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The Politics of Communal Violence

A Critical Reflection on the Cultures of Violence, Part One

Photo courtesy of The Wire

Communal violence is a systemic process rooted in significative historical and political contexts, which is shared among and used by every member of a given community. In terms of conflict, it is the act of one community against another, particularly where there are ethnic and religious differences. The oppressors are characterized by their efforts to maintain solidarity while identifying and systematically subjugating - and then eventually eliminating - victims on the basis of socially and politically constructed moralities, fears, and stereotypes. As we shall see in the evidence provided by our key authors in this discussion, Litwack, Malkki, and Gourevitch, genocides are committed as a result of journalistic sensationalism and manipulative constructivism that perpetuate justifications for such heinous actions.

As both a scholar and a journalist, I am unable to ignore the implications of harmful reporting, especially the way it was done in these accounts to transform normal human beings into psychotic, sadistic monsters (Litwack, 125). The problems with journalism in this day and age mostly have to do with relying on secondary sources instead of conducting primary investigations, as well as focusing on subject matters that feed moral panics and train people to obtain a cultural, rather than a socioeconomic understanding of societal issues and conditions.

However, in these cases, the above-mentioned practices were not the issue, nor did reporters demonstrate negligence or naivety; newspapers purposely published criminal news that grossly exaggerated or outright fabricated incidences, and I am horrified by the fact that these people were willing to go to extreme lengths to convince (as I refuse to use the word prove here) people that their beliefs and “scientific proofs” about the oppressed were correct and that they had every reason to righteously and brutally murder members of the marginalized communities. But, as we are well aware, their only concern was to push their political agendas that would eternally cement their superiority, while burying their prey into powerlessness. All of this is evidenced perfectly in Litwack’s account of Hose’s execution, which was caused by reports that made false assertions about Hose’s murder of his employer. He had allegedly killed him during dinnertime at his home and did not leave before pillaging the house and raping his wife in the same room as her husband’s dead body, when really, Hose had killed him in self-defense when they were engaged in a heated argument over the employer’s refusal to grant him advanced payment and leave to visit his ill mother (Litwack, 123). The wife had even confirmed the latter to be true (Litwack, 124).

Unfortunately, although unsurprisingly, people were not interested in learning the truth or correcting their mistakes after the fact, and this mentality was further driven by heavy persuasion to “keep the facts in mind” (Litwack, 123) as well as the focus on the gruesome executions in news reports. Even if the courts were presented with proof of wrongdoings, they would still dismiss convictions when the public and people of the juries refused to stand in favor of them. They did not want the world to believe that they were a corrupt race, so they would justify executions by speeding them up at the expense of the public’s amusement. In other words, their reputation was more important to them than the lives of their victims, whom they considered to be subhuman (Litwack, 126).

The worst part about all of this is, these executions were treated as events that people of all ages were encouraged to attend and conditioned to enjoy (Litwack, 125), when most of them had nothing to do with the victims in any given context. They had no reason to get involved other than to blindly conform to the pre-constructed solidarity of public officials, and as seen in the Rwandan accounts, if any one member of the oppressing party dared to challenge the accountability of these actions, they too would be considered enemies in need of eradicating (Gourevitch, 141). Drastic measures were clearly taken to secure the legitimacy of the illegitimate. The only real “rights” minorities had, were two-hour long prayers and the chance to see family members one last time (Litwack, 126).

We see other marketing tactics at play too, such as taking photographs of crowd engagement at executions and using them not only in newspapers, but also in trade cards and as postcard pictures. This was done to assimilate newcomers in Georgia (Litwack, 124), and Rwandan newspaper Kangura’s striking resemblance in format to the Kanguka in order to trick readers into buying issues (Gourevitch, 136).

Opposing newspapers did try to bring weapons used against them to their advantage, in the case of Ngeze and his photo-essays that would represent his virtues (Gourevitch, 136) and publications run by coloured communities in Georgia that would publish photos in order to show the world how barbaric the whites were (Litwack, 124). I admire them for presenting another side of the story, especially since it caused countries that had relations with theirs to express genuine concern about how these communities were being treated. Needless to say, however, perpetrators were never brought to justice (Gourevitch, 140). If this were to ever happen and word got out, the world would turn its head on them. Once again, it is not about preserving humanity, but rather going about business as usual.

It was not, and hardly is in the case of corporate media, ever about genuinely informing people of the real problems in society, right down to these very promotional techniques previously mentioned. These publications were more concerned about selling their ideas than considering and learning about what was actually occurring within these cultures and institutional arrangements, and in turn allowing for the public to partake in the discussion by expressing their thoughts. Of course, they could not be bothered with such a task, since they were the ones who produced the knowledge and arbitrarily created rules for their benefit at the direct expense of the suppressed in the first place.

Another appalling detail was the failure to offer the readership any real information about the accused that could, at the very least, provide context for the crimes, a characteristic of news reporting still prominent in the present. It sickens me how civilians were able to actively participate in lynching and yet rarely did they ever know of or even encounter the very people they enthusiastically helped to kill off. No, people exercised their right to vote for which torture methods should be used at any given executions (Litwack, 126), and, in using a narrow and greatly misleading frame-of-reference provided by officials, concerned themselves with minimising racial minorities’ rights to political activities, education, job opportunities and housing independent of landlords simply because of the fear that they were no longer bounded and disciplined by slavery (Litwack, 124).

And, much like modern journalism, there was a severe lack of discourse that centered on why the populations that were discriminated against were supposedly predisposed to criminogenic tendencies. Yes, people were fed logics very reminiscent of Lombroso’s biological and psychological theories as seemingly concrete explanations, but what I am specifically referring to here is the inability of civilians to challenge or even think about social constructs, where our conclusions come from, and why we put labels on things, thus associating them with criminality.

What we end up doing is imagining situations and creating worlds through a conservative lens, as opposed to studying socioeconomic conditions as perceived by the affected parties through ethnographies, where behaviourisms and individuals’ fates are determined by physical characteristics, as was the case with the Hutus' world-making and body maps (Malkki, 130). There is no substantial evidence that indeed necessitates the connection between these variables, but because groups are rigidly defined in this manner, we, in a way, end up believing it and act according to these misperceptions (in the eyes of the “other,” at least) since we do not know any better and accept this as truth. We see it as the reason to keep the “other” in line and halt their population growth so that they do not hinder our progression (Malkki, 135).

We rely too heavily on self-proclaimed superiors to tell us who we are, who “they” are, and how we should feel about and respond to situations involving “them.” I believe the reasons for this have to do with the fear of opposition, giving far too much credit to parties who are supposed to appeal to our interests and well being (not their perceptions of them) - as they are the ones who govern and theoretically should have the critical facility to teach us or even think for us - and our overall negligence of discourse on morality, root cause analyses, true safety, logic (do we kill all dogs if only one is vicious?), and social conditions due to us being more concerned with our individual lives. And yet here we are, glad that culprits are getting their just desserts for their violation of arbitrary rules so that our assets are protected when we rarely ever are being threatened and should instead be concerned with disparities and irrational discrimination.


Litwack, L. (1991). From "Hellhounds" In N. Scheper-Hughes & P. Bourgois (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (1st ed., Vol. 78, pp. 123-7). Blackwell Publishing.

Malkki, L. (1995). From Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. In N. Scheper-Hughes & P. Bourgois (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (1st ed., Vol. 78, pp. 129-135). Blackwell Publishing.

Gourevitch, P. (1998). From We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. In N. Scheper-Hughes & P. Bourgois (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (1st ed., Vol. 78, pp. 136-142). Blackwell Publishing.

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