EL ESPECTADOR

Colombia, How War Spreads 'Cultural Violence' Into Daily Life

Civil conflict has lasted so long in Colombia that many ordinary people now view gratuitous violence as customary, and in some cases even admirable.

Member of the FARC in the demobilization zone in the province of Tolima
Member of the FARC in the demobilization zone in the province of Tolima
Alejandro Moya

BOGOTÁ — The Colombian press recently reported on a 12-year-old girl in Medellín who was stabbed with scissors by another female student at the José Félix Restrepo INEM school who was just a year older than her. This has been mostly presented as just another case of bullying, though admittedly a serious one. Yet a deeper reading could also consider this incident as an indirect consequence of the prolonged fighting that has assailed Colombia after a half-century of civil conflict.

War has eroded the nation's moral fiber, and disproportionate cases of violence like this, where a negligible dispute at school came to threaten a girl's life, are signs of the deep, intangible harm civil war continues to inflict.

Since the 1970s, sociological studies have observed a marked rise in overall crime rates in the wake of armed conflicts. One of the first and most complete reports was written by Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner who revealed an increase in homicides and assaults in more than 100 countries that had suffered civil or foreign wars. The crimes were committed by ordinary people, not victims or prisoners of cycles of hate and vengeance, nor necessarily former fighters jaded to violence.

In the 1990s, the Norwegian sociologist and mathematician Johan Galtung formally named this phenomenon "culltural violence." This is understood today to be a sum of social norms, practices, and beliefs that promote violence as an adequate means of resolving conflicts, in place of the traditional prohibitions that restricted it and considered it as a last resort. It is a transformation wherein harming others is no longer taboo nor subject to rejection and remorse, but increasingly an acceptable and even desired source of power, status, money, and moral satisfaction.

Cultural violence is the product of high exposure both to serious levels of violence and to the bombardment of messages justifying, promoting and glorifying aggression. It comes both from witnessing and becoming used to violence and from listening to and persuading yourself that this is good and necessary. The cultural change thus emerges from material violence evident in conflict statistics, and from a symbolic violence, including verbal cues in favor of conflict.

More recent studies like those of Christina Steenkamp highlight the role of jurisprudence in the development of cultural violence. As an instrument of social control and a discourse that first defines reality, then imposes that definition on reality, jurisprudence has the potential to increase aggression and even persuade people that injuring someone is all right.

This perspective makes norms themselves a source of cultural violence. A society that glorifies force and the destruction of enemies using laws, sows delusions in people's minds. It legitimizes notions of eliminating or defacing others or viewing others as toxic bodies devoid of rights and humanity or as diabolical stereotypes. Ten years ago, the German sociologist and jurist Peter Waldmann stated with good reason that Colombia was gravely afflicted with cultural violence, because of the length of its civil conflict. Today, figures on violence and martial laws corroborate his theory.

Updated figures from the state coroner's office, National Police and the Single Register of Victims (RUV), show that in the last 20 years, 40.8% of violent deaths were the consequence of war, and less than 15% related to thefts and related offenses. That makes roughly 45% of homicides the product of household and personal violence.

Colombian laws regulating the conflict have in turn had direct repercussions on the rate of casualties and clashes, on the meaning and moral contents of the war and consequently, on collective perceptions of life and death. In contrast with norms operating in peacetime, our military policy has sanctified victory over human rights and imposed dichotomies in categorizing combatants. The world is divided between friends and enemies.

Our military policy has sanctified victory above human rights.

The Colombian War Manual and Armed Forces Rules of Engagement have classified guerrilla fighters as entirely harmful creatures and a constant, and often lethal threat, to be neutralized or detained on sight. Colombia is one of the few countries that works the Continuous Combat Function, allowing soldiers to attack members of subversive groups at any moment and in any context.

So with war setting the standard, and society following its lead, we have adopted a radical and destructive reading of our conflict geared not at resolving differences but surviving at the cost of the opponent's destruction. There is no room for dialogue here. Both in Colombia and in that school, conflict has become a setting where participants base their imagined futures and sense of identity on a rival's annihilation, not a problem's resolution.

The abnormal growth of cultural violence is no surprise in a country where war became the normal state of affairs for so long. We are no longer dumbstruck before an aggressive and hostile citizen, but admire them and enjoy the harm they do to whomever they please. Without a public debate on the continuing effects of the war, daily violence among citizens is inevitable. Like the schoolgirl who found in her bag a simple, sharp remedy to the small problem of someone who disagreed with her.

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