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We often link murder to individual, irrational actors that deviate from the norm as a result of their psychological abnormalities, and to spontaneous situations that cause temporary disorder within a society. Our common response would usually be to lock these individuals away in isolation from the rest of civilization, without giving so much as a second thought towards why exactly they choose to kill in spite of our perceptions. The assumption is that by simply weeding out deviants, we will see a reduction in criminal activity. Contrarily, the writings of Milgram, Rosaldo, and Hinton seem to suggest that the reason people kill goes far beyond isolated cases of mentally unstable offenders whose actions are inexplicable and universally inexcusable, and is instead ingrained in personal dilemmas that arise from systems of obedience with a political purpose. Such systems are born from interactions between historical contexts, sociopolitical changes, ideological transformations, and cultural conditions (Hinton, 166).
Internal conflicts emerge when individuals know full well that what they are doing or are about to do is wrong, but because of set expectations and/or cultural customs, they feel as though they are forced to act in order to satisfy their superiors as well as securing their well being. The Ilongot tribe in the Philippines challenged such dilemmas by introducing Christianity in 1974, following martial law in 1971. The idea is that, by adopting this religion, people can cope with grief from losing loved ones without having to resort to needless killing in accordance with the belief that the deceased pass on to a better world (Rosaldo, 150). We see that there are instances where cultures are willing to look for alternate options that can prevent unnecessary division and conflict between communities, but in the interest of full disclosure, I do have some issues with this reading despite its greatest attempts to explain why headhunting occurs.
In my view, regardless of whether the fault lies with the anthropologist in their interviewing techniques or the inadequate answers of participants in the study, Rosaldo nevertheless fails to consider why the Ilongot choose to ambush random lowlanders, who presumably have no connection to their grievances, especially since it is never implied that there is any sort of conflict between these two communities. Because we are unable to grasp this logic due to missing information that might better explain the practice of headhunting, the narrative falls apart and loses substantial credibility with the reader. Thus, we find it even harder to understand and empathize with a situation that is foreign to us in the first place, and further still cannot find parallels to conditions present in our society. Perhaps it is because I am arguing under the assumption that the Ilongot people are rational actors, but the fact is, Rosaldo’s account depicts as capable of rationalising their actions through processes of opportunity, younger hunters’ turmoil, and the experiences as well as reasoning of older headhunters (Rosaldo, 155).
Just as we realize that this is not a black and white concept, neither does Rosaldo, who endeavours to learn whether these people ever truly recover from ritual sacrifices, along with the actual emotions that are present before, during, and after the raids (Rosaldo, 154). However, we do not see any concrete evidence of such sentiments being shared. We only know that headhunters, theoretically, are meant to feel lifted of their grievances after successful raids, and celebrate by cleansing for their eudemonia. But the problem with this presumption is that we are led to believe everyone involved with this practice undergo the exact same experiences and that each phase is self-contained, thereby further dehumanising their mentalities and actions. It does not help that participants insist there is no other way to explain how grief, rage, and headhunting self-evidently go together.
Even Rosaldo admits we must explore how such passions are able to form certain forms of human conduct as a result of cultural forces of emotions (Rosaldo, 166). This suggests that stereotypes do not occasion these behaviours, as they are learned and adopted as justifications for killings, although I am not convinced that every person who chooses to partake in ambushes express genuine passion for murder and are merely using the custom to justify their grief. In agreement with Rosaldo, we must observe how the desire to kill is created, especially where victims are selected completely at random.
I feel Milgram’s study is more effective in exploring human sentiments that fluctuate in processes before, during, and after shock experiments, although this essay admittedly has the advantage of subjects actually being observed in action. The other difference here is that there is no specific culture like in Hinton’s and Rosaldo’s accounts, other than various preexisting morals held by particular individuals involved, influencing their decisions as to whether they wish to continue shocking the victims or not. Inasmuch as we are able to gather from Rosaldo’s text (prior to the introduction of Christianity), the test subjects in this experiment also generally feel as though they are not provided with any options other than to shock their victims due to the rules set by the experimenters, who in and of themselves do not actually possess any special powers other than arbitrarily asserting their authority by being the conductors of this experiment (Milgram, 147).
Despite the fact that there are no consequences in refusing to go through or continuing with the experiment (Milgram, 147), and that this experiment has nothing to do with social conditions that arrange breeding grounds for genocidal situations, there is still a political intent embedded in this system. It seeks to evaluate the individual’s degree of obedience, and although many people reluctantly go as far as severely injuring the victims, they nevertheless show signs of humanity through nervousness, which demonstrates that not everyone would have the confidence to undergo such an experiment no matter how desensitised they are to violence, because they realise that they are the ones putting the victims’ lives at stake. One line, however, that I found particularly chilling was when one of the test subjects admitted, “I’d like to continue, but I can’t do that to a man,” (Milgram, 147) because it shows that humans are generally willing to conform to a higher authority no matter the nature of the task for their own conscience, and yet they usually fear risking the lives of others. By doing so, they are actually doing harm to their consciences as a result of their moral upbringings, and so we see a paradox of moral consciousness. Still, it is only a little easier to sympathise with these test subjects because there is virtually nothing motivating them to persistently shock their victims.
We know that they were not given as many details as the observers prior to the study, but there was nothing stopping them from asking about the purpose of it all—even despite receiving minimal answers—as opposed to asking whether the shocks will permanently damage the victims (Milgram, 146). People generally do not want to be responsible for physical and even mental harm inflicted on others; it may not necessarily be the case that they themselves genuinely do not wish to harm people, so they might claim that the recipients no longer wish to endure the pain (Milgram, 146). This all suggests to me that there are hints of amorality present in some individuals, and that people do not consider the bigger picture beyond the situation.
The idea of evaluating one’s obedience can also be found in Hinton’s study of Cambodian virtues. Obedience here, however, is influenced by preexisting cultural modes that have been adapted by the new Communist Party to genocidal attributes of inequality, extreme and irrational violence, and the motivation to kill (Hinton, 166). This motivation stems from the desire to maintain honour and a positive image in front of both superiors and intimate peers (Hinton, 159).
I am able to sympathise with this situation more than with the others, because the issue is clearly shown to be far more complex in terms of the dilemmas Cambodians face. They struggle to choose between remaining loyal to the Party for the sake of productivity and a better quality of life, and achieving these things for their families. On top of that, everyone is potentially considered an enemy in this society, so an individual will either end up getting executed by the Party for disobedience, or their peers will kill them for not expressing love for the Party and deviating from the norm (Hinton, 162).
It is practically a no-win situation, and it is easier to understand why Cambodians would struggle to make decisions on the basis of their priorities in any given context. They would likely resort to doing things in solitude that would otherwise be considered betrayal in order to at least try and protect their assets as well as their relationships to intimate peers, the latter particularly being something that is potentially comparable to modern normalisation theories having to do with appealing to higher authority. Such theories typically depict higher authority as familial ties—or even corporate or political superiors—that offenders are willing to commit risky actions for in order to keep their trust.
When we are able to draw connections between contexts and theory, it becomes much easier to validate the plausibility of a study. It is important for a researcher to not leave blanks that may adequately explain the seemingly inexplicable, especially where morality is concerned, although there may come a time when they have to extract other sources to make sense of a matter (as neutrally as possible, so as not to convey a misleading impression).
Hinton, A. (1998). Why Do You Kill? The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor. In N. Scheper-Hughes & P. Bourgois (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (1st ed., Vol. 78, pp. 123-7). Blackwell Publishing.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. In N. Scheper-Hughes & P. Bourgois (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (1st ed., Vol. 78, pp. 129-135). Blackwell Publishing.
Rosaldo, R. (2004). Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage. In N. Scheper-Hughes & P. Bourgois (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (1st ed., Vol. 78, pp. 136-142). Blackwell Publishing.