The poor, the deranged, and the rejected of rural Mauritius
Anatomy of an anomic society
— R. Karan
The narrative coming from rural Mauritius, with its exclusively higher rate of suicide cases, and an almost daily diet of homicide, with its explosive mixture of sex and alcohol in the background, seems to run counter to the well-known English Romantic poet Wordsworth’s conviction in the ‘primary laws of nature’ which inspired him to write about ‘low and rustic life’.
The poet of “lyrical Ballads” believed that “in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity”. Wordsworth has made famous many of his characters who live outside the mainstream of society –the poor, the deranged, the rejected – against the background of massive social and economic change in 19th century England.
But what about the poor, the deranged, and the rejected of rural Mauritius? Sociologists usually argue that homicide and suicide are two antithetical or antagonistic phenomena. Where there is a high occurrence of violent crimes, suicide rates are relatively low, whereas in areas where violence against persons are much less frequent, suicide rates are high. This observation was recently made by Dr Satish Boolell, a former President of MACOSS, on a private radio station, and it deserves a close scrutiny if we want to have a better understanding of Mauritian society.
Are homicide and suicide two oppositional forces? Or do they come from the same source? Can they coexist? Some sociologists have always considered that suicide victims compared to homicide offenders were more civilized, less selfish and morally more developed.
Under the influence of Social Darwinism, scholars believed that violence was rooted in biological determination, physical decay and biological inferiority. They argued that some people because of biological degeneration would find it difficult to excel in life’s struggles and hence more easily to succumb to violence during adversity. However, they argued that one’s preference for suicide or homicide was not determined biologically but culturally and socially. Those who were in cultures where cultures were gentle were more likely to commit suicide.
On the contrary, in societies where human life was less respected, the defeated person would revolt, declare war on society and kill, instead of killing themselves. Therefore, the antagonistic nature of homicide and suicide (the direction of aggression), according to these scholars, lay not in the root or nature of violence but in the culture and social milieu. Personal background also played an important role in determining the direction of violence. Homicidal persons were regarded as selfish, barbaric and uncivilized. On the other hand, suicidal persons were regarded as of higher moral standard or from a superior race.
Durkheim, who is known as the father of Sociology, did not regard homicide and suicide as a sign of biological degeneration, but traced the origin of these two forms of deadly violence to the level of social integration.
Durkheim classified suicides into four subtypes: (1) egoistic suicides, (2) altruistic suicides, (3) anomic suicides, and (4) fatalistic suicides. These four groups existed in societies or communities of different levels of integration and development.
Egoistic suicides, in his view, occurred most frequently in societies, groups or communities characterized by low social integration and weak collective conscience. In these societies, individuals were not bound or guided by any collective beliefs and the individual was dominated by a sense of meaninglessness. Individuals were left to pursue their private interests in whatever ways they wished. However, when they failed to achieve their goals, no force or value was able to restrain them from acting aggressively, including committing acts of suicide. Durkheim claimed that compared with Catholics, Protestants experience lesser restraint from their religion, hence the association between Protestantism and higher suicide rates.
On the contrary, altruistic suicides occurred in highly integrated societies or groups with a strong collective conscience. People who committed altruistic suicides believed that they sacrificed themselves for a higher virtue or value, such as in suicide terrorist in Islamic cultures, though officially proscribed by Islam. However, altruistic suicide required a strong collective conscience which only existed in relatively primitive societies.
Durkheim contended that human beings had insatiable desires. These desires could only be contained by social morality. Anomic suicides occurred in poorly regulated societies or when the regulative powers of society were experiencing a disruption. Usually anomic suicides accompanied sudden changes in the structure of a society. The disruption of regulative power might come as a positive (economic boom or the “sugar boom” in Mauritius) or negative (economic depression) sudden change. It put people in a new situation in which the old norms no longer applied while the new ones had yet to develop. The disruption of regulative power set people free from the restriction on their desires. Anomic suicides occurred when these desires were not satisfied especially when they compared their situation with others.
While anomic suicide was more likely to occur in situations in which regulation was weak, fatalistic suicides were more likely to occur when regulation was excessive. Durkheim described those who committed fatalistic suicide as ‘persons with future pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline”. Too much regulation and oppression unleashed currents of melancholy that, in turn, caused a rise in the rate of fatalistic suicide. An example is the recent case of suicide by an adolescent in Port Louis under the pressure of a rigid father with fundamentalist religious beliefs.
Different types of suicides related to homicide in different ways. According to Durkheim, egoistic suicides were incompatible with homicides. Persons who committed egoistic suicide were those who failed to attach meaning to things other than themselves. They cared only about their own feelings or values. When they failed, they became depressed and apathetic. On the contrary, homicide was a violent act inseparable from passion. Durkheim argued that egoistic suicide was more likely to occur in more developed societies while homicide flourished in more primitive societies. This was because while the former cherished individualism, the latter paid little attention to individualism and to other people’s rights. The less respectful a society was for individual persons, the more likely the society was to be exposed to violence because it was regarded as less criminal or deviant in these societies. Egoistic suicides and homicides therefore sprang from antagonistic causes, and consequently it was not likely that where one flourished so would the other.
On the contrary, altruistic suicides and homicides were more compatible. This was because when a person thought little of his/her own life, neither would this person have much regard for that of another’s. However, high numbers of altruistic suicide and homicide were not likely to exist in modern societies because altruistic suicides only flourished in socially cohesive and integrated societies.
Scholars would argue that only anomic suicides and homicides were able to coexist in modern societies. Anomie was characterized by a state of exasperation and weariness which enabled the person to turn against self or others. Especially in an anomic state, the person was free from regulation. However, whether the person targeted the self or other people depended on his/her moral constitution. A man of low morality would kill another rather than himself. Durkheim emphasized that anomic suicide occurred in large numbers only in special situations or in places where industrial and commercial activities were carried out in large volume. Hence anomic suicide and homicide could flourish together only in advanced societies characterized by division of labour, high mobility and great fluctuations of fortunes. He proved it by pointing out that places where both forms of lethal violence flourished were also great centres and regions of modern civilization. It was because rapid developments brought about acute changes and it in turn created an acute state of anomie.
When we apply Durkheim’s thesis to rural Mauritius, we reach the following conclusions:
(a) The old rural society, based upon small, close-knit communities that we knew has fallen apart under the weight of industrial developments. The principal ties, such as traditional family structures, religious and cultural support systems, which kept the different classes of society in a harmonious dependence on each other, have within the past twenty years, either been greatly impaired or wholly dissolved. History repeats itself. Wordsworth expressed the same concern in 1817 about rural England.
(b) Rural Mauritius has entered a state of anomie which is breeding pathologies that are affecting mostly the “poor, the deranged and the rejected”, and these are what are making headlines of newspapers these days.