Author: Jennifer

Violence in our Language

Welcome to our Hillbrow…

Welcome to our Hillbrow, the land where crime, prostitution, and violence prevails, the land where laws do not bind its people. Throughout the novel, we observed multiple cases where violence takes place in Hillbrow, from a seven years old child getting hit by a car to hearing gunshots ringing in the streets. Curious about how violence takes form in the novel (and beyond), I did some research into how violence can be characterized. One interpretation by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes the multifaceted nature of violence in his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections as the following: “At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.” In essence, besides the visible forms of violence that are often reported and discussed, there also exist less visible forms of violence which often perpetuate and accentuate the “obvious signals of violence.”

In his book, Žižek argues that one of the most harmful forms of invisible violence is represented in everyday language. This idea is supported in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, in which non-nationals are reduced to the label Makwerekwere, a derogatory term “derived from kwere kwere, a sound that their unintelligible foreign languages were supposed to make, according to the locals” (p. 20). They say that language is a tool used to connect cultures and build bridges between people; however, it is more than a simple tool: it is a double-edged sword that could also shatter bridges and sever relationships. Vilifying non-nationals by referring to them as Makwerekwere reduces them to less than human beings. In doing so, they are subjected to greater risks of physical violence, one reason being that perpetrators of violence are less inclined to feel guilt or remorse towards their actions. Another reason is that they even feel justified in putting what they perceive as “sub-humans” in their rightful places. Such thoughts are manifested in the 2008 xenophobic attacks throughout South Africa. In essence, dehumanization through language is a sensitive topic that warrants our attention, especially given its power in destroying social order.

The Warrior (and the Ghost) in our Genes

In our previous discussion on Ibsen’s Ghosts, we interpreted what Mrs. Alving means by her use of ghosts in the following passage:

“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them” (Ibsen, p.120)

We reached a possible interpretation of the ghosts Mrs. Alving refers to: social constructs, gender norms, culture, family rituals…etc we inherit that we have no control over. We do not have the power or opportunity to choose the kinds of things to inherit, to what extent they influence us, or even when they start affecting us. Thus raises the question: Are we capable of escaping this predicament?

Image credit: Psychlite, WordPress

Earlier this year in February, New Mexico Supreme Court upholds the murder sentence of Anthony Blas Yepez, who was convicted in 2015 for beating George Ortiz, a 75-year-old man, to death in 2012. According to the testimony given by his girlfriend, Yepez struck the man in the face, leading to his death. Yepez claimed that he didn’t remember what exactly happened next, only that when he woke up, he was lying on top Ortiz’ body. The couple then poured cooking oil over the corpse and set it ablaze, leaving the crime scene by fleeing in Ortiz’ car. 

Yepez’ public defender tried to present evidence about Yepez’ genetic information and history of childhood abuse. However, the Supreme Court rejected the evidence, with the state District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer saying that she felt “iffy” about whether it was “reliable enough to prove what it proposes to prove.” The warrior gene theory dates back to a discovery made by a Dutch scientist in the 1990s, which claimed that all the male relatives from a family in New Zealand with a history of aggressive violence lacked a specific gene critical for regulating anger. The theory has been hotly debated ever since. 

The finding naturally leads to this question: if the theory is true, is anyone accountable for the crimes they committed? Who should be responsible for their crimes? Is it the offender, or is it the lineage which he or she has no control over? Mrs. Alving proclaims we are all ghosts, and that when she “picks up a newspaper,” she seems to “see ghosts gliding between the lines” (p.120). Perhaps ghosts not only lurk in newspapers, they also lurk in our genes.