Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Marginalisation, not Tamil movies, the cause of violence

M Nadarajah (Malaysiakini)

Another opinion, based on a selective use of mostly American studies on the relationship between media and violence, institutionalised by Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), suggests that the central agency causing the
problems within the Tamil community, in particular gangsterism, stems from the Tamils watching Tamil cinema.

Apparently, the Tamil cinema from Madras, India is the cause of Tamil Malaysians straying away from the path of expected positive community development. Solution: Get rid of Tamil films.

CAP has without doubt made major contributions to protecting the interest of the Malaysian consumers. But certainly it has done an unforgivable disservice to the Tamil/Indian community. Possessing a huge cultural capital and capable of influencing popular opinion, CAP seems to have been able to promote an argument that many, including the Malaysian government, like to

Tamil films are the cause of Tamil anti-social behaviour. A recent New Straits Times editorial (Sept 12, 2000) offers a view that is contrary to what CAP likes to believe. The NST correctly observed that the characters in the films that CAP, and others like CAP, love to attack - films like Thalapathi and Nayagan by a sensitive and creative Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam -
are really about poor people who have been forced into situations that have led them to resort to violence. CAP seems either completely ignorant or evasive of complex Indian realities.

CAP has also the habit, at least in this case, to offer selective support studies as evidence of the connection between media and violence. It mentions some American studies, for instance, while carefully avoiding others that throw doubt about these studies or tries to explain the relationship between the media and violence in a more complex fashion, what I believe to be more realistic. In any case, CAP does not have last word on this matter. The relationship CAP is trying hard to establish is really a contested one. There is simply no agreement on it.

To American reports such as "Children, Violence and the Media" by the Senate Committee of the Judiciary brought in September 1999 that relates violence in America to the media, there are many more studies that simply throw doubts about a simplistic connection. CAP seems to make a moralistic analysis, a claim that implies that all violence spring from similar causes or that all violence has same characteristics. That is a rather naïve understanding about violence or aggression in society.

Murder rate lower

A 1998 Unesco global study on media violence suggest that "depending on the personality characteristics of the children, and depending on their everyday-life experiences, media violence satisfies different needs: It 'compensates' own frustrations and deficits in problem-areas. It offers 'thrills' for children in a less problematic environment."

In the discussion on solutions to media violence, the same report suggests, "What are possible solutions? Probably more important than the media are the social and economic conditions in which children grow up", an expert in the field has this say: "Children in Canada and the United States watch virtually the same television. Yet, the murder rate in Canada, and the rate of
violence in general, is much lower than in the United States. Children in Japan watch probably the most violent, the most lurid and graphic television in the world, and the rate of violent crime there is minuscule compared to Canada and the United States."

In a 1996 article, the same scholar, Jonathan Freedman, observed that "Television is an easy target for the concern about violence in our society but a misleading one. We should no longer waste time worrying about this subject. Instead let us turn our attention to the obvious major causes of violence, which include poverty, racial conflict, drug abuse, and poor parenting."

Melanie Brown, an Australian academic, in a 1996 article makes the following observation: "Numerous research studies identify an association between exposure to violence in entertainment and violent behaviour, but do not prove that exposure causes violent behaviour. Rather, there is a risk that exposure to media violence will increase the likelihood of subsequent
aggressive behaviour. This risk can be increased or decreased by a large number of other factors." Counter studies can be quoted at length.

The more serious problem with CAP's attack on Tamil cinema involves the logic of their mode of argument. CAP's argument - and those who look up to CAP - starts from the media not the individual and group or society s/he belongs. This reversal is
really the problem with the "media effects" model of explanation.

Essentially, the tendency is to start an explanation from the media and make a flat and unsustainable connection to the individual. This kind of explanation is also highly psychological in nature, losing touch with the social environment. If an explanation starts from the individual-in-community, then the tendency will be to look at the social background, identity issues,
race/ethnicity issues, gender issues, etc. In this cluster of effects, media would just be one contributory factor.

It is time CAP stopped attacking Tamil cinema as a central cause of the Tamils/Indians social problems such as gangsterism and address the more critical issues faced by the community. Of course, media is not innocent. But it needs to be critically addressed and not causally over-valued.

Minority community

A third group of people likes to believe that the Tamil/Indian peoples' problems are really a result of socio-economic and political marginalisation. Assigning causal status to Tamil schools or Tamil cinema for problems within the Tamil community is really confusing issues and blurring the focus and diluting the seriousness of socio-economic and political marginalisation.

The Tamils are a working-class minority community, a community that has been, as a result of the developments in Malaysia, pushed from rural to urban poverty, from plantation worker to factory hand, from living in an estate environment to living in a squatter area. Serious problems within the community stem from the state of socio-economic powerlessness it faces.

The Tamils/Indians are a poor minority community and poverty has become an inter-generational problem, poverty reproducing poverty. Economic powerlessness, the size of its population and poor political foresight of the Indian leadership have also led to political powerlessness.

Consequently, within the national community, the Tamils do not have much bargaining power. The Tamil community and its problems are hardly addressed seriously and systematically in the national context. Perhaps the only problem that constantly gets national attention at present is the problem of gangsterism. Even this is addressed as a punitive strategy rather than a preventive one. As part the preventive strategy if there was one, one cannot overlook the importance of upgrading the Tamil school system.

Powerlessness in the community has led to many difficulties. For instance, the young Tamil Malaysian youths educational and career options are severely limited in comparison to the other communities. Tamil schools are faced with serious  problems affecting education of a poor minority community. The presence or use of Tamil in the marketplace or public places is confined or limited to Tamil/Indian areas. Tamil Malaysians who have brought fame to Malaysia are hardly treated as
"national heroes" and have found difficulties being recognised or rewarded as one. A few millionaires like Anantha Krishnan produced by the system do not really solve the problems related to the general marginalisation of the community. Ordinary Tamils/Indians Malaysians have an uphill task to deal with in relation to their poverty and marginalised status.

Serious implications

The assignment of Tamil cinema and/or Tamil schools as main causes of Tamil Malaysians community problems is not only limited and careless but also dilutes the focus on more serious preventive measures addressing the community's socio-economic and political marginalisation. The focus on Tamil cinema and Tamil schools carry a number of serious implications.

One, Tamils/Indians who are critics of Tamil school system or Tamil cinema seem to suggest that there is something wrong with the Tamil culture or the way it articulates. Indirectly their suggestions imply severe limitation of, if not the complete removal of, certain popular Tamil cultural forms/institutions.

While cultural criticism is important for societal re-learning, corrective actions and creative cultural intervention and evelopment, they have to be part of a strategy that takes into consideration the "larger picture".

Two, such a tendency, in the context of socio-economic and political powerlessness, directly contributes to a subtle assimilation
agenda. Thus, for instance, without the proper institutionalisation of Tamil education or the promotion of an active educational system promoting multiculturalism and multicultural competencies or the production of popular Tamil entertainment forms, including Tamil cinema, the unfortunate direction of change would be the progressive loss of Tamil identity. In this context, we can see for instance a new phenomenon in Malaysia - dark brown-skinned Tamils taking on the behaviour of or, portrayed as, "blacks"!

Three, we need to re-think our strategy of building a national Malaysian community. Is it by an assimilation agenda or by actively promoting mother tongue education and/or multi-culturalism? The global society, for instance, is concerned of many languages and many linguistic communities on the brink of extinction. According to a recent study, the National Geographic Magazine observes, "half of the world's 6,000 languages will become extinct in the next century [and] 2,000 of the remaining languages will be threatened during the century after that."

In this context, it should be our effort to preserve and actively promote cultural diversity, not in terms "muzeumising" it for the purpose of selling it to tourist but in terms living it actively. Mother tongue education is not really anti-national if we can work out practically how our children, in their respective cultural stream, also go through national social and cultural socialisation.

Four, there seem to be a careful avoidance of the issues of governance in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Critics instead turn their attention on the consequences of bad and unsustainable governance instead of addressing the issues of bad or ineffective governance. Thus, the suggestion is "get rid of Tamil schools" not "Why it has failed or not doing well enough?"
This is really punishing the victim.

The debate over the problem of the Tamil/Indian Malaysian community will go on. I only hope that those in power to influence public opinion and popular action evaluate the situation carefully and propose a line of thinking and action that will help to deal with the cause of the problems faced by the Tamil/Indian Malaysian community rather than the symptoms.