The media often present a sanitized and one sided narrative of war, torture and other forms of violence that blots out the faces and silences the voices of many of the main victims: the refugees,
In honor of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 and in lasting solidarity with all the victims of both the original tragedy and its costly and controversial aftermath, we thought we’d rebroadcast our episode on War, Sacrifice, and the Media this week. We don’t seem to have blogged for the original episode – somehow that got sacrificed. But here is a fresh one for your consideration.
Whenever America is involved in a war in a distant land, we’re often involved in a war, closer to home. This second war isn’t fought with tanks or bombs or missiles, but with ideas, words, and images. I’m thinking of the struggle over the narration and representation of war -- its meaning, its cost and benefits, its victors and vanquished, its combatants and non-combatants. He or she who controls the narration and representation of war controls the public perception of war.
Now if you are the cynical sort, you might well think that ’s pretty obvious who determines what gets represented and how it gets represented? Elites - moneyed elites, political elites, media elites. War comes at us through a top-down system of politically, economically and culturally condition representations designed to make us feel sympathy for our side and antipathy or indifference for the other side.
That seems true enough, but it’s also true that the so-called elite – of which John and I are card carrying members, by the way -- doesn’t always speak with a unified voice. And top-down efforts to control thought and manipulate sympathy through the means of mass representation hardly ever succeed, not in a fractious and boisterous democracy like ours – at least not in the long run. Thankfully, in the age of the internet, people do have access to alternative sources of information that offer a different take on things. Even the most repressive and controlling regimes can’t keep competing narratives completely out of the public square. Remember those brave Iranian students tweeting from the barricades? And more recently the popular uprising in Egypt seems to have been sustained, at least partly by the ability to mobilize, inform, and organize over the internet.
Still, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the power of top-down narration. In the early days of the Afghanistan and then the Iraq war, the so-called mainstream media bent over backwards to tell the story of the war in terms pretty much dictated by the administration. There were dissenting voices – but they were pushed pretty far off center stage.
But there’s a deeper question here. Are different narratives just different or is it possible for one to be true and one to be false? How do we go about determining which is true and which is false? And who should determine what gets represented and how it gets represented?
The realist in me wants to say that of course there can be narratives that are more true to the facts and narratives that are less true the facts. A narrative of the Iraq war that focuses on the casualties on our side and leaves out the death and displacement we imposed on the innocent citizens of that country is incomplete and less true to the facts. Is there any question about that?
But it also seems to me that our narratives are bound to be incomplete, because they are always constructed from a particular and partisan point of view. It’s just a fact that in a war the lives of enemy combatants count less than the lives of one’s own soldiers. Our narratives of war are bound to privilege the lives and losses of our own and deemphasize the lives and losses of the distant other.
You could say that that’s not a good thing. It’s a bad thing that blinds us to the common humanity w share with our adversaries. But on the other hand, It’s a human thing. We are sort of biologically programmed to care more about those near and dear than about the distant other.
Of course, biology is not destiny. Whatever we’re biologically programmed to do, we morally ought to care about all human beings equally.
But now ask yourself where would such “oughts” come from? If humans are simply hard-wired to care more about the near and dear than the distant other, would it really be possible anyway for us to treat all lives as equally worthy of our sympathy?
To be sure, the reach of human sympathy isn’t just a product of unaided biology. It’s also shaped by culture, society and politics. In the right sort of political, social and cultural context, we could have equal regard for the lives of innocent victims of war everywhere. Problem is, it is a little hard to imagine how to get from here to where it seems we ought to be.
Fortunately, Judith Butler, our guests, had and has lots to say that provoked lots of thought on these topics and more. And although she is sometimes known for being a forbidding and hard to penetrate thinker, when it comes to her more academic work, on this topic she was clear, articulate, and forceful. Listen in and I’m sure your thoughts will be provoked in this time of national remembrance.