Our glaring inhumanity: On institutionalized and direct violence

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in one of my major classes (a socio-anthropology course on religion) when the discussion touched on violence. It was apropos at that time since it coincided with the news reports about the Catholic Church opposing abortion and the extrajudicial killings.

My professor, Dr. Josefina, a trained anthropologist and awfully brilliant in her own right, mentioned that oftentimes, we are so shocked when presented with direct violence: war, rape, assault, and murder, such as the killing of babies and the killing of drug addicts on the streets.

Rightly so, because direct violence is the most visible kind of violence and is what we often see on television.  

What we fail to realize, however, is that direct violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Direct violence happens when a more powerful form reinforces it. It was Norwegian sociologist Johann Galtung who postulated the concept of institutionalized violence; institutionalized violence enables direct violence, and is almost always controlled by ‘power centers’ or groups of people who have dominion over the system.

Classism and elitism, for example, are just two of the many outcomes of institutionalized violence. When attitudes, norms, and laws are formed to protect and benefit the upper class, those at the bottom of society are disadvantaged, discriminated, and oppressed.

It’s when a poor person is denied treatment from a hospital because he cannot pay the bills; it’s when poor pregnant mothers self-abort because they don’t have access to free maternity care; it’s when government funds go to off-shore bank accounts of politicians instead of public welfare; and it’s when poor drug addicts are gunned down because they are a criminal, first and foremost, and only mentally-ill on second thought.

Whereas direct violence is swift, such as pulling the trigger on a person’s head, structural violence is mercilessly gradual. My professor morbidly called it “killing the people softly”.

It’s no surprise that out of the more than 8,000 suspected drug addicts and pushers killed, Amnesty International reported that a majority of them are poor people. I have yet to read news of a drug addict being gunned down in, say, Ayala Alabang or Forbes Park, but I’m never going to hear of that. It’s always going to be a nameless, faceless, voiceless pauper living in the precarious slums.  

It gives me no conciliation, either, that when we see reports of a person gunned down on the street, we are suddenly up in arms because it’s shocking, cold-blooded murder! Yet, before that person died, when they were starving, when they were compelled to peddle drugs to buy food, and forced to use drugs to pass the hunger—did we care? We were silent.

In a recent interview with ABS-CBN, President Duterte defended his war on drugs and, I quote, “Iyung talagang mahirap, iyan nga ang problema. It needs people killed.”

This is the same president who, during his oath taking in June, reiterated the lost values the Filipino people must recover: Love of country, and love for the helpless and impoverished.

Again, the very same president who, in the same month, stood on the podium and encouraged the police and the public to kill drug dealers themselves, and promised to bulletproof those who do so.

Was President Duterte the one who pulled the trigger of each gun that killed these suspected drug addicts and pushers? No, but he was the one who created the atmosphere that gave the police and vigilantes hubris and power to kill.

Of course, there will be the banal remarks from those who don’t know any better: It’s the poor drug pusher’s fault for peddling and using drugs. If that were the case, then it is also the poor’s fault for starving, and for being cheated by the system—a merciless system that cripples them and cuts them at the knees.

The worst I’ve heard, by far, is that it vis the poor’s fault for being poor. As if their entire existence is a mistake, as if killing them should be justified. When each day is a struggle to survive, the poor are pushed to engage in desperate means for survival, even if it means scavenging through dumpsters, stealing, selling their bodies, and selling drugs. The poor, although poor, are not aimless.

We are nine months into the drug war and it’s dawning on me that perhaps change actually meant shortchange. When love of country has been reduced to a pissing contest, on who can piss the farthest and highest—not out of love, but purely for intellectual fellatio, to masturbate our egos—then we have no right to speak of love.

And this is where we’ve failed. When it’s the cold, lifeless bodies of the poor ending up on the streets, to even speak of love would be rudderless and incomprehensible.

The Catholic Church, in all its glory, will remain its black and white opposition on abortion and the extrajudicial killings, while being neutral about the lost, the least, and the last. But this war on humanity isn’t about my rhetoric versus your rhetoric, nor is it about the Divine, because it’s not the Divine who butchers the people.

While those who have died are now in their quiet afterlives, those of us remaining are left circumspect to wring our hands and deal with the situation. What we are (not) doing now is oceans removed from the principles we preach. What is happening to our people now is an injustice we all saw too well from our elevated watchtowers, an injustice we are a part of, and so far, have done nothing to stop.

I gaze continually, unwinking, at the chaos of the country and am gutted because, as a college student, I know I am powerless and can only do so much. Decades from now, it will be us reflecting on the times and telling stories to the youth. It scares me, really, to think that one day, my child or grandchild could look up at me and ask what part I played in these killings. It scares me so much more to think that I would have nothing to say.



Cody Cepeda

By Cody Cepeda

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