Judith Butler: War Empathizer

Utne Reader visionary

| November-December 2010

  • Utne Reader Visionary Judith Butler

    Illustration: Gluekit • Butler photo: Hendrik Speck

  • Utne Reader Visionary Judith Butler

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.  

Those who dismiss the deaths of women and children in Israel-besieged Gaza come in for sharp criticism. They claim that Hamas puts women and children in harm’s way both as a gambit to deter attack and, if the attack comes, as a rallying cry against Israeli aggression. But Butler, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and recently conducted research in the West Bank, counters that “if the Palestinian children who are killed by mortar and phosphorous bombs are human shields, then they are not children at all, but rather bits of armament, military instruments and matériel.” Those who claim that the deaths of women and children are unfortunate but inevitable are denying that these lives ever could have been safe or untouched by war, she says. 

Butler aims to ask who counts as ungrievable and to dismantle frames that obscure the answer. While news reports assault us with death tolls, abstractions reinforcing the idea that bloodshed happens “over there,” Butler has recently put $1.5 million from a Mellon Foundation award toward an institute for the critical study of violence.  

As her book makes clear, if nonviolence is to appeal at all, we must realize that our own lives, secure as they seem, are not naturally safe. We’re just richer, better armed, more powerful. It is essential, therefore, that we heed Butler’s words and “stay responsive to the equal claim of the other for shelter”—shelter that seems impossible only if we imagine that there are places zoned for war. 

7/6/2012 9:13:29 PM

Judith Butler and the author of this article need to take a class in basic writing and logic. It is a matter of fact that Muslims have religious restrictions on dress and more stringent standards of modesty than other cultures which made them especially susceptible to the form of abuse they received. But their different standards are in no way backwards, and sympathizing with them has nothing to do with making anyone feel progressive. Recognizing that people are in a war zone does not affect anyone's capacity to sympathize with them. Describing children as "human shields" which they are as a matter of fact does not preclude understanding and sympathizing with their awful plight. The entire argument is a tissue of unsupported assertions that are so many and so far-out that it is impossible to keep up with them. Every part of this is raving nonsense.

11/16/2010 11:43:18 AM

I agree with Ms. Butlers theory on exploiting cultural sensitivities, however, I don't agree that it necessarily makes us feel superior. If we were questioning Hindu's would we start eating hamburgers in front of them and feel superior because they worship cows? Did the FBI feel superior to the branch dividians because they played abrassive music? I think there is validity to believe the individuals involved in Abu Ghraib may have felt that way but not the entire base. As far as 1.5 million to study violence Good Luck. If she uses the middle east, where conflict has been a way of life since recorded history, she is going to need alot more than that.

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