Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Judith Butler: War Empathizer

by Mike Rowe

Utne Reader
November-December 2010

In 2004 Americans gaped in shame and anger at images of nude, hooded prisoners heaped on top of one another, menaced with dogs or forced to masturbate by members of the U.S. armed forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Major media outlets soon settled on an angle for the story: Those responsible for the abuse—keen to exploit Islamic taboos on public nudity and homosexuality—cruelly crafted methods of torture to disgrace conservative Muslims.

In her recent book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler retells this story but boldly revises the conclusion. First, she asks, who would not have suffered at the end of a leash in Abu Ghraib? Second, she asserts that by envisioning the violence at Abu Ghraib as torture tailored for Muslims, we have caricatured them as members of a backward culture. We imagine that they hold retrogressive beliefs about modesty and propriety that make them particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. While it is true that cultural sensitivities were exploited, Butler argues, emphasizing this perspective falsely elevates our own progressiveness. We assume our own superiority by believing that Abu Ghraib’s victims were uniquely suited to suffer as they did.

Butler’s trenchant and brilliant book is all about this kind of “frame,” an image or a discussion that allows us to think of certain people as natural victims of violence. Her work suggests that by defining people as residents of war zones, we have, so to speak, zoned them for war. We don’t grieve their deaths, and the call for nonviolence is shouted down because we haven’t recognized their lives as fully livable.