Heredity of cruelty everywhere

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“HEREDITY of cruelty everywhere, and everywhere the frocks of summer are torn,” are two terrifying lines of Walcott’s “A Lesson for this Sunday” which echo most eerily in the deadly landscape of our country. In a moment where politicians wax lyrical about foreign direct investments; where business people praise the economic advances of the land; and where young people are seemingly enjoying improved standards of living, we are haunted by the spectre of human deaths, gratuitous cruelty, and abominable sadism. It’s as if savagery is indeed our birthright and here in Guyana, we have to express it.
Hardly have two months elapsed, and the dark task I set myself of compiling a list of gruesome crimes is taking a toll on me psychologically. I have been warned of slipping into depression or risk becoming de-sensitised in the process, but there are compelling truths to be shared, truths which discerning Guyanese can vividly see.
However, some people will tune out of this bloody crackle, refusing to read the horrendous stories, for fear of losing their fragile sense of optimism and happiness. One can’t blame them, especially when murders are becoming too frequent as to be normal. Old news some will say.
Yet, with the loss of life, we ought to retain our concern, our sense of shock, for only then can we hold a realistic view of our society, and more importantly, our humanity. How, for instance, can we possibly turn askance of the tragedy of a farmer chopped, disemboweled and buried in a shallow grave? Or, a poor woman, residing in a dilapidated house, with no security but her mentally challenged daughter, getting raped and murdered? There can be no excuse to turn away, certainly not if we wish to bring public awareness to the deadly impulses coursing through this land.
So what is sadism? Loosely defined, it refers to a person exercising absolute control over another so as to derive pleasure. Usually the term is applied to the sexual act whereby whips and other forms of humiliation are used for enjoyment, but since sadism is about control and treating humans as objects for gratification; since it is about a lack of empathy, it extends beyond sexuality. It insidiously infects public institutions, political behaviour and even our means of care-giving, but in these instances, we are sometimes less aware, and even startlingly accepting.
In my mind, the callousness of a teenager slitting the throat of his sailing mate and dumping his body overboard is a horrifying culmination of these less obvious forms of sadism. This might strike some as unfiltered piffle, since some of these homicides occur in drunken frenzies, where people supposedly lose their minds and so will inevitably hurt one another. There is some truth to this, but we have equally seen animals, or as we like to say, “Beasts”, either fight or tussle for a morsel in extreme frenzy, yet with no execution of their kind. There can be an extensive discussion as to why we butcher our own, but suffice it to say, alcoholism is nothing more than an addiction, which points to a deeper problem- a psychological one.
Returning to my point therefore, we find that our bureaucracy, for instance, is symptomatic of sadism. Many of us can recall a time when we visited a ministry and met with a clerk, or security guard who was outright arrogant. That person might have shouted us into a line or even refused to deal with our matter, not simply out of discourtesy, but perhaps unconsciously from the high they received exercising control over us. Erich Fromm, in “For the Love of Life” posited that the bureaucrat guilty of this is actually aroused when they can assert their authority over someone “below” them. He advances that these people do not mind the modest wage they receive, because the added compensation of control, of determining someone else’s life in some regard, is absolutely gratifying.
No doubt we have also seen wealthy business people shaming their sales girls or labourers, not simply because of a calculation error or misplaced item, but out of that unconscious desire to possess, own and dispense of at will. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” and unknowingly, those who feed on it, are gradually fattening themselves on sadistic impulses. And if that is an exaggeration, is there no one else who once witnessed a “boss” physically assaulting his employee?
Beyond the sphere of public or private business, we cannot help but reflect on the virulence of political remarks. Sadistic veins channel some of the rhetoric where political opponents are accused of unscrupulous activities or even massacre. We are familiar with the many diatribes and what exactly was spouted, but what is noteworthy is that the modus operandi is always the same- to shame and demean so that we can control. The “cuss down”, like the alcoholism, is nothing more than an addiction. It is a morbid expression of that need to make someone inferior, less human, so that another person can feel superior, godly. Visit the political rallies though, and we find hordes of supporters, cheering and applauding this rancour. We can censure the dancehall concerts for social decay, yet celebrate leaders who maim others through the venom of their words. Knowing that wounded people will wound others, it would seem that we are participating in our own killing.
As we peer a little closer we recognise that shaming and belittling is actually a normal means of classroom management, even instruction. Can we forget those teachers who let us know how dumb we were when we answered a question incorrectly? Or, perhaps those lecturers who inscribed an F in bold red, when there might have been the possibility of a D or even C? I am not questioning the integrity or competence of teachers, just highlighting that the pedagogical practices of some are polluted with a need to control, to dominate and to feel pleasure from that.
The most obvious and detestable of our educational practices, which some still champion, is corporal punishment. It has been a while since I last visited a classroom in Guyana, but the use of the switch to instil knowledge and discipline leaves scars on the psyche, which eventually festers into anxiety, low self-esteem, and self-loathing. Renowned psychologist, Alice Miller, has awakened us to the fact that spankings, beatings and humiliation of any kind will “injure the integrity and dignity of a child, even if their consequences are not visible right away” but for some reason, we view that as counter-intuitive. Could it be that as a result of this deflated sense of self that innocent-born humans are slashing the throats of pensioners and leaving them  prostrate in their own blood?
Most shockingly though is that our methods of child rearing is largely based on dominating, humiliating and assaulting the child. There is a lot of social rhetoric about child abuse, and I know of cases where the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security has been vigilant. However, it is not rare to see a parent berating a delinquent child, smacking them on the head, or brutally striking them on all parts of their bodies. As a matter of fact, we recently read about a mother who doused her 12-year- old daughter with smouldering rice gruel. The mother was imprisoned, so now not only is the mother figure absent, but the hatred that child will possibly repress might one day become intolerable.
Despite the rationalisations of discipline, many of these parents see their children as possessions, as things to be dictated and moulded the way they (the parents) would like to see those children develop. Now that might be a noble gesture, but the line between guidance and tyranny can be razor thin, and if transgressed, can be equally painful. Just ask some of those high-achieving doctors, lawyers and academics what their upbringing was like, and we might very well hear stories of parental domination and regimentation. Sure enough these individuals might be socially successful, but what might not be visible are the psychological scars of emotional incest that they carry. Once again, the theme is domination for the satisfaction of someone, and the tragic outcome is a lifetime of wounding from one generation to the next.
The man who bludgeons a woman to death with a steel pipe then commits suicide by ingesting poison carries his own wounds. This is not to victimise the victim, but to highlight that those who have been dominated, or wounded, will exact same on others. They might have been abused in their home as children, faced humiliation in school, persecuted in the workplace, and eventually exposed to a social and political climate priding itself, in the name of tradition, on domination and dehumanisation.
The macabre and grisly reports continue to saturate our dailies and the choices are always the same: look away in indifference or heed Walcott and allow “The mind [to] swing inward on itself in fear/Swayed towards nausea from each normal sign?” By allowing that fear, we conscientiously bring awareness to the horror that envelops us, and perhaps then we can free ourselves from the illusions of economic prosperity and see the sad truth- that our bestiality is slowly getting the better of us, and that gradually, if not already, we inhabit a social wasteland.