What makes people burn people?

I’m struggling to edit an essay today.  I have neatly hit the wordcount, it definitely has facts in it (I’m not good at facts after three years of undergraduate Cambridge history and two years of legal practice) and I’ve done some minor trashing of the literature.  I’m even pretty sure I have some kind of argument, but this is where I’m in trouble.

I’m writing about ‘xenophobic violence’ in South Africa – particularly after the 2008 killings in Gauteng of about 62 people who were, to the perpetrators, ‘foreigners’.  A lot of people have explained how local structural problems of overcrowding, endemic violence, unemployment and media encitement were the neat causal factors for this violence.

However, a lot of these texts struggle slightly when they come to their conclusion – it’s hard to say that a lot of rational if extremely angry people make a definite decision that their problems will be eased, or at least they’ll feel a lot better, if they go out and do this:

Other writers, when they’ve tried to challenge this sort of gap between rational explanations and irrational burning of – in one instance – a nine-year-old girl, have gone for the ‘nationalism’ explanation: crass patriotism is I think a cunning way out of explaining mob violence, particularly when I think of the way the St Georges flag is associated in my mind with the massive fight between twenty football hooligans I had the joy of experiencing on a train platform once.

What makes people burn people?  I’m not writing off housing and unemployment as explanations – which are nice dry ways of explaining how someone can lack shelter, food, security and hope.  I also don’t want to underestimate how nasty the media and some politicians can be in inciting a good fervent hatred.  But I think saying ‘it’s nationalism’ is a cop-out.  So I’ve come up against trying to find my own conclusion.  And this is where I’m stuck.

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3 Comments

Filed under Academia, Procrastination, Writing

3 responses to “What makes people burn people?

  1. Chris

    I was watching Mississippi Burning this week, not a great film, but it did remind me that this sort of behaviour has happened in many societies. People hate people who they think threaten them in some way, maybe for religion, or other social reasons. If they think they have the power or that they can get away with it, they’ll kill people or burn them. Hatred sanctioned by social group.

  2. TB

    hard to join in without doing the reading. My assumption would be that the dynamic is
    1) poverty and hopelessness
    leads to
    2) irrationality + nationalism
    leads to
    3) people burning people

    Cheerful topics. I spent part of today calculating dead children. Drink?

  3. Agreed – deeply uncheerful, I’m quite glad I’ve finished it. Tim, you’ve kind of summarised most of the literature on this (although I’ve taken about 3000 words to do the same).

    Chris, I like the point ‘if they can get away with it’ – from the grinning policemen in the background of this picture, I think there’s a certain amount to be said for an implicit state sanction, or social acceptance/internalising of violence.

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