With so much suffering circulating on a daily basis, commentators have observed the rise of ‘compassion fatigue’: we can no longer muster up enough compassion towards these sights and news reports. But, alongside compassion fatigue, we can discern the rise of a different cultural order: percepticide.
A culture of percepticide arises when the population and citizenry are frightened into not seeing. The coinage comes from Diana Taylor who noted that during Argentina’s Dirty War (1974-1983), people denied that they ever saw the military and the police picking up people off the streets and taking them away. She argued that the citizens were rendered so frightened that the population had become ‘silent, deaf, and blind’, resulting in a ‘self-blinding of the general population’.
Percepticide is the consciously willed death of perception. It is a variant of the time-honoured three-monkey formula: see, hear and speak no evil, with a difference. Percepticide ensures that evil does not get reported, spoken of, or even noticed. This means it goes unquestioned, unchecked, unfought.
In the case of Argentina, the ‘disappeared’ (those arrested by the government and never seen again) were literally taken away in full public gaze, but nobody wished to come forward as witnesses. The larger question, then, is, does our willful blindness to visible inequalities, the culture of threat and atrocity, enable the disappearance of people and processes?
The answer has to be a clear affirmative. Percepticide marks the end of a public responsibility of being a public, the citizens’ responsibility of being citizens: we are the public only when, and if, we perceive ourselves as a public. When the neighbour and the distant, the familiar and the stranger, become invisible, then we lose a sense of this public.
When we are entranced by signs of consumer culture, fashion or entertainment, we readily merge into the category of the consumer-citizen and the consuming individual: ‘I consume, therefore I am’. When we develop a culture of percepticide, we become unseeing citizens. Following from this: when our turn comes, nobody else will ‘see’ what has been done to us. We can also be ‘disappeared’ with impunity.
End of ‘Us’
There is a link between percepticide and the erosion of the community. ‘Response’ and ‘responsibility’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘species’ are etymologically linked (root word: respecere). That is, it is when we respond to the others whom we perceive, as spectacle, that we become responsible for them, and it is this mutual perception that brings us together as a community.
We re-cognise each other because we are first cognisant of the other. Percepticide ensures that there is no such mutual recognition, identification and therefore no sense of ‘us’. This is an adequate enough reason to guard against percepticide.
In contemporary India, and globally, we do see the rise of a culture of percepticide. We deny seeing atrocity, we deny seeing repression. We cleverly shift focus on to presumed signs of democratic growth – malls, entertainment, consumer-choices, corporate nationalism – and therefore not see its inherent unevenness and ever-widening inequalities.
Threat All Around
We pretend that the aspirational models presented to us, whether in terms of opportunities for employment, foreign investment (and therefore ‘development’), access to quality education set up by Brand India, are fine and indicators of progress. IT towers abut onto slums, and we only see the towers, for example. We see malls and not the small stores struggling to survive. We see massively funded colleges and universities but not their tyrannical management systems and pathetic teaching.
In the case of public universities, we see the increase in enrollment but deny that the graduates we turn out are unemployable because of the poor teaching imparted. We also deny, as my colleague once declared – making her an urban legend in a matter of hours – at a selection committee meeting, no less, that most of our professors, armed to their yellowed teeth with intellectually inconsequential PhDs, are unfit to teach at school-level.
What we mostly ignore is the barely concealed culture of hatred and threat all around. Targeted attacks, denial of rights, ghettoisation, the deliberate erasure of history, a crude simplification of complicated traditions so as to ensure a homogenous one, and the collapse of cultures of disagreement, dissent and difference are all ignored, consistently.
Percepticide of this kind enables vigilantism but also untrammeled state power, corporate violence and the collapse of public accountability. In Argentina and many other South American dictatorships, percepticide made for continued tyrannies but also ensured that the citizens, even after the end of such regimes, could not look each other in the eye. Like the people in the Polish countryside who saw the crowded cattle cars heading into Auschwitz, and pretended they didn’t see, where and to what end, they were being taken.
Similarly, one may ask, did other residents not see the terrible atrocities in the camps of godmen? How do such practitioners of percepticide live on, having seen but pretended blindness, and therefore having sent people to terrible ends?
Percepticide empowers and enables the harassment and extermination of peoples, those marked out as already vulnerable for various reasons. The only process that keeps the state – any kind of state, whether a dictatorship or democracy – in check is the fear of angry public perceptions, and once the state is assured that percepticide marks its populations, it can terrorise with impunity.
Vulnerable populations – minorities, the displaced, the economically and socially marginalised – are vulnerable precisely because they are not seen or perceived as vulnerable. Concerted action against them stems from the oppressors’ belief that, given public percepticide, they may be extinguished without even a squeak of public outrage.
Cultures of percepticide ensure, above all else, that we are all culpable because we choose not to see.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)