Self-esteem Building and Horizontal Violence

I first learned about the concept of horizontal violence when I was in my on-the-job training in community organizing. As training covered both theory and practice, I went through theoretical discussions that linked my practice in the community assigned to me with the theories on community organizing that have been validated on the ground through the years. Upon hearing the word “horizontal violence” my notion of it was mainly on the side of physical violence. Indeed I had to be exposed to the concept if I had to be effective as a community organizer.

Horizontal violence and its causes have been discussed extensively by Frantz Fanon in his most famous book “The Wretched of the Earth”. Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist who wanted to make sense of the then existing reality of the Algerians. The book was written during the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonial rule. While the book was written many decades ago, the psycho-social implication on oppressed groups or communities by Frantz Fanon’s work is still relevant today. Horizontal violence has to be identified when it surfaces in interpersonal relationships among peers.

The larger picture of horizontal violence is systemic oppression. It is not a mental state that can be isolated from vertical oppression which is a top-to-bottom use of state power to colonize people. The apparatus for colonization is not only meant to take control over the economic and social realities of a particular society. It is also meant to colonize the minds of people in that particular society through state policies. The state policies which manifest through the supremacy of the ruling power curtail the economic, political and cultural freedoms of the oppressed. An example of a state policy of a colonial power is forced labor. No one among the masses could escape from forced labor in a colonial government. Building roads, irrigation facilities and other government structures are done through slave labor. People under such a condition develop a duality of purpose in doing things – an ironic kind of resignation to the reality not within their control contraposed to a mounting inner protest at one’s oppressive situation. Because of this contradictions that happen in the conscious and unconscious mind of the oppressed, it results in the oppressed’s having within his psyche the oppressor himself. Strangely, he too becomes an oppressor if he doesn’t realize what a victim he has become under an oppressive system. The only difference in this particular situation that separates the oppressed from the oppressor is that the oppressed who hasn’t realized his pathetic condition oppresses only his peers and reveres his oppressor. At the slightest provocation he picks a fight with his neighbor, undermines, belittles or harasses his neighbor. But he can’t look his oppressor straight in the eye. He feels utterly powerless before the oppressor. The world today has all the right terms for a reality that has dismantled colonial rule but if we smell around what poverty emits in the underdeveloped world, colonization is still present except that it has a different name. When a poor country’s forests are open to mining companies because that poor country is indebted and fears losing foreign investments, the term is not colonial rule. The term is “A Globalizing World”. And when the poorest in that country survive on one meal a day and cope through child labor or selling one side of their kidney or sniffing solvents to calm hunger pangs, that situation is not called colonial rule. It is called urbanization, free trade, globalization with structural adjustments, WTO, GATT and so on. There is certainly a positive aspect to the state of things in the world today but the way the poor go through life now shows that there is something really wrong in the way the socio-economic, political and cultural structures are arranged in our planet.

Among urban poor communities, the face of horizontal violence is bullying in a long queue of water containers, nitpicking, name calling, sarcastic comments, nasty talk, humorous “put downs”, belittling, intimidating, undermining, slurs and jokes based on gender, ethnicity, etc. The saddest part of horizontal violence is that it is a state of being victimized by the forces of vertical violence. Unless psychological healing takes place, horizontal violence worsens like an epidemic. Under ideal circumstances, the poor would have been looking after each other’s well-being. Strangely and ironically, they oppress one another when an opportunity to oppress is available. Reading the sociological reality of the oppressed is not in any way judging the oppressed. It is reading through their psycho-social reality in aid of a self-freeing process.

Paulo Freire , a Brazilian Educator, wrote in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that horizontal violence is part of the psychological state of people trapped by poverty and powerlessness. Part of the psyche of such group is the internalized image of the people causing the oppression . That internalized image settles more in the unconscious mind than in the conscious mind. On the conscious level, the oppressed views the oppressor as the “complete human being” and he, the oppressed, as the incomplete one. The oppressive aspect of that internalized image is not viewed as oppressive by the oppressed person. The oppressive tendencies coming from the internalized image of the oppressor assert themselves whenever the oppressed has an opportunity to be like the oppressor.

In community organizing, the reclaiming of one’s battered self-esteem happens when the poor are collectively able to unmask symbols of oppression. An example of a freeing process of the oppressed is collectively waiting for the Mayor of a city to come out and face the people whose homes have been forcibly dismantled to give way to a park or boulevard. When the oppressed are able to draw from among themselves the self-confidence needed to face the oppressor at the negotiating table not as a matter of asking for a favor but as a matter of government programs and services as citizens’ entitlements, the process of reclaiming trampled self-esteem begins.