Monday, November 18, 2013

Beyond Purple Light

I remember quite clearly the discomfort I felt when we were ordered to stop singing one particular verse of a marching song. I am not referring to the recent controversy sparked by AWARE, this actually happened back in 2011, and the song was not Purple Light. A senior commander heard some of my soldiers singing that offensive verse and orders swiftly came down to halt the singing.

The episode stuck quite strongly in my own memory because it prompted quite a bit of soul-searching. As a Christian, I also found that verse offensive, but I had done nothing. As a commander, had I betrayed my own values by letting the song carry on, until a senior officer put a stop to it? The dilemma I faced then was where do you draw the line between following your own moral code and imposing it on others? I do not use the work fuck and I don't smoke, should I also impose these beliefs on others around me? I suspect other commanders have been placed in the same situation, and allowing others the freedom of speech is certainly different from condoning their songs. However, the recent Purple Light saga has made me realise this is not about my personal moral code - it is about upholding the organisation's values.

There has been a great deal of anger at AWARE among servicemen over this whole Purple Light issue. But let's not confuse the message with the messenger, whatever you may think their agenda to be. I believe that if we put AWARE aside for a moment and consider this issue, most men would agree that we have become desensitised over time, and that rape is really not a laughing matter to sing about. We should thank AWARE for bringing this issue into focus because when you actually think about it, we need to re-examine some of the lyrics that we have been singing.

I did not come to this conclusion lightly. In fact, I spent several conversations online over the weekend trying to explain to (mostly female) friends why commanders didn't just stop this behaviour, and that the situation isn't so simple. For one thing, such songs have been in the Army longer than I have. In fact, I heard much more graphic songs when I was in the uniformed group of an all-boys school (which suggests to me that maybe this is a phase we just need to grow out of). For an outsider confronted with this for the first time, it may seem like awful behaviour. But for countless males who flowed through NS, it just seems like part of the whole experience and in fact, it is part of our societal culture. (The psychological condition for this is called conformity, and it has been used to explain far more shocking behaviours than song). Because as I pointed out, exposure to such song starts before NS. And let's not forget the songs on the radio. There was a brilliant article on this recently, "Eminem Terrified As Daughter Begins Dating Man Raised On His Music". Now that is one person certainly guilty of glorifying violence against women. And many other very talented artistes too.

So I think most of us servicemen may have become blinded or desensitised to this, and once the issue was raised to MINDEF, they did the right thing by telling the rest of us to stop. Again, it's not about the messenger, but because this was the right thing to do. Because singing about rape is contrary to our values as an organisation. And no matter what society or popular culture's stand may be on this, while we are in uniform we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. And this standard is above raping women or killing girlfriend-snatchers. It is also above sexual acts. I don't need to judge what people do in private, but we should be mindful of what we sing or do, especially in uniform.

So what about pushing terrorists into rivers (from the Top 10 hit A is for Airborne)? This is where I think we are entering the grey area. After all the military does necessarily involve inculcating our men with a certain aggression. We do not want to go overboard and decide we should all just sing nursery rhymes. (Not even the violent ones like Humpty Dumpty or Three Blind Mice.) Violence and aggression still has a place, but it need not be mindless nor out of control.

I'm pretty sure all our commanders will be listening out to all the marching cadences with extra attentiveness over the weeks to come. But let's not stop at Purple Light, or even at songs. Let's take this opportunity to re-examine how we conduct our business, and ensure that everything we do is in keeping with our values. And of course, it's also really important to explain why changes are made as well. Because it's the right thing to do, and not because of some order from above. It may not always be easy to know where to draw the line, but I'm sure we can each find it within us once we focus.

My Chief back in 2011 did, and in future I will too.