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Utterly butterly reprehensible: When violence is as normal as butter

Media images may not have a direct effect upon our actions, but they could help to make certain ways of thinking acceptable.

How is violence normalised and how does it become an everyday part of our lives, as pleasurable as, say, spreading butter on toast? A recent Amul advertisement is an excellent example. Amul butter advertisements are famous for clever commentary on current events, feeding a public demand for adolescent wordplay that has its origins in university debating societies and quiz sessions.

The Amul advertisement in the wake of the Indian surgical incursion into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is remarkable for the manner in which it presents the smashing of bodies and spilling of blood as just everyday playful events in the lives of butter-consuming people. As we delicately lift the butter-smeared toast to our mouths, let us have a little chuckle about congealed blood and split skulls.

Of course, the problem is that this is exactly what we do. As the German cultural critic Theodor Adorno pointed out, the flip side of civilisation is a great deal of violence. In a remarkable Hindi poem, the poet Agyeya expressed surprise at the nature of a snake: You never learnt to be civilised, he asks the reptile, so how did you gather so much poison?

Poison becomes butter by placing it alongside, and within, acts of normal human activity. There is a long history of violence in the subcontinent that has become overlaid with spurious ideas about our essentially peaceful nature. The Amul advertisement – there may be many others like it, but none as prominent given Amul’s outreach – is a fine example of how we are constantly encouraged to think of violence as a completely normal activity.

We might dismiss the advertisement as just a bit of fun, if not Indian cleverness. But our thought processes are much more likely to be engaged by suggestions in popular culture rather than a Gandhian treatise on non-violence and Ambedkarite exhortations to question power. Popular culture is the most significant classroom of ideas. The ocean of milk churned by Amul produces everyday poison, disguised as a fun food, which we swallow without questioning.

Normalising violence

The Amulisation of society – presenting complex and troubling events as just so many amusing re-interpretations in the cause of selling – has, of course, a wider spread.

The Aamir Khan film 3 Idiots told us that it was okay to make a joke out of rape (because, after all, these were made by ordinary boys-next-door), an on-going scooter advertisement has ordinary people from different walks of life saluting defence personnel, another advertisement for a flask shows how a wife expresses conjugal love by sending a comforting beverage to her soldier-husband posted at (one assumes) the battlefront, and our television channels are awash with former Army generals doling out commonsensical wisdom on war strategy.

Media images and programmes may not have a direct effect upon our actions, however, they can help to routinise, and make acceptable, certain ways of thinking. If the background is ordinary life – eating, travelling, talking, socialising, expressing love – their potency is even higher.

Violence in different forms has become the new social grounds on which our ideas of a national community are being formed. Killing and loving are now deeply intertwined in our psyche as complementary activities. Ordinary people, to borrow from the title of a book on the Holocaust, have become willing executioners, joyously taking part in a festival of death-derived warmth. It is, of course, the same across the border in Pakistan, for melt-in-your-mouth jingoism is hardly the preserve of any one nation.

Insidious intent?

But, if you think about the media war of selling through death and talking through war, who dies and who lives? Those who die in wars are not those who eat Amul butter, aspire to study engineering and medicine, ride around in cars saluting soldiers, are able to purchase expensive flasks and are interviewed on news channels. They are, mostly, the children of dire circumstances, driven to a career that could lead to death because there may be few other employment opportunities with secure pay while living. The privileged normalise violence but make sure that someone else dies. We salute the dead, converting the hapless into martyrs. They die for us – not much butter and toast in the middle of split skulls and torn limbs, but the advertising folks might yet work on this – and we live on in the warmth of national feeling. We live on.

Explicit bellicosity is easy to spot and condemn. It is when our everydayness – acts of love, friendship, leisure, concern and care – is silently colonised by sentiments of violence and hate that we lose the capacity for reflection.

The insidious nature of the Amul advertisement, and others like it, lies in its attempt to instil a life of carnage as the normal state of being and, much worse, to make the innocence of childhood the grounds for the grotesque fantasies of adult violence. The Amul advertisements pretend an innocence where butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But our throats are turning blue.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.

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