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Annie Paul | The 'culture of violence' thesis

Published:Wednesday | May 18, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Annie Paul

The Culture of Violence Fallacy was the title of a book review by David Scott in 1997 in the second issue of the journal Small Axe. He was reviewing Lauri Gunst's Born fi Dead and Geoff Small's Ruthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies.

Praising the books' authors for being "thoughtful, perceptive and readerly" while attempting to arrive at "theoretically informed understandings of the problem of organised violence in Jamaican society", Scott rued the reliance on 'pop' cultural psychology in their analyses. The books' main weakness, he said, lay in their "unproblematic reproduction" of the view that there is in Jamaica something called a 'culture of violence'.

Scott noted that while this view was a widely held one, much retailed by the press and others, he doubted its usefulness as a conceptual framework, fearing that it obscured problems rather than illuminating them. What Scott was objecting to - rightly, in my opinion - was the proposition that Jamaicans have an inclination towards violence or a 'constitutional aggressivity' and that there is social acceptance towards violence in Jamaica. He also questioned the idea that violence was endemic to Jamaican culture or that the frequent episodes of violence here are because of 'historically constituted behavioural patterns'.

In contrast to the way violence in Jamaica is portrayed, countries like Sri Lanka, victim to decades of the most violent conflict and prolonged warfare, are rarely described as having a 'culture of violence', said Scott. He went on to clarify that his objection was not to culture being used as a conceptual tool in analysing violence, but to the particularly narrow and limited concept of culture employed by analysts.

In her 2011 book Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica, anthropologist Deborah Thomas highlights the same problem, pointing out that the notion of Jamaica having a 'culture of violence' is so widespread that commentators within the country freely use it without questioning its validity. She cited a National Security Strategy Green Paper of 2005 that used the phrase unproblematically claiming, "It is now conceded that Jamaica has spawned a culture of violence in its most negative form, which is abhorrent to its values and stands in the way of every kind of social progress."

The problem with viewing violence as a cultural trait is that it presents the issue as one of an innate brutality and savagery, whose roots are in Jamaican culture rather than generated by the system itself. Thus, it distracts attention from the socio-economic inequality and the lack of opportunities for decent work and living conditions in the country, the everlasting structural adjustment that has marooned the impoverished out on a rickety limb; the systemic problems that contribute to violent solutions to social problems and need urgent attention. For the violence that envelops Jamaica is not a symptom of its culture, but the fallout of the 'Babylon' system the country's numerous singers and DJs have raised their voices against.




The culturalist view also occludes the links between violence in Jamaica and the transnational violence common to countries which are the loci of drug trans-shipment, human trafficking and other cross-border organised criminal activities. Mexico is certainly one step ahead of Jamaica in the level of savage crime that has become an everyday occurrence there. In Blood, Bullets and Bodies, Imani Tafari-Ama discusses details of the nexus between the political economy of Jamaica, violence and crime just as Obika Gray does in Demeaned but Empowered.

It is high time that local talking heads and analysts start taking issue with the reductivist views of violence abroad within Jamaica before they attempt to correct the views of mainstream journalists abroad. It is naive and simplistic to talk about a 'culture of violence' when the reality is so much more complex. For one thing, there are vested interests in promoting and exploiting the 'culture of violence' thesis. As Deborah Thomas observes:

"Like that of other commodities, the consumption of violence generates an experience that then marks an entire potential market. We might, therefore, think about the consistent representation of Jamaican gangs as excessively, spectacularly ruthless as a kind of 'branding' process in which Jamaicans successfully mobilise one of their so-called natural resources (a cultural proclivity for violence) to generate an important niche for themselves within emergent global capitalist markets.

"Brand Jamaica thus not only includes such commodities as reggae and Rastafari, sun and sand, but also a terrible tendency towards uncontrollable, culturally reproduced violent behaviour."

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice ( Email feedback to or tweet @anniepaul.