by Ian Kennedy
“The public sphere is constituted in part by what can appear, and the regulation of the sphere of appearance is one way to establish what will count as reality, and what will not. It is also a way of establishing whose lives can be marked as lives and whose deaths will count as deaths.” -Judith Butler, Precarious Life, xx-xxi, my emphasis
Though written almost 15 years ago, Judith Butler’s Precarious Life speaks to our current political moment, and offers a path towards action.
What is at stake in communication, she argues, is not only some kind of message that is being transmitted. Instead, Butler writes in Precarious Life, “it is precisely because one does not want to lose one’s status as a viable speaking being that one does not say what one thinks” (xix-xx). Being shut out of the public sphere is a negotiation, at its most basic, of the shared personhood of the beings who communicate. When we talk and are talked to, we are recognizing our interlocutors as fellow humans.
My country kills people at home and abroad without trial. So do governments in Syria, in Myanmar, in the Philippines, the list is awfully long. In the world today, overrun with state sanctioned harm, there is one focus that must stand above others. One thing that we must recognize as most essential: “violence and our complicity in it” (19).
Part of that violence is carried out by police or military or criminals. But our complicity lies in which targets are considered worthy of a trial and justice, and which targets are suitable for destruction or removal or death-by-poisoned water.
Writing in the immediate post 9/11 framework, Butler argued for actively making the public sphere more open to dissent. The Patriot Act and the surveillance that followed (including the treatment of those who blew the whistles to expose that surveillance) showed how important her points are.
Black Lives Matter did not emerge because state violence against black bodies was new. Instead, it responded to a public sphere which spoke so loudly and resolutely in word and action that Black lives didn’t matter. Police wielding illegitimate force have erased Black and brown and native american and immigrant and trans and so many other lives. But that erasure can happen in word as well as deed, as when some commentators discuss those lives as boutique issues or as ruled by “false victimization”. Butler’s words describe this dilemma precisely: “what we are up against here is not only the question of whether certain kinds of ideas and positions can be permitted in public space, but how public space is itself defined” (126).
Our current public sphere is, increasingly, defined by a rejection of the idea that truth matters. That danger is exemplified by the president elect and the media outlets that supported him. It’s clear that BLM is a non-violent political action group, but that doesn’t stop Redstate from describing it, without evidence, as “a group that practices violence, destruction, and disruption, but defines itself by its more peaceful protests as a way to shield themselves from criticism, and claim legitimacy.”
That description is especially insidious because the second clause explains away the truth, leaving space for the invention in the first clause. This is dangerous because truth is not automatically privileged in discourse. What is the best way for me, another white male, to resist this trend?
Butler’s words offer a solution: “hearing beyond what we are able to hear […] being open to narration that decenters us from our supremacy, in both its right- and left- wing forms” (18).
First, I must turn and see and hear the reality of a country caught in virulent white supremacy, in which I am complicit. I must hear, understand, and help to keep that truth visible. Then, in the face of people who can’t hear what I say, who seem to reject evidence and truth, who go so far as to tacitly and actively deny humanity, I must stand my ground, ears open.
Image Credit: Aaron Burr played by Leslie Odom Jr. in the musical Hamilton, image from newsworks.