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Aggression and its Forms as Cultural Constructs for Communication

-Dr Anurag Chauhan, Lecturer in English, Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya, Bilaspur ( C.G. )

It is an undisputed fact that aggression is present in every culture. It presents itself from the

private sphere to the public one. At the base of it is not taking into account the feelings or needs of

others and manipulation. Given that violence and aggression developed largely as part of the struggle

for survival, we can take the same cause to be true even today, as Hemingway said, “Everything kills

everything else in a way.” However, today it manifests itself in gigantic proportions in various

conflicts and in the form of terrorism. The aggression in a culture is decided not only by local and

contingent factors, including economic and social factors but also by historical, geographical, genetic,

and religious factors. It is also true that both of these temporary and permanent factors are not static but

are dynamic, with change, exchange, and dynamic relationship between them. The reception and

acceptance of aggression in a society and culture becomes almost instinctive, where one can link street

brawls, domestic violence, football hooliganism, campus firings etc to cultures. As such, violence

assumes a communicative value.

At the same time, most of mainstream or traditional views about violence begin as incomplete

explanations that try to explain the regularity of various forms of isolated and self-contained violent

events in such entities as gender, class, or ethnicity as these are, in turn, related to differences in

biology, psychology, sociology, culture, and mass communication. Accordingly, most conventional

explanations of violence remain incomplete because they separately view different yet related

phenomena of violence, without providing a comprehensive explanation for the full range of

interpersonal, institutional, and structural violence. In fact, most of these explanations of violence

underscore the behavioral expressions of persons to the relative exclusion of the institutional and

structural expressions (Barak 2003).

Dekeseredy and Perry say, “Traditionally, these explanations of general violence are associated

with theories that locate the origins of violence within the person or within the social environment.

Concurrently, some ad hoc theories maintain that humans are naturally inclined to act violently,

requiring little in the way of stimulation or motivation, and that violence is, ultimately, the product of a

failure of constraint or control. Other ad hoc theories maintain that humans are naturally inclined to

conform to the rules of custom and order, requiring much in the way of stimulation or motivation, and

that violence is, ultimately, the product of unusual or “deviant” impulses. From this dualistic (either/or)

non-critical perspective, violence is “normative” in one case and “aberrant” in another case.

Dialectically, however, it may very well be the case that various forms of violence are normative and

aberrant at the same time; depending on whether or not they are sanctioned or unsanctioned as

culturally and socially appropriate or inappropriate.” (2006)

The degree and kind of its presence, acceptance and reception also differ from culture to

culture. The moral values of a people or culture give messages but morality, and in turn, these messages

are also affected by aggression. The official and unofficial channels and agencies that become means of

aggression also contribute to this communicative aspect and the agency often decides the psychological

and other dimensions of aggression and its acceptance. There are many means and obtrusive and

unobtrusive ways by which aggression becomes a proxy language.

It is felt by many that people in many Asian/Third World/ Eastern/erstwhile colonized nations

are more given to violence or more of it is present latently in them. They may indulge in street fights or

fights over petty matters easily. But certainly the tendencies can not be dismissed simply as a kind of

blame. A combination of economic, social, religious factors may be responsible for that. A display of

violence taken as masculine or religious frenzy, for example, may be tolerated or even expected in a

certain cultural setting. Add to it the sensitivity for different kinds of violence. A person who may not

care to react on the death of a person of a different community killed in riots in his neighbourhood or
not care to protest against a man being mugged may raise hand on his wife for making the tea too

sweet. This sensitivity is a cultural matter too. To it we may add the oblique effect of colonization and

also of climate and geography perhaps. It is quite difficult to place and explain violence in postcolonial

terms. No doubt that there is some correspondence between the public and private practices of beliefs,

not only between the religious beliefs. But it is very difficult to draw lines about the pre- and post-

aspects of the postcolonial realities in these terms because the remnants of the earlier times are linked

with the present realities. It must be understood that there is no pristine state of precolonial times and if

we try to find one, that would be like peeling an onion to find the core. Yet, society too carries chips on

its shoulder and blaming colonialism, rightly or wrongly, is a way of release, and can have a restorative

effect .

In terms of violence it would not be too wise to adhere to the somewhat accepted criteria of

postcolonialism which makes a demarcating line considering modern capitalist economies and the

expansionism that can be related to them. Henry Schwarz (2005) says:

“Colonial domination has been a fact of life around the world for thousands of years, not

just hundreds. … postcolonial studies can examine recurring patterns and processes of

violence against neighbors and distant peoples over long periods of time. One must be

cautious however, …., in invoking such seemingly ancient antagonisms lest we fall back

into naturalistic excuses such as “human nature” for explaining violence against others.

As in all responsible scholarship, one must vigilantly contextualize and historicize the

sources of conflict so that world history does not appear as one long succession of

colonizing regimes. We feel that the lessons of the last fifty years, derived from the

specific struggle against European colonial imperialism, have provided new tools to help

us distinguish the specificity of the present from the supposedly ancient antipathies

frequently blamed for conflict. In this disciplinary configuration postcolonial studies is

allied with Peace Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, World Systems theory, certain

strains of Anthropology and Theology, and other diverse

projects for the transformation of knowledge into action that attempt to change the

present by analyzing the global and local consequences of the European domination of

the globe.” (4-5)

It can also be said that aggression and violence are a part of human identity and nature (even if

Schwarz may call so as “naturalistic excuse”) and are not simply by-products of colonialism even

though their postcolonial elements too ally with diverse projects.

Cultural beliefs, religious beliefs and history of a geographical identity, carry human nature--

along with the history of violence-- just like genes: the process of passing over, mutation, and

adaptation is there. One can muse about the intemperance of Hindu gods as depicted in old texts, the

violence resulting from whose curses and killings would not be tolerated in the modern justice system.

The Taliban may put so much of emphasis on kurbani that sacrifice/killing may be considered as

justified as self-sacrifice. Among religions too, one may find followers of one, generally speaking, to

be more temperate, less violent, among other things, because their messiah gave the message of

selflessness and forgiveness. But this is about religion as practiced on the streets, not what is given in

the scriptures simply. This is a more stable impact of religion and beliefs which is carried over. The

ethos of a religion maintains many things intact irrespective of religious boundaries. It would perhaps

seem biased but modern wars, espionages, even checks at airports fundamentally carry this point of


But the local dynamics also carry long term and short term effects both. Histories and traditions

are created both by strong men who stand apart and above, and also by small men and their groups.

Two different kinds of people, because of the history of violence faced and responded to by them, can
react differently to the same kind of things. Peoples and places carry their own system of response, and

carry traditions of peace and violence. For example, in India, a single death in Kashmir, let us say, in a

police encounter, can result in a lot of public reaction whereas the same kind of thing may not be

violently responded to in another part of India. I am sure postcolonial theory and theories about travel

can provide more analysis of this effect of geography and place.

This is something that can have a growth over a long span of time, the speediest of reasons

being overnight change of things, wars, and extraordinary men. Historical reasons, such as a long trend

of onslaught of invaders etc may make a people more battle hardened, and ‘trigger happy’ thus. In India

people of northern states –states which have faced the onslaught of invaders like the Moghuls, and

others—are more aggressive than the people of southern India. This may be true of places like Sri

Lanka and Bosnia too. In such cases, bringing of peace may be a long process. Just as we wait for the

future man whose body’s genetic changes, brought over many generations, will make him without any

appendix, in the same way we can wait for peace to work over. But human will also goes into it: it is

not a natural process as in the case of appendix. At the same time, invasions and repression may

account for a certain docility too, the people having become jaded and unresponsive. Tolerance of

violence encourages it certainly but such tolerance, unlike Gandhi’s , may be a cause of helplessness or


Postcolonial theorists may not agree with the Marxist concept of an ‘equal’ society because it

calls for homogeneity whereas progress is achieved, apart from the normal workings of the society

through normal people, by the discordant ones too. The discordant elements include aggression too.

This is a complex thing though: excess of aggression can produce people like Hitler, people who take

up causes in a perverted way. Violence or suppression—a colonial reality--also suppresses multiplicity

which is essential for the growth of cultures and nations.

The multiplicity and multiculturalism of the postcolonial world also produces a dynamo effect

due to which people tend to find security in numbers, not in numbers in a bigger way only, being

labeled as ‘Indians’ or ‘Europeans’ but on a very minimal level too, as members of a sect, or sub-caste,

or group. Behind this may be the feeling of insecurity due to the failure of a bigger group to fulfill the

needs of security, money, etc and so people take recourse to a smaller, but more tightly held and

aggressive group. This may not so much be the problem of all the postcolonial nations though.

The reactiveness of a people is not an organic thing. There are hierarchies based on class,

economic, educational and other criterion. The stress and pent up feelings may be a result of their

permutations and combinations. A woman fighting with another for tap water may have only half an

hour before the tap goes dry, while she has a child with fever at home and a drunkard of a husband who

vents out his anger on her. As such, she can not be expected to be rational or peaceful. Her husband, on

the other hand, may have faced an unpleasant childhood and deprivation. Another person may harbor ill

will towards some because he’s treated like an untouchable because of the caste system.

Availability of viable avenues for livelihood, leisure, and access to justice also determine things.

Most third world countries face the enormous problem of corruption which affects the right functioning

of things. When people lose faith in their leaders, administrators, and courts, things can go ugly. Some

years ago in Nagpur, women attacked and killed a criminal inside the court premises. He had exploited

and raped many. The women had seen the local police wink over his misdeeds and were not sure if

justice would be given or when. Many of Bollywood movies showing such group dissent became hits

perhaps because they reflected the public anger against the establishment, with reference to which it

matters little to them that it is not a colonial one if it doesn’t help their lives.

Violence/aggression in the postcolonial, postmodern world are often an outcome of the desire to

gain significance. Multitudes, specializations, restraints of laws, society etc thwart the idea or ambition

of becoming a hero or a complete man. Much of the violence aggression is because of the desire to feel
significant or ‘I am’. There was a report some time back that told how youths in England would go to

any stranger in a public place, slap him hard on the face, and run away. Perhaps holding an AK 47 or

reading in the newspapers about a bomb blast one did gives this feeling of significance too. This way,

aggression fulfills the function of channelizing the mental and emotional states into an observable,

tangible outcome. No doubt, the intellectuals detest it because for them it means a wasted labour, a

vulgar condescension to outcomes which are wrong or for which the solutions must come from the

mind. Aggression creates then pockets of resistance and acceptance within the same social and cultural


If there is a sadistic joy that people derive from violence then one should also remember that

violence has a psychological dimension and as such, it can be a build-up of many things. Some years

ago a study showed that most of the policemen in Delhi suffered from some kind of depression or

mental disorder. These are policemen-- even if many of them are corrupt, lazy or cruel--who work

under a lot of stress, pressure from public, politicians and seniors alike, often without very good

training, without amenities, without any counseling even after a big attack or encounter. Similarly,

vandalizing property for sheer joy or hurting for the heck of it is not simply a perverted pleasure for the

heck of it but such acts convey messages which point to the underlying causes and possibly, to the

solutions too.

If there is a certain prudence in linking terrorism to sects and beliefs, it would be irrational to

make this way of judging decide things completely by way of which a belief gets wrongly attached

with terrorism or violence. In a significant essay Europe as “Vanishing-Mediator” in the New World

Order” Taisha Ibraham (2004) rightly says: “ It is important to note that acts of terrorism are not

axiomatically related to Islamic fundamentalism and to non-democratic regimes as it is

presented in the Western press. Terrorism cuts across religions. Extremist Catholics of the IRA in

Ireland, the Hindu dominated LTTE in Sri Lanka, and the Hamas in Palestine are other examples in
point. Of course, the best example is of America itself (a democratized nation), in its re-born Christian

crusade against evil—that is, selected pagans viz. Muslims—with God on its side.

Why then are Islamic nations zeroed in upon for democratization? Why aren’t the global

hegemons going after North Korea, or, China for that matter? This is a game that the British had played

in colonial India where they arbitrarily divided the country for administrative convenience into

provinces to suit their colonial agenda of economic exploitation under the guise of developing the

country.” (6)

It is clear thus that culture creates its communication through the physical, psychological, and

cultural messages that are conveyed by aggression and violence.


Barak, Gregg. Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding. Thousand

Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003.

Walter S. DeKeseredy and Barbara Perry (Eds.), “A Critical Perspective on Violence” in

Advancing Critical Criminology: Theory and Application Lexington Books, 2006

Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray (Ed.) A Companion to Postcolonial Studies Oxford:

Blackwell, 2005.

Abraham, Taisha. “Europe as “Vanishing-Mediator” in the New World Order” Economic

and Political Weekly, February 14-20, 2004, 637-642.