Last week, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, a warning went around on social media. It informed people to be careful about leaving their house after 10pm, saying that a certain criminal drug-trafficking organisation was planning to “clean up” the streets of other gangs.
“We’re going to torture, kill, and dismember…” read the informative message that immediately went viral on WhatsApp and other mobile messaging platforms.
“Remember that we aren’t here to play. You are warned and you’d do well to send this message to all your friends, family, and others, for their own security,” the communique went on to say.
Shortly thereafter, a series of violent and drug-related crimes occurred across Michoacán. In Sahuayo, a man and a woman were shot dead. In Buenavista, local and federal police found 11 abandoned vehicles stocked with drugs, guns and grenades, along with two stolen motorcycles, presumably related to mobilisation inspired by the menacing message.
Authorities denied any relation to the WhatsApp threat, but the people know exactly what’s going on. It’s a turf war.
Still, even while understanding the violent cartel dynamics of territorial disputes, Michoacán’s population was unfazed. Despite an estimated 12 murders in the state in late September alone, residents kept to their daily routines.
Neither October’s social media threats nor the real-world violence that followed had any significant impact; reaction was limited to Facebook chains or maybe family discussions.
The banality of violence
Michoacán is the third-most violent state in Mexico, and homicides are rising. During the first three quarters of 2016, there were 15,201 such deaths – a 20% increase over the same period last year. A new study found that these murders are increasingly related to criminal organisations.
Mexico today is no longer just confronting violence itself but rather the banality of violence.
In Hannah Arendt’s 1969 text, On Violence, we are told that war as an apologia for violence is still with us not because humans are instinctively aggressive or due to the world’s economic problems. No, says Arendt, the reason for war’s continuing protagonism is that we haven’t found anything to replace it with.
So we humans keep brutality as the star of our days, our movies, our chats over coffee.
It’s precisely the maintenance of violence as a principal actor in human life that makes it so banal. However much disgust we Mexicans may feel at the drug war-engendered violence of cartels tearing apart our country for the past ten years, we nonetheless talk about violence as an everyday event, as if it were background decor, a complement to our daily lives.
And how could we not? Add 2016’s 15,000 violent deaths to the 66,400 from the rest of Peña Nieto’s administration (since 2012), and experts say Mexico’s fatalities exceed those of a war zone.
Massacres like the one in Ayotzinapa that disappeared 43 students in 2014, or the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in which soldiers killed some 300 demonstrators before the Mexico City Olympics, are historical markers for this country. But in day-to-day life, when citizens are saturated with threats, violence, and misinformation, the kind of savagery we’ve seen in Michoacán becomes normalised.
We have moved from the denial of violence, like that examined by Arendt in her cannonical 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, a study on the banality of evil, to fear and surprise, and, finally, to numbness.
The psychology of disassociation
Psychological and sociological research support this stance. A climate of violence can have devastating effects on communities, creating a vicious circle in which violence produces distance between people and keeps them from public spaces, which are often the sites of ferocity. As a result, community bonds weaken.
Unsurprisingly, for those who’ve been immersed in violence, it also becomes normal. A psychological response of self-defence compels people to stop feeling the impacts of the horror that surrounds them.
So here we are in Mexico today, linked disinterestedly to violent acts that no longer even interrupt our day-to-day life. Murders, disappearances, dismembered bodies on the streets – why stop what you’re doing, if it’s just going to keep happening? One must still work, run errands, leave the house.
By definition, an “event” is something that interrupts daily life. It’s a “rupture in being” that, according to Alain Badiou’s 1988 Being and Event, interrupts routine proceedings and the continuity of historic discourse. More importantly, Jacques Lacan affirms that an event can be expressed through language, meaning that we can give meaning to the meaninglessness of the rupture and endow terrible acts with symbolic significance.
But when it comes to violent acts on a scale as great as Mexico’s, where it is estimated that more than 26,000 people have disappeared, there is no way to adequately express the fear people experience nor for them to testify about what they’ve seen.
Violence has become a non-event.
In Mexico, we often respond to expressions of concern by saying, no pasa nada – nothing’s wrong, nothing’s up. Now framed by the banalisation of violence, this phrase, which also reflects the official discourse (which is a discourse of dissimulation), assures that the country is “changing for the better”.
No pasa nada, todo está bien (nothing’s wrong, everything’s fine).
Death and depersonalisation
Such detachment suggests a psychological effect that I call depersonalisation.
When a violent act doesn’t change life, it means people do not feel affected by what’s happening around them. They are removed from society – a connection that’s already difficult to maintain for reasons I’ve previously analysed .
Depersonalisation can be understood as an alteration in the way a person experiences herself and the surrounding world. When death or disappearance aren’t events, in Badiou’s definition, then there is no social connection left.
We may also look to psychoanalytic theory about the formation of the “I”, which stipulates that the “other”, starting with the baby’s earliest caretaker, is an important part of one’s self-construction. For Lacan, the mirror stage is:
This moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into being mediated by the other’s desire [and] constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence due to competition from other people.
Thus, when people are unaffected by what’s happening to others, it leads to a fracturing of the self – again, depersonalisation. This process is characterised by episodes of anxiety, memory lapses and identity confusion, even complete detachment from reality.
Impact of violence on childhood development
I think that when the suffering of neighbours and nation no longer powerfully resonates, our integrity as a nation is at risk.
Specifically, when threats of dismemberment and shootouts – events that cause real people to die – don’t stop a city in its tracks, then what we’ve got are depersonalised cities. Walking the streets today can be an empty experience, with everyone tuned in to their own device, learning about what’s happening digitally, without having to get involved. Without really caring what happens to others.
But we really should care.
exposure to community violence is among the most detrimental experiences children can have, impacting how they think, feel and act.
I’ve found no such studies from Mexico. It would be interesting to evaluate the impact of banality of violence here. How are children responding? What are their perceptions of their parents’ indifference to what’s happening around them?
What is logical to think – or indeed, to fear – is that kids, being kids, will imitate what they see. They’ll play at being adults, being narcos, at dismembering. We’re already seeing the signs in the case of Ponchis, the 13-year-old assassin, who confessed to at least ten homicides and was murdered shortly thereafter: one child’s terrifying response to his violent world.
To find an alternative to this destructive trend – and here once again I return to Arendt – we’d have to engage each other in debate, propose different forms of living together and new ways to do politics as a populace. Quite simply, we’d have to get involved.
Abraham Martínez González does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.