Tag Archives: Judith Butler

Victims, Trauma, Spinoza, and Butler

5 Jun

 

Trauma Narratives. University of Zaragoza

 

I’ve never met anyone whose ambition it was to be a victim, though I don’t doubt such people exist.

Victimhood is not considered an honourable state, rather it’s an abject one, shrouded in shame and often guilt: had I done something differently, been a better person, had more sense, (insert your favoured self-blaming admonition) this thing wouldn’t have happened to me and I wouldn’t be a victim.

Victims are frequently blamed by others and victims frequently blame themselves, so all in all, no one in a healthy state of mind would desire the experience. In the current economy of victimisation, the victim is always deeply in debt.

Being confronted by your own vulnerability isn’t an easy experience: many of us spend an inordinate amount of energy convincing ourselves we aren’t vulnerable, which is entirely unrealistic as we are, every minute of our lives, vulnerable to something or someone. Vulnerability is one of life’s inescapable conditions.

I suspect, though I have no proof, that one of the elements of victim blaming is anger at a being confronted by a victim’s obvious vulnerability that can’t help but remind us of our own precarious state in the world, a state many of us would rather not admit to. It doesn’t bear thinking about, the things that can happen to us, and victims can make us think about it.

If the injury can somehow be made to seem their own fault that makes us feel safer. We have control: we just won’t do what they did. These convoluted self-delusions are a sorry waste of psychic energy: denial is ultimately exhausting and it’s entirely unfair to project our own vulnerability onto someone else, rather than learn to live with it.

When I visited the doctor last week we got into a conversation about the 17th century Sephardic/Portuguese philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. I’m not sure why this topic came up but anyway, we talked about how Spinoza was banished from his Jewish community for what were perceived to be his heretical views. A cherem, or herem was declared against him, a form of shunning and ostracism employed as punishment for his refusal to accept god as some kind of divine human with emotion, intention, and desires. For Spinoza, god was Nature, and there was nothing beyond Nature and the laws of the natural world.

Spinoza also argued passionately for freedom of thought and speech: it is permissible to speak any thought, although not necessarily permissible to act upon that thought. Forbidding speech causes resentment and an inevitable backlash against the deciders, and only sends thought underground. No wonder Spinoza remains relevant hundreds of years after his time.

This conversation about Spinoza reminded me next of Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, who in 2002 gave the annual Spinoza Lecture at the University of Amsterdam. This lecture morphed into the book Giving an account of oneself, in which Butler examines, among other things, the concept of injury and victimhood, and what new ethical possibilities these experiences open up for a subject, what she calls…the moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured…

From the traumatic and unpromising site of injury and desire for revenge or redress, Butler argues that …a model of ethical capaciousness… might emerge. This model of ethical capaciousness, she continues …understands the pull of the claim (for retribution) and resists the pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

As Spinoza’s thinking suggests, ethical capaciousness is permitting the thought without taking the action, a moral victory perpetrators outstandingly fail to achieve.

Much taken with Butler’s notions of un-willed injury as a site of ethical possibility, I wrote a paper that I gave at a conference at the University of Barcelona in 2008, titled The Experience of Being Injured: An Otherwise Perspective. The conference was about myth, history and memory, and I was exploring how traumatic injury and its aftermath, both societal and individual, are contained within these frameworks.

All of this has come  flooding back to me as a consequence of the last post I wrote on Sheep about memoir and trauma. There are, it’s alleged, too many people writing about their personal traumas; public accounts of private trauma will not bring about political change; must we have one more “misery memoir” and why aren’t these things kept private. These are some of the objections to what has over the last years become an outpouring of first person accounts of traumatised lives.

They are the objections of the very privileged, and they are both ignorant and pointless: trauma is not going away and one of the ways assaulted individuals attempt to deal with distress is to give their personal pain expression. This is a way of clawing back some of the agency lost when another exerts silencing power over you.

Criticising traumatised people for doing something that assists them is victim blaming. Unlike the victim, the consumer has the choice not to enter that world: it isn’t a victim’s obligation to stay silent in order to avoid disturbing bourgeois sensibilities.

Granted some media have seen an opportunity and set about exploiting it: take that media to task, not the authors of traumatic narratives.

The sheer volume of traumatised people on the planet is breathtaking: from stateless and displaced refugees escaping wars, to defence personnel, to paramedics and police, to those traumatised in childhood by sexual abuse; domestic violence, and sexual assault. Trauma and post traumatic stress shape and dominate societies and relationships. The effects of PTSD are crippling, not only on the sufferer but on everyone around him or her. The costs to society are astronomical.

Butler’s concept of the moral predicament anyone faces as a consequence of being injured can help shift one out of victimhood into agency. What actions does the injured party take or not take as a consequences of the injury? What does one do about the natural desire for revenge, for redress, for acknowledgement, apology? How far can one go before becoming a perpetrator?  What if the law will not assist you, or fails in its attempts?

The moral predicament that results from un-willed injury is an opportunity to regain the agency that is lost when someone is used by another as a means to an end. It is an ethical possibility that rises out of the ashes of an immoral act. Very often the first step on this alchemical progression is the externalisation of personal trauma through artistic expression.

It’s ludicrous to expect that a memoir or a thousand memoirs of personal pain will bring about political change, then complain when it doesn’t happen. What actually does change is that instead of one or a thousand people crippled and without agency, some will make a partial or whole recovery as they struggle with their moral predicament and give that struggle expression. Every victim experiences a form of cherem, of shunning, of banishment. Having no voice is one form such exclusion takes.  If we find a voice with which to paint the trauma, or write it, or compose it for piano, who cares, if the outcome is functional, productive people?

Expression of our personal pain is indeed a blow for justice: that it may not be someone else’s notion of what justice is and how it ought to be attained is irrelevant. Traumatised people have usually done enough of what other people want the way other people want it done. We don’t have to do it anymore.

And most of all we do not have to observe the bourgeois values of “privacy” that silenced many of us in the first place, and made our abuse possible.

 

 

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Forgiveness and human rights: a response to Charles Griswold

15 Feb



Part One

In which I argue the nature and purpose of forgiveness from a secular perspective, that is, from a horizontal, inter-human position, rather than the vertical, theological position of divine forgiveness and grace. I argue against the appropriation of forgiveness to the service of a philosophical discourse, and for multiple understandings and practices of forgiveness that are not reliant either on philosophy, or religious belief.

Must we not accept that, in heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? Jacques Derrida

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

In his 2007 philosophical exploration of forgiveness, Charles Griswold, Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, states that forgiveness should be understood as

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal), are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation. All parties to the discussion about forgiveness agree, so far as I can tell, that this is a legitimate context for the use of the term; and most take it as its paradigm sense, as shall I.

A further definition of forgiveness is ‘…first and foremost the foreswearing of revenge…and of the other abuses of resentment.’ This definition will be implicit throughout my argument, but not in the context of its application being restricted to the paradigm of ideal conditions proposed by Griswold.

Griswold also states that his inquiry is secular, however within that stated secularity he has constructed a dogma, a system of principles and tenets authoritatively laid down, as by a church. Failure to attain the requirements of these principles and tenets results, Griswold claims, in exclusion from the possibility of forgiveness: ‘Where none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed; sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive,’ he claims.

I explore the ramifications of this prohibition primarily from the perspective of the injured, and suggest that it is an extremely serious matter to cast either the injured or the injurer as beyond the ameliorating possibilities of forgiving and forgiveness, whether this is done under the umbrella of philosophy or religion.

I’m going to argue that the most appropriate context for discussions of forgiveness is within an embodied discourse of human rights. I’m also intrigued by what Judith Butler describes as the ‘…moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured’ and from that argue that forgiveness is both a practical and an ethical necessity, and that it is the victim’s privilege, task and responsibility.

As well, I argue against Griswold’s belief that the perpetrator’s remorse is necessary for forgiveness. I also claim in opposition to Griswold that the attitude of perpetrators to their victims can and frequently must be irrelevant to the victim’s decisions about forgiveness.  We need a paradigm of forgiveness that is based in the embodied experiences of the injured, rather than defined as an abstract ideal to which the injured must aspire.

I don’t know what forgiveness is, though I’ve spent many hours thinking about it. Some say that it’s a state of grace that comes without announcement. Some say it’s a calm, in which there’s no ill will, and perhaps no thought at all. Some say it’s when you know something has ended and move on, without even really noticing

None of my propositions comply with the requirements of a concept of ideal forgiveness, whether that is theological or philosophical. They are a consequence of my experience of injury, and the subsequent profound moral dilemma I experienced. This dilemma is centred on the quite natural desire for redress and revenge, and the possibility of becoming a perpetrator if I act on this desire.

While Griswold’s definition is a legitimate context for the use of the term forgiveness, to declare this context the ‘paradigm sense’ taken by ‘most’, is to exclude from the experience of forgiveness millions upon millions of the injured who, for various reasons, are denied or legitimately shy away from the possibility of communication with their injurer. I argue instead for a much broader understanding of forgiveness, one in which unilateral forgiveness, that is, forgiveness that does not require the co-operation of the perpetrator, is included in the forgiveness paradigm.

I do this because injuries after which there is a possibility of ‘reciprocity’ are likely to be less common than those in which the perpetrator is unavailable or unrepentant. Such latter injuries can range in nature from the offended householder whose freshly painted wall is vandalised by unknown graffiti artists, to the victim of sexual assault whose rapist cannot be found, to the survivors of genocide whose tormentors are dead or unidentified. That is, circumstances which Griswold casts as ‘non-paradigmatic’, for example ‘…forgiving the dead or unrepentant…’ are likely to be more frequent than instances in which the injured and injurer are capable of communication and resolution.

As well, Griswold situates his argument ‘…in the ideal…’ and circumstances extraneous to this ideal are described as ‘…lacking or imperfect relative to the paradigm.’ If the circumstances do not fit Griswold’s ideal paradigm of dyadic forgiveness due to their failure to comply with the necessary ‘…baseline conditions…’ then, he claims: ‘…you are not engaged in forgiving, but doing something else.’

Below ideal baseline conditions for legitimate entry into Griswold’s country of forgiveness: ‘…may lie excuse, or condonation, or explanation, or any number of psychological strategies from rationalisation to amnesia…’ In other words if I assert that I have forgiven my perpetrator without having entered into communication with him, and without the benefit of his expressed remorse, then I am deluding myself.  Griswold elaborates: ‘…just being in the psychic state of no longer feeling resentment…whether that state is induced by medication, therapy, an astonishing act of will, an ostensibly religious revelation, or what have you,’ is not, he claims, sufficient to qualify as forgiveness.

As any survivor will attest, there is no such thing as ‘just being’ free of resentment: the struggle to overcome that feeling and everything associated with it is enormous, frequently ongoing and often demands more than just one ‘astonishing act of will.’ There is also a considerable difference between being medicated, and exercising one’s will. This argument for what forgiveness is not and why it is not is unconvincing, as is any argument that concludes an extensive list of unrelated generalisations with the phrase ‘what have you’.

The construction of an ‘ideal’ that is exterior to the imperfect human condition, complete with prescriptives and prohibitions for its attainment, is not entirely dissimilar to constructing a theology, not least in that both demand an original act of faith and belief in the existence of a fixed transcendental, from which subsequent thinking ensues. While the secular as proposed by Griswold is firmly disassociated by him from the religious, their prescriptive, exclusionary, and monolithic discourses are remarkably similar. For example: ‘…we count the capacity to forgive – in the right way and under the right circumstances – as part and parcel of a praiseworthy character,’ states Griswold. Who are the ‘we’ represented here, by what authority and process do they determine the ‘right way and circumstances’ for forgiveness, and how and by whom is the praiseworthiness of character determined?

The phrase ‘right way and circumstances’ inevitably makes reference to a metaphysical authority that ultimately determines what is praiseworthy and right, unless Griswold is assuming this authority for himself.

In a paper titled ‘Derrida, Death and Forgiveness,’ Andrew McKenna observes that Derrida

…claims to find in Western Philosophy a crypto-theology. His analyses regularly uncover presuppositions about foundations and primacies, points of origin and authoritative presences that correspond to nothing other than a Supreme Being, however veiled or unapproachable.

It is just such a crypto-theology that Griswold has constructed in his philosophy of forgiveness, in which forgiveness is perceived first and foremost as an ideal concept located in the authority of an unidentified exteriority, and one that the imperfect human being must struggle to attain.

In claiming the necessity for a sovereign ideal that must create notions of lack, imperfection, exclusion and failure, Griswold is describing a vertical concept of forgiveness that can be seen as largely irrelevant to the temporal and inter-human experience of suffering and forgiveness, as viewed through the secular lens, and through the horizontal discourse of human rights. Human beings are most usefully served, I would argue, by considering forgiveness not as an ideal whose conditions one may fail to meet, and perhaps through no fault of one’s own, but rather as a universally accessible, cosmopolitan practice.

To be continued.

The vulnerability of children

7 Jun

Come forward to childhood, and do not despise it because it is small and it is little

As American philosopher and academic Judith Butler puts it in her book, Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence, the condition of childhood is “a condition of being laid bare from the start.” In childhood, she continues, we inhabit “the condition of primary vulnerability…a primary helplessness and need, one to which any society must attend.”

The face of the child makes a powerful moral claim on us, none more so than the face of the suffering child. Children have no capacity to represent themselves. If we are unable to represent ourselves, as children or in adulthood, we “run a greater risk of being treated as less than human” Butler observes.

Vulnerability is an inescapable fact of existence, particularly in childhood, and a child alone, without country, home, family and protectors, is in a state of extreme vulnerability. That vulnerability can be respected, exploited, or denied by adults. In situations where it is exploited and/or denied the child is radically objectified, and constructed as less than human.

 The child seeking asylum is a child who is stateless and without rights. As Hannah Arendt observed, rightlessness follows from statelessness. Our human rights are dependent upon being part of a community that enacts these rights on our behalf, and offers a framework in which these rights can be realised. Refugee children have lost their place in the world: they do not belong to a political community from which they are able to claim the right to human rights. UN Conventions such as The Rights of the Child supposedly offer avenues for the protection of such children. But for these to have any meaning, signatory countries must be trustworthy enough to abide by our undertakings.

When signatory countries like Australia do not honour the rights the Conventions bestow on a stateless child, when we disregard our serious obligations, refugee children remain stateless, rightless, lost and utterly vulnerable.

As long as we do not grant the child’s dignity and sovereignty by honouring our commitment to the Convention, we continue to perceive and treat refugee children as objects.

We are defined by where we belong, who cares about us, and our fundamental rights as human beings. The profound sense of violation reported by survivors of childhood abuse is often described as soul damage. Perhaps it’s also realistic to think of that profound damage as the destruction and or denial of the rights that help to construct us as human, in the eyes of others, and of ourselves.

As survivors will agree, the journey back from that rightless position to the point where one can come to believe that one has even the right to have rights, is a journey of hardship, and struggle. Many do not make it through. In sending unaccompanied refugee children to a country that does not honour the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child we are condemning them to a rightless life, and denying them an opportunity that could be provided in this country for healing, and a productive adulthood.

Yesterday I heard a talking head comment that if the government allows any children to stay here, rather than send all of them to Malaysia, people smugglers will seize this opportunity to load their boats with children. Yes, that’s probably true. But, he went on, if there should be another Christmas Island tragedy, and a boatload of children are drowned, this will be a political catastrophe. Can’t argue with that.

But what struck me about his observations was that it’s perfectly acceptable in Australian public discourse for anything to do with unaccompanied child asylum seekers, or adults, to be framed in purely political terms. Not in human terms, involving compassion, understanding, desire to assist, responsibility or even concern for the welfare of kids. The only thing that counts is how events affect politicians and their party’s future.

We need no more proof that Australian politicians, echoing the sentiments of many in their electorates, do not see refugee children as human beings. They are objects, to be palmed off to another country as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize political fall out.

The moral dilemma any politicians with integrity face is that to demand that these children be treated as human as the rest of us means going against the tide, and possibly losing their jobs. There’s no room for respecting refugee children’s humanity, human rights, and human vulnerability, in Australia today. Our society is not one that, as Butler puts it, will attend to the child’s primary helplessness and need.

Better to be a cow.

Revenge, or an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind

25 May

There’s probably hardly anyone who hasn’t at some time nursed the desire for revenge against someone they feel has harmed them. Feeling those desires and acting on them are very different things, but even feeling without action can have its consequences: a life consumed by unhealthy imaginings; the destructive effects of living with vengeful longings that can’t be satisfied. Being injured is sometimes only the beginning: long after the incident is over difficult emotions can continue to disturb a victim/survivor’s equilibrium.

In such circumstances an injured party can find themselves confronted by what American academic and philosopher Judith Butler calls “the moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured.”

This moral predicament is comprised of the natural desire for retribution, and the conflicting need to avoid exchanging the role of victim for that of perpetrator by acting on that retributive desire.  As Butler observes, the desire for retribution can be overwhelming, and thoroughly understandable, however, as the Mahatma also observed, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Another way of dealing with the consequences of harm must be found if a cycle of retributive injury is to be broken, on a personal and political level.

To accomplish revenge the victim has no choice but to view the perpetrator as a means to an end, the end in this case being the satisfaction and gratification of the victim’s desire for revenge. This morally dubious reduction of a human being to merely a means to an end is unfortunately what has allowed the original injury to be inflicted. What is gained, then, by further dehumanization?

Butler’s moral predicament is the conflict and tension between the desire for commensurate retribution on the one hand, and the moral need not to become a perpetrator of injury on the other. If you take revenge, are you any better than the one who’s harmed you? Are you morally worse because you’ve chosen to return injury with injury, when you had the opportunity to end the cycle of violence into which you’ve unwittingly been drawn by the actions of another?

Breaking a cycle of violence, personally and politically, is probably another of the great moral challenges of our time. We need a secular framework for this challenge, one that is embodied in the human for those of us unwilling to leave it in the hands of an imagined divine. The Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” has for me anyway, undertones of masochism: I don’t see how offering an abuser the opportunity to abuse me again is helping anyone.

It’s more difficult, as philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Emmanuel Levinas have observed, to inflict injury on the other if we recognize the common vulnerability and humanity we share as embodied beings, rather than seeing a stereotype. Once we see the enemy as human it’s harder to deliberately hurt them. This is what competent propagandists know – showing the human face of the enemy doesn’t encourage violence against them. The enemy has to be dehumanized. The act of dehumanization is always immoral, as it requires reducing the other to what we want them to be, and ignoring the complexity of what they are. It’s always a failure of the imagination, worse, perhaps, dehumanization demands that we turn away from imagination, that we consciously don’t allow the stereotype to be fully human in our imagination.

Combatants trained to perceive the enemy as less than human often find it difficult to see any one, even those they love, as fully human. This is a contributing factor to stress suffered by those who’ve fought a war, and their families.

There are also people who are extremely adept at separating others into human and less than human categories: usually those with whom they can make a cultural and societal identification are regarded as real. Those of different appearance and from other cultures are perceived as less than real, and therefore easier to hurt.

Butler’s moral predicament reveals itself to be complex and challenging for a victim. As well as being harmed in the first place, the victim now has these ethical and moral matters to consider if an on-going cycle of violence is to be avoided.

The urge to act and the urge to refrain from acting create a disturbing conflict. This tension creates a site of great intensity. Butler calls this site “the region of the un-willed.”  Injury has been done to me against my will and as a result I’ve been thrust into the “region of the un-willed.” But from this traumatic and unpromising site Butler argues that what she calls “…a model of ethical capaciousness…” can emerge. This ethical capaciousness, she continues: “…understands the pull of the claim, and resists the pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.”

This “gesture of ethics itself” I understand to mean the capacity to simultaneously hold within the mind two widely diverse impulses, without giving in to either. This creates in most people a sense of discomfort and anxiety from which one seeks the relief of coming to a decision, one way or the other. On the one hand we are experiencing the suffering that comes as a consequence of being harmed, and on the other, we are experiencing the desire to avenge ourselves, compounded by the reluctance to become a perpetrator, or as some people put it, an unwillingness to sink to the level of our attacker.

Butler’s “ethical capaciousness” is the ability to resist the desire to escape anxiety through decision, and instead to tolerate the discomfort of ambivalence until the ethical decision to refrain from revenge can be taken.

The experience of injury is always traumatic to some degree. It’s an experience that catapults one out of the everyday, an experience that ruptures the every day, breaking boundaries that have, up to the point of the trauma, been assumed to be inviolable, if indeed they have ever considered at all. In serious trauma, people often describe a sense of suddenly becoming different, accompanied by a sense of loss of the self they knew prior to the injury. Even a sense of being diminished by what has happened to us: the ignominy of being made a victim. This is the case whether the injury is physical, emotional or both. A normal reaction to such loss and humiliation is anger, and the wish to punish those who are responsible.

Society sometimes offers retribution in the form of the law. Often it doesn’t, or what it does offer feels inadequate compensation for the suffering.

Butler suggests that “…it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human.” That is, it is in the region of the un-willed harm that we suffer that we might discover our humanity. Perhaps our humanity resides in how we resolve the moral predicament that faces us as a consequence of being injured. Perhaps in discovering the ethical capaciousness that allows us to refuse to become retributive perpetrators, we make an ethical choice that contributes to a better world.

It wasn’t uncommon for those who suffered injury or lost loved ones through the events of 9/11, and the Bali bombing, to say when interviewed that they did not wish to take revenge against the perpetrators, that the horror must stop. They wanted them brought to justice through the systems that are available, but they had no interest in retributive actions. Perhaps in making this choice they validated Butler’s theory that the experience of injury can indeed catapult one into an entirely other level of consciousness from which a new ethical capaciousness may emerge.

This isn’t to recommend trauma. It’s to observe that in our current evolution, trauma would seem to be the prime entry point into an intensified ethical consciousness, one that is desperately needed in the world, personally and politically. It seems that collectively we daily become less and less capable of acknowledging the humanity of those who are unlike us, and those we feel or fear are hurting us. We become more isolationist and insular.

Just reading the immense amount of emotional material generated by the arrival of asylum seekers in boats, for example, is enough to alarm anybody who wants ethical and moral considerations to be included in our debates. Because someone allegedly “jumps a queue” are they less human than the rest of us? It’s as if in “jumping the queue” boat arrivals have committed a grave offence against us, and our subsequent treatment of them is our retribution.

The focus of the asylum seeker debate is unsatisfactory and dominated by those who deny the boat arrivals’ humanity. The asylum seekers are reduced to a set of stereotypes that occlude their human complexity. In itself, this is morally and ethically unacceptable, yet the debate is almost entirely built on this denial, and those who want to introduce an ethical dimension are derided and mocked. When did we cease to care about the ethics of our actions?

I imagine a time when our first consideration will be the humanity of the other. People will always have to be punished for offences against others, but if we first acknowledge that we’re punishing human beings who are of equal value, then the form the punishments take will be useful and possibly redemptive.

Butler’s identification of the moral predicament we face as a consequence of being injured is like a wake up call. How can we continue to treat others so badly, in our own families and in the wider world?

“Peace must be my peace, in a relation that starts from an I and goes to the other, in desire and goodness…” writes Levinas. From this I understand that peace begins in the individual human heart and from that heart moves into the wider world. This seems to be a very slow learning process. Just when I’ve let go of one lot of uncaring impulses, another lot turn up. It’s a slog, but what else is there to do? Go out and blind everybody?

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself. The Spinoza Lectures; Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence.

 

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