Recent acts of violence against the less powerful are symptoms of an even bigger problem.
AN assistant warden beats an 11-year-old boy so badly, his legs need to be amputated, his suffering so great that he eventually dies.
Some men beat up another man who honks while they are praying.
A 12-year-old girl pulls out of a chess tournament after the director deems her clothes too provocative.
We are rightly outraged by all these events, which range from the ridiculous to the outright cruel and criminal. We write letters to the papers, sign petitions and rage all over social media about these people. Yet we are not remarking on the underlying thread among them all.
And that is anger. What all these incidents have in common is a seething anger in the perpetrators that lies just below the surface, waiting for something to bring it out into the open. What could possibly cause a grown man to abuse a child so badly, if not for some deep seated anger about something that may or may not be related to the child? And yet our outrage is not universal, with various parties willing to defend him and bail him out.
Similarly with the beating up of a man who had the apparent temerity to interrupt people at prayers with honking. If you’re concentrating on communing with God at Friday prayers, you would notice nothing externally at all. Secondly, one should come out of prayers feeling serene and calm, not angered and violent.
And thirdly, anyone who has had the misfortune to park in the wrong place on a Friday knows very well the frustration of not being able to move their car. This I blame on town planners and architects who routinely build mosques and other houses of worship without adequate parking space.
I have just started reading a book by the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra called Age of Anger. His book agrees with me that many people, as individuals, are very angry these days.
His theory, however, is based on his vast reading of history. That people often react with anger when they feel left out of the grand sweep of history, and are vulnerable to having these feelings exploited by various autocrats and demagogues to a very unsatisfactory end.
When a person feels left out from what he sees makes the elites of a society happy – wealth and power mostly – but he feels powerless to gain any entry into that elite, then he reacts in the one way that makes him feel powerful, with violence.
It is no coincidence that these acts of seemingly irrational violence are carried out by very ordinary people. Feeling insignificant can be humiliating, especially in a society where men of a specific race and religion, are constantly told they are superior. Why therefore, do these superior beings have to constantly struggle in such anonymous humiliation?
Thus an anger begins within a person when he realises that all the aspirations he is told he should have by sheer virtue of his race and religion – that God-given entitlement – are simply not going to come true.
Not unless he knows someone, not unless he toadies to someone just a bit more important than him, who toadies to another slightly more important person, all the way up that hierarchy.
All this does is point out how low down the food chain he is and this only makes him feel hopeless. And angry. So he looks around for someone even less powerful than him. A little boy. A little girl. A member of what he believes is an inferior race and religion. And takes it out on them in varying degrees of violence, including fatally.
I’m not saying that we should excuse this behaviour at all. But when you see this ever-growing list of acts of violence – against women, children, people of other faiths, sexual minorities – any reasonable person has to wonder what is going on.
I doubt our leaders haven’t noticed these incidents but they appear to have kept silent. They know very well that these incidents are symptoms of rage ... against them. For not fulfilling promises, not of a smooth path to heaven, but of a decent and dignified life on Earth. Where every single person feels that he has an equal chance in life. As Mishra points out, this rage isn’t limited to certain people only. Nor is it a new phenomenon.
“Then (in the early 20th century) as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines.”
He continues, “The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realise the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty. ...Their isolation has also been intensified by the decline or loss of post-colonial nation-building ideologies, and the junking of social democracy by globalised technocratic elites.”
The angry young man justifying his racist or violent acts in Malaysia with religion is not much different from the supporters of far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen or even Donald Trump.
They are suspicious of the elites who seem to have everything while they have nothing, yet they cannot help but allow the very same elites to lead them by the nose to a promised land that they delude themselves will materialise someday.
But ultimately it doesn’t, at least not in the way they expect it to. They do not fathom that while their job is supposedly to ensure a heavenly future, their secular rivals are being rewarded for preparing their charges for a comfortable life on earth.
How could they be subjected to such injustice when they’re fulfilling, so they’ve been told, God’s wishes? This is a rage we need to pay attention to. Because history has shown that unless this rage is properly dealt with, the results can be catastrophic.
We are not like France, a country with enough sensible people not to allow a demagogue like Le Pen to gain ultimate power. Nor are we even like the United States where despite Trump, there is an active and vocal resistance and the institutions that can keep him in check.
We are not listening to warnings. That is a recipe for tragedy.
Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. The views expressed here are entirely her own.