War, Sacrifice, and the Media

Sunday, September 11, 2011
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 4, 2009

What is it

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, the victims of unjust imprisonment and torture, and the immigrants virtually enslaved by their starvation and legal disenfranchisement.  John and Ken probe the limits of the media representations of war and other forms of violence with renowned UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler, author of Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?  This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.

Listening Notes

How do we see a war that is not occurring right in front of our eyes?  The narration and media representations of war determines public perception, yet the images presented to us offer more than one perspective.  Even with internet access, top-down narration is the dominant mode of public information.  The narratives that reach us are incomplete—we hear detailed accounts of our side’s death toll, yet no recognition of how many “enemy” men, women, and children are killed.  Are we hard-wired to care more for our own, or is sympathy more than just biological?  With different environmental factors, could we care just as much about the “other”?  John and Ken discuss with Judith Butler Live at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco, asking why we care for some strangers but not for others.

Butler explains how she got interested in the topic of which lives are “grievable” and which are not, explaining that it began with the AIDS crisis and the fact that certain taboos had to be broken in order to grieve for the victims.  She goes on to talk about very culturally-specific means of mourning.  She says that we don’t give full credence to the enemy in war, and do not fully grieve the losses on their side—but isn’t that inevitable in war?  She talks with John and Ken about how we define enemy, and whether that definition has become problematized in recent conflicts.  Butler confuses Ken, telling him first that he is too rational, then not enough.

The live audience chimes in, offering that sympathizing with the enemy requires honesty on the part of the government and a belief in the reasons for which a conflict is being fought.  John goes a step farther and says that it’s not just a matter of the government lying, but rather of it deceiving itself. Another audience member asks when an individual is considered at war—after all, as an American one may not ever participate in the fighting, nor does one necessarily believe in the conflict being fought.  Ken agrees and says he himself has never felt at war in the Iraqi conflict, while Butler argues that dissent is itself participation.  After taking several other audience comments, Ken offers a closing question about grievability: with so much grief in the world, is it even possible to acknowledge it all without becoming paralyzed?  Butler thinks so, but qualifies her answer.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:20): Rina Palta speaks with a refugee of the Iraq conflict who is currently living in Oakland.  She gets his story and the changes that the US invasion brought to his life.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:00): Ian Shoales gives deep consideration to the buying frenzy post-9/11, and how he did his part for America.  
 
 

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley

 
 
 

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