on account of being witches that I didn’t dwell much on the shocking switch.
Rationalization helps protect the mind from thoughts about anguish. It helps to keep the mind away from anxiety. Once justification can be gleaned for a violent action—one that results in loss of life—then the action itself becomes excusable and the victim becomes an afterthought.
Many an American are able to sleep well at night while American drones drop American missiles on innocent middle eastern villages, decimating and destroying tens of innocent families in one swoop because “they’re bad guys”. Even the military sweeps all these needless deaths under the rug of “collateral damage.” Muslims are one of the most vilified group of people in the western world. Islam is almost now synonymous with “evil”. And this justification is driven by America’s propaganda war. The fight against global terrorism. It now seems as justified to kill a Muslim as it is for a fundamentalist Muslim to kill an infidel. A terror attack in Belgium and everyone stands in solidarity with the victims and befuddlement at the temerity of the attackers. Israeli invasion in the Gaza strip and US missiles destroying Yemeni villages and everyone sleeps comfortably.
“They are the bad guys”
How many times has this sentence saved us from having to deal with the consequences of a violent action? All iterations of it.
PTSD lies just beyond the borders of the mind’s defensive mechanisms. Soldiers who have been to war and victims of rape/ traumatic events happen to have more horrendous information filtering through their minds than justification and other defenses can be put up against. PTSD is the result of a broken mind. It’s terrible and should not be joked with.
Pictures of Alan Kurdi’s drowned body (picture 2) surfaced in 2015 and sparked international outrage as much as it provoked international responses. Many broke down after seeing the picture. It was so moving! It inspired political paradigm-shifts and encouraged political and humanitarian discussions around transborder migrations. But why did this picture move so many people, as opposed to so many pictures of worried immigrants or overstuffed boats and dead bodies washing ashore? Well, we couldn’t rationalize around it. We couldn’t justify why a child would die migrating from his country and we couldn’t repress the powerful images it evoked in our consciousness. We couldn’t deny that children like Alan were facing existential crises in their countries. Many of us were confronted with the fears with thought we had suppressed under lock and key and thrown away into Davy Jones’ Locker.
VIOLENCE IN RELIGIOUS TEXTS AND THE INDIFFERENCE OF ADHERENTS
I remember exactly where I was when the first bombs went off in Kano State (the bombs had been set off by Boko Haram as a result of their kerfuffle with the Emir of the state at the time, for speaking up against their atrocious activities). We had no idea what had happened at the time. It was until two hours later, when we heard people crying outside that we found out. Many women, mostly Muslim neighbors had come out, crying that their beloved city was being attacked by Muslim extremists. Over time, I witnessed more and more of these attacks (culminating in one, in 2012,that had me hospitalized for two weeks and losing all sense of touch in three fingers till today.) My Muslim neighbors were wearied. There was a general air of sadness over the state. Parents were scared and worried for their children. Muslims openly condemned the bombings.
Just imagine the indifference by these same Muslims to the killings in the Koran. Just imagine all the jihads Muhammed led. Just imagine the amount of blood that flowed after The Battle of the Trench that led to the decapitation of over 600 people of the Banu Qurayza. Much closer to home, imagine how bloody the jihad of Usman dan Fodio—the one that established the caliphate in Sokoto and cemented the hold of Islam in Northern Nigeria—was.
History, they say, absolves of all injustice. Atheists always wonder why religious people can’t seem to see the violence in their religious history. The Jewish God, Yahweh, is touted as a blood-loving, torment-enjoying deity (and for the most part, that is largely true.) But the fascination lies in why religious people go to great lengths to defend such deities. Now while most stories of violence in the Bible are apocryphal, the issue is that, for most Christians, those violent events are non-issues, in very much the same way as the speeding cop car colliding with pavement, somersaulting into a building and bursting into flames in that action movie is a non-issue for you. It’s not that most Christians do not see the violence for what it is. It is that most CANNOT see it. For most, the most appalling acts of inhumanity in their religious books have, in their subconscious and unconscious, either been justified, repressed, projected onto others, compensated for or just flat-out denied.
Now, imagine, dear religious one (and for the purpose of this conversation), what the Amalekites, the Moabites, Hittites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Hivites would’ve given the world—imagine with cultural heritage, the archeological and historical wonders. Imagine all the unarmed babies, just learning to survive on solid food. Imagine all the fathers struggling to make an earnest living for their children. Imagine all the slaves with dreams, the budding musicians, the new stall owners, the ones who just earned jobs. Imagine all these.
Now try, please try, to square it with the fact that your God commanded some other set people to go and destroy them all. (Deuteromy 20:17)
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