Human Power: Arts for Social Change

Last Friday evening, I attended a discussion on Human Power: Arts for Social Change organised by Avid Learning (of the Essar Group) and Good Earth (a home decor store) in Mumbai. At the discussion, Jeroo Mulla (a Mumbai-based professor of film and media studies) was in conversation with Astad Deboo (a reputed Indian choreographer known for his experiments with various dance forms) and Paolo Regis (an Italian fashion photographer who also experiments with ‘flowing’ photography ever since he was influenced by Buddhism and the Dalai Llama).

Human Power Art for Social Change - Jeroo Mulla Paolo Regis Astad Deboo

Jeroo Mulla, Paolo Regis and Astad Deboo

While Astad Deboo presented his workshops and performances with the hearing-impaired (deaf) young women from the Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai, the street children from the NGO Salaam Baalak Trust in Mumbai, and the Thang-Ta (martial art) and Pung cholom dancers of Manipur, Paolo Regis talked about his ‘flowing’ photography (displayed on the walls of Good Earth), the proceeds from the sales of which contributed to the Alice Project (named after Alice of ‘Alice in Wonderland’) which trains students on developing the mind through meditation and other spiritual practices and paths through ‘experimental’ schools in Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

Although it was apparent to everyone that these dance workshops and performances, as well as the ‘experimental’ schools of the Alice Project have improved the lives of many children, particularly those from under-privileged backgrounds, at the end of the discussion, a question remained unanswered (kept ‘hanging’ so to speak) as to how – and how much – these arts projects have actually contributed, and continues to contribute, to social change. A few of the questions from the audience seemed to suggest that, in order to demonstrate the impact of ‘arts for social change’ projects such the ones discussed during the evening, and to sustain ‘arts for social change’ efforts in general, we need to find ways to measure the efforts and the impact.

It was clear to us that both arts and ‘arts for social change’ cannot be sustained, nor prosper, without sponsorship and patronage.

The intense emotions of authors

In an article titled Madness to their Method in The Washington Times from April 2005, journalist Shelley Widhalm had quoted Dr Stuart Fischoff, who was professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles and a well-known American media psychologist, as having said that, “Creative people need intense emotions to inspire their work.”

In the article, Dr Fischoff, who passed away five months ago, had gone on to explain that, “When you’re writing, you live with yourself and your ideas. You’re in your head a lot… You end up taking your own counsel and reinforcing your own ideas, which may be deluded. You don’t have any reality testing.”

Ms Widhalm’s article, on talented mentally-troubled writers, had specifically referred to American cult writer Hunter S Thompson, who had committed suicide in February 2005, at the age of 67, two months before her article was published.

In his famous 1971 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (also made into a film by Terry Gilliam starring Johnny Depp), Thompson – a journalist and writer, and heavily into alcohol and drugs – wrote, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Would Ernest Hemingway have agreed? I wonder.

According to Dr Stuart Fischoff (Ms Widhalm quotes): “Emotions liberate us to see the world in different ways and to reach deep in our unconsciousness and souls… and without these emotions, what they [creative people] produce could sell millions but never be truly creative.”

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Across the seas from America, British author Ian McEwan, in an interview with Frances Hardy (titled An enduring high-flier) in The Mail on Sunday, also from April 2005, had said, “Writing a novel takes stamina and mental effort. As you get older it starts to feel like physical effort…”

McEwan also delves deep into the dark recesses of the human psyche, but (he says) he does this for pure fictional purpose – for his characters in his stories. Although his stories have earned him “a reputation for writing literature to shock because of its preoccupations with sexualised children and violent relationships,” Mr McEwan is noted for his gentle and sophisticated ways.

Hunter S Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, drunk and depressed, unable to face reality, had committed suicide. Ian McEwan, now almost 67 years of age, winner of several literary awards and other distinctions, a father of two young men (from his first marriage which ended with some rancour twenty years ago), and now happily into his second marriage, may however live a long and happy life.

Rage and redemption

“It was the same delusion I felt as a teenager: that by attacking the messenger your anger will disappear and you will be victorious. But the only way to conquer your anger is to understand where its roots lie.”
– Abdelkader Benali, in New York Times article From Teenage Angst to Jihad: The Anger of Europe’s Young Marginalized Muslims

Unless we are staunch followers of ahimsa or absolute cowards (and there are plenty of people of both kinds among us), when someone gravely hurts or harms us, our natural response is anger. And then, retribution. We seek revenge. We wish to punish those who have hurt us. We want to even out the score and emerge victorious. Only then, as Abdelkader Benali says in the quote above, we believe our hurt and anger will disappear.

But do things always have to turn out this way? If we have courage, do we have to take revenge on those who have hurt us? Are revenge, punishment and getting even with the ‘perpetrators’ the only response we humans are capable of? When Hitler and his Nazis killed 6 million Jews during World War II and devastated the lives of millions of others, did the Jews take revenge by killing 6 million or more Germans after the War? No. So, where (and how) did their hurt, anger and desire for revenge disappear?

Spiritual gurus and texts talk of love, compassion and forgiveness as the antidotes to anger, hurt and the desire for revenge. Although intellectually, and even rationally, I understand their teachings, I’m still unable to come to terms with the hurt I carry inside me. A lady friend of mine told me recently, “I see you’re hurting inside and it makes me sad.” To which my response was, “Rather I hurt inside, than I hurt someone else.” It wasn’t the response she expected from me, but she said she understood.

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I know people can live with(out) their hurt and become compassionate and forgiving persons. In fact, our conversation reminded me of two sources of such experience from last year: a play I watched in October at the Tata LitLive! literary festival in Mumbai; and a book I read earlier which narrated several stories of redemption. Both experiences were inspiring, but somehow failed to create any serious impact in my life. Perhaps, I need to heal a great deal more than I believe I do.

The play, a solo-act, called All The Rage, was written and performed by Martin Moran, and was autobiographical in nature. Part comedy, All The Rage dealt with Mr Moran’s rage and his coming to terms with sexual molestation during childhood, an abusive stepmother, and other hostile people he encountered in his life. However, Mr Moran was too soft and nonconfrontational by nature to take revenge on the people who had hurt him, even though opportunities did arise. While struggling with his emotions, Mr Moran’s moment of realisation came to him when, as a French language interpreter in New York, he helped a refugee from Chad who had, perhaps, suffered far worse than Mr Moran did (such as torture by guerrillas) but still forgave his perpetrators.

The book on redemption stories was a gift from a friend who is also the publisher of the book in India (Zen Publications). Titled Redemption Stories: Unwasted Pain, the book is written by Mary Ciofalo, an American psychotherapist, who is greatly influenced by advaita philosophy from the late Indian spiritual guru, Ramesh S Balsekar. The book is a compilation of 21 tales of redemption – from 20 persons and one town (yes, a town) – and additional commentary, highlighting the difficult progression we can make from hurt and anger to forgiveness and happiness by opening up our hearts. Difficult, yes; but achievable! As Ms Ciofalo says in her book: “Redemptions are the hard mental, emotional and spiritual reversals in life.”

Virtuous violence

“The decision to use evil for the sake of good requires that the decision-maker be willing to bear the brunt of evil.”
[Quote from Bernhard Schlink’s novel Homecoming.]

In my life I’ve witnessed and experienced incidents of violence several times. Both physical and emotional. Some of the ‘perpetrators’, strangely, were people I loved: family, a couple of teachers, and a friend (a woman I had fallen in love with). And I’ve wondered: Where did the violence come from? What drove perfectly ordinary morally-upright people to hurt others (whom they knew) – sometimes mercilessly and cruelly?

After all, an act of violence is an immoral act, right? So, were these people immoral?

Across the world, there are wars, murders, rapes and sexual abuse, military and police brutalities, torture, domestic violence, child abuse, etc. every day which constantly defy the questions I’ve asked myself. Not to mention threats, oppression and emotional cruelty which very few people talk about as they are normally not perceived as acts of violence.

This led me to ask another, larger question: Do we all universally perceive violence as immoral? Or, is there another point of view?

According to anthropologists Alan Page Fiske of University of California, Los Angeles and Tage Shakti Rai of Northwestern University, not everyone considers violence to be immoral. They say that, although there is dominant thought that says violence is immoral and that causing intentional harm is wrong, violence may actually be perceived as moral by those who commit it.

In their Theory of ‘Virtuous’ Violence, they suggest that “much (most?) violence is morally motivated.” They say, “people harm others (or themselves) because they genuinely feel that it’s right.” That, “violence is intentional moral action.” That, “perpetrators know they are harming human agents like themselves, and that’s precisely what they mean to do.”

Tough theory to digest, huh? However, professors Fiske and Rai say that, “this does not mean that people enjoy violence, or do it easily. Most of the time they don’t. Psychopaths and a few sadists aside, most people do not enjoy maiming, torturing or killing.” They say, “doing violence often has long-term and highly traumatic effects on the perpetrator.”

Of course, there’s much more to their theory of ‘Virtuous’ Violence than what I’ve written here. In fact, professors Fiske and Rai have recently published their theory in a book titled Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. The book is not an easy-read; but you can read through this interview with Professor Alan Page Fiske or Google search and download the Virtuous Violence: Moral Motivations for Mayhem presentation (PDF) to get an insight into morality and the theory of ‘Virtuous’ Violence.

[Citation: Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships, Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai, Cambridge University Press; Can Violence Be Virtuous?, Dana Goldstein, The Marshall Project; Virtuous Violence: Moral Motivations for Mayhem, PDF presentation.]

Just following orders

“Before killing the first time there’s a reluctance that tempers the desire to know whether you are capable of doing it. It is not unlike teenagers longing to lose their virginity but also wanting to wait for the right time to do it. But once killing loses its mystique, it no longer becomes a tool of last resort.”
– Captain Timothy Kudo, US Marines

On 27 February 2015, The New York Times Sunday Review online edition published an article by Captain Timothy Kudo, US Marines. The article, titled How We Learned To Kill, talked about Captain Kudo’s experience during war both as a soldier and as someone giving orders to kill. I found the article interesting because of its matter-of-fact narration on killing, a sense of empathy for the enemy, and a somewhat illogical justification of killing as ‘just following orders’.

The article begins with a story:

“The voice on the other end of the radio said: “There are two people digging by the side of the road. Can we shoot them?” 

It was the middle of the night during my first week in Afghanistan in 2010, on the northern edge of American operations in Helmand Province, and they were directing the question to me. Were the men in their sights irrigating their farmland or planting a roadside bomb? The Marines reported seeing them digging and what appeared to be packages in their possession. Farmers in the valley work from sunrise to sundown, and seeing anyone out after dark was largely unheard-of. 

My initial reaction was to ask the question to someone higher up the chain of command. I looked around our combat operations center for someone more senior and all I saw were young Marines looking back at me to see what I would do.

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I wanted confirmation from a higher authority to do the abhorrent, something I’d spent my entire life believing was evil. With no higher power around, I realized it was my role as an officer to provide that validation to the Marine on the other end who would pull the trigger. 

“Take the shot,” I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I’d grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: “Roger, out.” Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead.”

Midway through his article, Captain Kudo laments a bit – perhaps because he begins to question his job:

“The longer I lived among the Afghans, the more I realized that neither the Taliban nor we were fighting for the reasons I expected. Despite the rhetoric I internalized from the newspapers back home about why we were in Afghanistan, I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground — a mix of loyalty to my Marines, habit and the urge to survive. 

The enemy fighters were often young men raised alongside poppy fields in small farms set up like latticework along the river. They must have been too young and too isolated to understand anything outside of their section of the valley, never mind something global like the 9/11 attacks. These villagers fought us because that’s what they always did when foreigners came to their village. Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone. 

The more I thought about the enemy, the harder it was to view them as evil or subhuman. But killing requires a motivation, so the concept of self-defense becomes the defining principle of target attractiveness. If someone is shooting at me, I have a right to fire back. But this is a legal justification, not a moral one.”

Further on, Captain Kudo continues with:

“On most occasions, when ordnance would destroy the enemy or a sniper would kill a Taliban fighter, we would engage in the professional congratulations of a job well done like businessmen after a successful client meeting. Nothing of the sort happened after killing a civilian. And in this absence of group absolution, I saw for the first time how critical it actually was for my soul and my sanity. 

Nobody ever talked about the accidental killing. There was paperwork, a brief investigation and silence. You can’t tell someone who has killed an innocent person that he did the right thing even if he followed all the proper procedures before shooting.”

However, Captain Kudo worries me with an unfitting end to the article when he says:

“I don’t blame Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama for these wars. Our elected leaders, after all, are just following orders, no different from the Marine who asks if he can kill a man digging by the side of the road.”

What weighs heavily on my mind is not that Captain Kudo is justifying killing as ‘just following orders’ – in itself, a difficult proposition to justify – but that he seems to suggest that both the US soldiers and the two Presidents he refers to in his article believed that those orders were morally right… and that, they are absolved from personal responsibility. No, ‘just following orders’ does not legitimise killing, nor does it make judgements on and support of killing morally acceptable.

[Citation: How We Learned To Kill by Timothy Kudo, The New York Times Sunday Review, February 27, 2015]