Questions on Witnessing Violence (The Jakarta Post, 2011)

This is the longer version of The Jakarta Post article, April 4, 2011

Questions on Witnessing Violence

Intan Paramaditha


We are witnessing a new age of spectacular violence. When we read stories about people digging up the dead body of an Ahmadiyah follower and exposing it in the graveyard, we were encountering, at least, the dictionary keywords that define the spectacular: “dramatic” or “elaborate display.” Post-1998 democracy comes with an open package, including the openness of various techniques of performing violence, transcending our imagination of the grotesque that we associate with horror films.

Violence is, of course, neither new nor exotic for us Indonesians. We have been trained to see it, even live with it, since early age. For some of us, watching Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI was an initiation to adulthood; we were suddenly forced to learn that we had a history, the one built upon eye-gouging women and decomposed tortured bodies. This was the form of violence legitimized and endorsed for public viewing to suit the interest of the Suharto regime. But later we knew we should look for what was not supposed to be seen. We engaged  in the long project of unearthing the New Order crimes to make hidden violence visible. Like information, most violence during those times was spectral. The ability to see was a luxury.

What is ‘new’ since Reformasi, with thanks to the internet technology, is that we have passed the crisis of visibility. Before our eyes, everything is laid bare. Or is it?

Being away from Indonesia, I regard Twitter as an important medium to get fast updates about what is happening back home and to see how fellow Indonesians, on day-to-day basis, grapple with their contemporary realities. Yet the medium could be rather eerie. People could express their anger or grief over the killings of Ahmadis, changing their profile pictures into plain black as a sign of mourning, and in the next 30 minutes or so they would tweet on what to eat for dinner. Violence is woven, almost seamlessly, into the banality of our everyday life. Welcome to the logic of “Timeline”: time progresses and gives us, the seers, the illusion that an event happens after the completion of another. A scene of violence attacks our senses, but it is one of the various displays available for us to see. Sometimes we forget that we have been shocked.

There is no such thing as an innocent way of seeing, and spectacular violence confronts us with the question of positioning. Here I am using the term “us” as a sweeping generalization to refer to people who believe in the values of pluralism and embrace the idea that citizenship entails the fulfillment of basic rights, including the right not to be violated by others. “Us,” is of course fractured in both productive and problematic ways.

Within the spirit of Reformasi, when ordinary citizens are inspired (or pressured) to express a certain political awareness (albeit only on social media), I doubt that we want to assume the place of passive onlookers. If, to borrow from Elie Wiesel’s famous remark on the Holocaust, “for the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” what risks are we willing to take as witnesses? Violence today is so spectacular and at the same time so cheap precisely because it is widely accessible. What exactly is the danger of witnessing now? In what ways should we see without being immune to shock, without forgetting that the disruptive remains haunting?

While there is no clear-cut answer to these questions, they lead us to the more basic question of what we look at and overlook and how. If everything today is rendered visible, how could certain forms of violence have more visibility in our eyes than others? When former transgender queen Shakira was shot dead on March 10, some articles linked her death to the broader political issue: the slow response of the police in handling cases of violence against transgender people. I returned to Twitter and found that prominent public figures had said nothing about it. There were only tweets by young people expressing their relief, “Oh, apparently it’s not Shakira the singer, but Shakira the waria.” Some even joked that their friend had the look of Shakira – the dead one, though. A waria in our heteronormative society is treated as a joke, even when s/he’s dead.

Assaults on transgender individuals by both the state apparatus and civil society are recurrent, triggered by entrenched homophobia, especially when a transgender person transgresses his/her socially expected role as a harmless joker. Like the case of Ahmadiyah, terror against transgender people and the more broadly LGBT groups has been conducted in the name of religion, as evidenced in FPI’s attacks on the transgender workshop in Depok and the ILGA conference in Surabaya last year. These two events were either absent or framed as an “aside” in the mainstream media. In both Ahmadiyah and LGBT attacks, the police assumed the role as a “mediator,” which I (re)define as conflict management, post ’98 way: not preventing acts of violence and instead persuading the victims to be complicit to threats. What we have is the same story of terror coming from the civil society and the failure of the state to protect its citizens.

Even in the age where everything is articulated and exposed, visibility remains an issue. The atrocity on Ahmadiyah followers have united activists, artists, politicians, and even those who had no prior interest in the issues of religion because it is the most blatant humiliation to humanity. Such a slap in the face has even forced our president to, finally, speak. But those who relate the death of Shakira to a series of unsolved cases of violence not taken seriously by authorities are quite predictable: the LGBT activists. If we tend to see that the problems of women or LGBT belong exclusively to the “gender and sexuality” section of the democracy landscape (and thus has been taken care of by feminist or LGBT activists), we might have participated in the long tradition of pigeonholing and failed to identify our immediate stakeholders.

We need to question our relation to the violence that we witness and the consequences of such relationship. We also need to question how our eyes filter and categorize, playing an active role in the “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” game.  As we are bombarded with scenes of spectacular violence, one of our challenges is to connect the dots and say, “I see what you see. Let’s start from there, together.”