Anomie as a Social Phenomenon
Sometimes in the heat of revolutionary change, unspeakable atrocities are committed. Individuals look back in horror at what was inflicted and are unable to comprehend how citizens could go into such a collective state of irrationality. This societal dilemma is called an issue of anomie, which is described as a state of normlessness; where there is a rejection of self-regulatory values and any distinction between right and wrong, for the moment, become obsolete.
David Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of modern sociology, coined the term ‘anomie’ in 1897 in his book ‘Suicide’ and describes it as a “a rule that is a lack of a rule.” A society can become anomic for a variety of reasons, but it is always preceded by a dissatisfaction with the current set of affairs. In essence, the people’s will to change the old order overcomes their rational instincts and makes them primitive peoples; regressing them from their modern consciousness. It is this phenomenon that is perhaps an obstacle to major revolutionary change, if done too hastily; since people loose their moral senses, their ability to recognize an emerging despotism all the more diminishes. This can have devastating consequences to the society after the initial short-lived euphoria of change.
One prevalent detailed precursor to ‘collective anomie’ is distorted idealism. The German Romantic author, Jean Paul, called this relationship of the mind and earth Weltschmerz – the grim understanding that the demands of the mind cannot be met in the physical world and that one’s weaknesses are a direct result of his relationship with the cruelty of what he witnesses and experiences. There are seemingly two dark paths that can follow; either the individual enters a state of escapist mentality and seclusion or develops an anomic response that renders him incapable of self-regulating his values. The former is much less socially destructive, since it is individualistic, and is much more prevalent; it is known as Hikikimori in psychological studies and oftentimes is caused by post-industrialism and its implications. It is especially present in modern day Japan, given the origin of the word itself; affecting about 3.6 million.
The anomic response to Weltschmerz holds a much greater societal cost. Although individual anomie is dubbed “sociopathic,” collective anomie is much more radical; it is the destruction of norms and values – and seemingly, for that time being, the destruction of morality. This deregulation of morals is often seen in war and violent struggles. It was present in the Yugoslav Wars, where Serbian soldiers in newly declared states of Croatia and the Bosnia would massacre citizens of non-Serbian ethnicity – for little reason other than ethic cleansing. A complex dilemma arises when you examine their actions; where did their moral consciousness go, and how could these seemingly ‘civilized’ peoples engage in such irrational violence?
Oftentimes, when individuals are given authority they feel inclined to maximize their power; the Serbian military was in a position of dominance, and they felt they needed to fully exert their power, no matter the ethical implications, for their ‘nationalistic common good.’ They had no limits; they were in a state of anomie. And moreover, war usually causes irrationality in the soldiers themselves, affecting their decision-making and their state of mind. It drives soldiers to do inexplicable acts – some so heinous they’re difficult to comprehend. In Bosnia during the Yugoslav War, rape was used as ‘an instrument of terror’ by the Serbian-Bosnians. The victims were usually Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) of the region. It illustrated a total suspension of ethics and is difficult even to describe in words. Young Bosnian girls were sold and passed around in predominately Serbian infantry lines for rape, torture, and sometimes death – the majority of this happening the region of Foča in Bosnia & Herzegovina. There were specific camps designated for rape and torture, driven by religious and ethnic hatred. Young females were systematically brought to the camps, raped & tortured, and traded to other soldiers for money or just general ‘enjoyment.’ In the submitted “Seventh Report on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: Part II” the atrocities are described in grim detail:
“Day and night, soldiers came to the house taking two to three women at a time. They were four to five guards at all times, all local Foča Serbs. The woman knew the rapes would begin when ‘Mars na Drinu’ was played over the loudspeaker of the main mosque..”
“..While ‘Mars na Drinu’ was playing, the women were ordered to strip and soldiers entered the homes taking the ones they wanted. The age of women taken ranged from 12 to 60. Frequently the soldiers would seek out mother and daughter combinations. Many of the women were severely beaten during the rapes.”
The song ‘Mars na Drinu’ was a Serbian-Chetnik patriot song that was banned under Tito in socialist Yugoslavia. To illustrate the ethnic dimension even further, the report goes in more personal detail of the rapes:
“While the witness was being raped, her rapist told her, ‘You should have already left this town. We’ll make you have Serbian babies who will be Christians.’ Two soldiers raped her at that time; [And then] five soldiers raped the 18-year-old girl in full view of the witness.”
Now, the frightening question still remains; what caused these individuals to lose their sense of humanity? What desensitized them to the point of violence and rape? The collapse of their moral environment, their racially-idealist attempt to realize their nationalist goals, and the elimination of social values all contributed to their irrationality. They became submissive to ‘herd mentality’ that was formed on ‘rules that lack rules’ – there was no moral direction. It is this, I fear, that any form of disorganized violence could bring. This form of irrational collectivism is dangerous, and if any revolutionary change is brought it must be properly handled to prevent such a tragedy, in the true Aristotelian sense of the word, from happening.
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