Inhuman, Cruel, and Bestial
It has been a few months of strange juxtapositions. On the one hand, my days have been filled with a lot of hard work, consisting of massive amounts of reading and writing, some invaluable time with friends and family, and the occasional good night's rest. On the other hand, events both domestic and foreign appear to have reached quite extreme levels of animosity, aggression, and outright hatred. It's hard to see so many, from so many diverse backgrounds, spewing hatred and advocating violence. Perhaps it is only the speed and frequency of the news, a result of new media. The videos that go viral, sounds and images that circumnavigate the globe in seconds, paint a picture of humanity that can at times be difficult to stomach. After reading this excellent piece in the New Yorker, I found myself juxtaposing my readings with current events and this resulted in some strange connections.
For example, I found myself suddenly reviewing Derrida's difficult but rewarding lectures collected in "The Beast and The Sovereign."
I was particularly interested in a lengthy discussion of Carl Schmitt, and even more specifically to the ways in which individuals and society begin to permit first in language and then in action violence towards others. In other words, I was again considering the ways in which we begin to decide that this person or these people are expendable or even undesirable lives. Discussing Schmitt, Derrida writes:
What is terrifying, according to [Schmitt], what is to be feared or dreaded, what is schrecklich, scary, what inspires terror, because it acts through fear and terror, is that this humanitarian pretension, when it goes off to war, treats its enemies as “hors la loi [outside the law]” and “hors l’humanité [outside humanity]” (in French in Schmitt’s text), i.e. like beasts: in the name of the human, of human rights and humanitarianism, other men are then treated like beasts, and consequently one becomes oneself inhuman, cruel, and bestial.
I keep returning to this, that there's something about linking a person or people with animals and animality that suddenly makes them unworthy of the type of ethical and legal protection we seem to value as our highest achievement. But why? And how? What exactly is it about being linked with animals and animality that suddenly makes a life or lives so easily ended? Further, how is it that we can so quickly remove a person or people from our ethical consideration? Did we really ever then enact a system or institution of justice as we claimed?
With the violences that are now daily news in mind, it's difficult for me not to feel some sorrow for the future of the world my son will inherit when Derrida goes on to write,
At bottom, when a hypocritical imperialism combats its enemies in the name of human rights and treats its enemies like beasts, like non-men, or like outlaws, like werewolves, it is waging not a war but what would today be called a state terrorism that does not speak its name.
Not only has this been done in shocking ways during history, but even in my lifetime I have seen the images and read the tales of people treated "as animals" in the name of so many ideals, such as security, safety, and even justice. The incidents at Abu Ghraib would be but one example of how people can so easily loose their way, loose their own humanity as they violently strip it from others. We are right to do everything we can to avoid such things from ever happening, and that includes talking about it openly and honestly. I believe, given current events, it also requires being vigilant in our current discussions, the language of our present discourses. If we find ourselves or others making the lives of others easily expendable by placing them outside humanity, by linking them with animals and animality, then we need to stop and reconsider our language, bring back a sense of compassion, and eventually consider why lives (animal or human) can ever be executed at the whim of force and power. For as Derrida warns in the concluding paragraph of this particular section on Schmitt,
It is always a matter of the law and of placing the other outside the law.
Of course, this moves me on to a consideration of what or who exactly is "within" the law, but this is probably already too much for a weekly blog entry. The hard truth is that I don't have answers to these questions and I don't think I have yet read a text that does, but it seems to me that not to ask them, not to consider these matters, is to ignore a gaping black hole in our supposed moral universe.