Jayakumar S. Ammangudi
Excerpted with permission from Malhotra, Rajiv and Aravindan Neelakandan, “Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines,” Amaryllis Publishers, Delhi, 2011
Western Discourse on India’s Fragments
Section: Atrocity Literature as a Genre
Printed Pages: 182-185
Atrocity Literature as a Genre
The control over discourse by supplying meta-narratives serves as a part of political control. In support of colonialism, there developed a genre of literature in the West that became known as ‘atrocity literature.’ Over the past four centuries, a corpus of academic and fictional writings that have been adapted into Broadway plays and Hollywood movies have portrayed Western encounters with other cultures, such as Indians, Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Haitians, Cubans, Vietnamese, and Arabs – reinforcing the idea that the rest of the world is inferior to European/American culture and must be won over for their own good. Only then can John Wayne fade peaceably into the sunset on his horse.
Atrocity literature was integral to portraying other cultures’ strangeness and exotica by emphasizing the dangers they posed. One way to understand the power of atrocity literature is to examine it in the context of American history since the early 1600s, where it played a role in every episode of prejudice, territorial acquisition, and economic expansion.[i] The process may be briefly stated as follows:
- As European settlers in America expanded westward across the American continent, they pushed the natives ahead of them along an ever-shfting frontier, which was understood as a demarcation line between civilization and savagery.
- The myth-making consisted of painting a vivid picture of the native American as being ‘dangerously savage’—a people who were a threat to the innocent, God-fearing Christian folks. The imagery sometimes suggested that America was the Biblical Eden, now belonging to European colonialists, and it was being violated and threatened by evil savages from the frontier. This notion of the ‘frontier’ came to represent the collective rest of the non-Christian, hence ‘uncivilized’ world.
- The natives were typically depicted in scenes of ‘idol worshipping’, replete with grotesque divinities, as opposed to the one true God of Western Christendom. These ‘others’ were packaged to appear primitive: lacking in morals and ethics, and prone to violence. This trio—lack of aesthetics, lack of morality, and lack of rationality—is found over and over again in atrocity literature.
- When conflicts erupted, the Whites, as civilizing people, were depicted as responding legitimately and dutifully to the actions of savages. Thus the brutalities by the colonizers were depicted as justified and reasonable measures.
- The savage cultures were also shown to victimize their own women and children. Therefore, the violent civilizing mission of the Whites seemed to be in the best interests of the savage societies at large.
- This kind of atrocity literature gave intellectual sustenance to imperialist doctrines like Manifest Destiny, White Man’s Burden, etc.
- It also offered an emotional hook. The exciting adventures of frontiersmen, including explorers, soldiers, and cowboys generated even more such literature.
- This genre of literature thrived on half-truths, selecting items from here and there, and stitching themes together into a narrative that played on the reader’s psyche with pre-conceived stereotypes.[ii] It sought to create a sense of heightened urgency in dealing with savagery.
- The non-Western cultures portrayed in this way may or may not have committed the alleged atrocities attributed to them. The truth, in all probability, was not as one-sided as depicted. Typically, conflicts were exaggerated and sensationalized in order to make an ideological point.
- In contrast to the approach towards non-Western civilization, the social ills and atrocities in Western societies are characterised as aberrations: racism, colonial genocide, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, sexual abuse, etc., are considered as isolated acts that deviate from the true Western character.
- As Western colonization expanded worldwide, the myth of the frontier proved successful in subduing the natives of America , Africa and Asia . It was compatible with other forms of European expansionism. Now the frontier could be anywhere outside of western civilization.
- Once established in the popular mind, atrocity literature was often used to justify the harsh subjugation of the people on the frontier. The same myth that excused genocide of Native Americans later excused large-scale violence such as the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.
In every era of Western expansion, many scholars naively participated in producing such atrocity literature without taking into consideration how the material would eventually be used. Once a target culture is branded and marked in this way, it becomes the recipient of all sorts of untoward allegations. It becomes impossible for the leaders of any such branded culture to defend themselves against the bombardment of false charges and depictions. In order to defend oneself, one has to first acknowledge the false allegations, which legitimize them and make a victory for the other side. Anyone effectively criticizing the Western powers is quickly put on the list of suspected dangerous savages and stigmatized. One thing that atrocity literature insists is that savages almost always lie. Therefore, normal rules of evidence and fair representation no longer apply, and another ‘savage culture’ is neutered.[iii]
[i] Atrocity literature has been used by the American Government to justify its interventions in a ‘guilt-free’ manner. For a historical analysis of atrocity literature and its devastating effect on non-White cultures encountered by White Americans, see: (Malhotra 2009) . For a theoretical framework of cultural violence, see (Gatlung 1990) . He defines cultural violence as ‘any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural forms.’
[ii] A very good example of the power of atrocity literature manufactured by colonialism in Indian context is the phenomenon of Thugs. Researcher Martine van Wœrkens in a detailed analysis of the Thug phenomenon reveals in the seminal work ‘The Strangled Traveler’ that while it is true that ‘many different groups of Thugs actually did exist over the centuries the monsters the British made of them had much more to do with colonial imaginings of India than with the real Thugs.’ (Wœrkens and Tihanyi 2002)
[iii] Many Americans criticized their government for using such propaganda tactics to build up the public frenzy prior to attacking Iraq in order to frame it as ‘savage war.’ Human rights scholars, compiled the atrocity literature about the plight of Arab women and other citizens, even if the condition of Arab women was far direr in other Arab countries than it was in Iraq., The propagandistic roll of these scholars has not been widely acknowledged. This significant service to propaganda paid by scholars and the media should serve as impetus for further scholarly introspection in to roll of academia and the news media in the creation of atrocity literature that directly influences American foreign policy This should serve as reason for other scholars to introspect. Importantly, throughout the debates on what to do about the savages, there took place an intellectual game the purpose of which was to show that a fair and equitable due process was being carried out. Marimba Ani, a black scholar, calls this ‘rhetorical ethics’ – a form of ethical hypocrisy that it is not meant to be carried out; it’s a mere pretence of carrying out complex procedures.