Judith Butler: Violence, Mourning, Politics

Others on this forum have felt the immediate relevance of Butler’s essay on global current events – namely the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and the Syrian refugee crisis. Although Butler did not write this essay in response to these timely and divisive political issues it seems to me that they are in direct conversation with one another. I am thinking specifically about the state governors who have publicly opposed allowing Syrian refugees into their states. Some governors have modified this position to screen for religion, wanting to allow only Christians into the country (because for them, Christian = good and Muslim = terrorist). I have seen pictures and accounts of orphaned and homeless Syrian children and infants on the Internet, accompanied by either empathy or criticism. One critic on Facebook wrote something to the tune of “Look, they’re using children to try and pull at our heartstrings to make us want to let these Muslims into the country. Sorry, won’t work.” I’d like to point out a section of Butler’s essay in response to this claim:

To what extent have Arab peoples, predominantly practitioners of Islam, fallen outside the “human” as it has been naturalized in its “Western” mold by the contemporary workings of humanism? … After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?

I am troubled by that critic’s implication that because a suffering child is from Syria, or is not a white American or European, that they are not worth saving and that the fact of their suffering can be nothing else than a political ploy to sway public opinion. I think that Butler is of the same mindset in this passage. She wonders why some lives are automatically considered worthless, or worth less, than others because of classifying features. I definitely see the parallel to how violence against non-heterosexual individuals and populations, particularly the transgender community in recent years, is portrayed and processed by a population. It seems in general that the life of, for example, a straight person should be met with a greater sense of loss than the murder of a transgender male or female. Our humanity, according to Butler, should mean that each life deserves the same grief due to equal worth, but that goal is not carried out in reality.

-Megan S.

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