A war on the “unworthy”

Writing of mass media coverage of U.S. foreign policy (for which, read “war”), Noam Chomsky distinguished between so-called “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.[1] He was describing a hypocrisy in which the deaths of “worthy” victims would be employed in propaganda to advance U.S. aims, while the deaths of “unworthy” victims would be all but ignored.

Of course, if one cares about human life, one should care about any death, not just the deaths we have heard so much about recently of 20 children and 6 adults at a Connecticut school.[2] But we hear a lot less about the ongoing slaughter of inner city children,[3], who at least are counted, and the ongoing drone attacks, almost certainly war crimes,[4] whose toll is uncounted but consists surely in part of non-combatants[5] who, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, are supposed to be protected under all conditions.[6]

That so many are killed with so little fuss speaks directly to a certain callousness. We do not, it would appear, care as much about people “far from us”—demographically or geographically—as we do those “nearest to us.” And it seems, universally speaking, that “those nearest to us” are those in “a postcard-perfect New England town where everyone seems to know everyone else and where there had lately been holiday tree lightings with apple cider and hot chocolate.”[7] Which suggests that all those others who die through physical violence are little different from each other, whether they are in U.S. inner cities or in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or any of the many countries where drone attacks continue.[8]

The issue of distance, and how it relates to empathy, is critical. Gerhard Lenski’s rationalization of functionalism hinges on a premise that much of what we might recognize as altruism is really “partisan self-sacrifice.”[9] If humans are innately self-serving rather than innately altruistic, then it follows that compulsion will be required for humans to behave altruistically and this requires an authority to compel obedience. In fact, the truth is rather more mixed, and the notion of ethical behavior arises as an attempt amongst the members of each society, initially in the Paleolithic, before hierarchical social organization, to remedy “altruism failures.” This means that humans prefer altruism—hence the fact that ethics developed at all—but often find that it demands a cost that is greater than they voluntarily bear.[10] Attending to the causes of this injustice should lead in the direction of restorative justice, where an exploration reveals that dominator-style social organization is a substantial part of the problem, rather than any part of the solution.[11]

[A] major disagreement has always existed with respect to the nature of the state and of law. Radicals have commonly regarded both as instruments of oppression employed by the ruling classes for their own benefit. Conservatives [functionalists] have seen them as organs of the total society, acting basically to promote the common good.[12]

The law, it must be understood, is only one part of a wider construct of “structural violence” waged largely against those who are not members of a class of mostly wealthy white males in the U.S. who have the most influence over which laws are passed, whom they’re enforced against, and how harshly, as well as over the distribution of resources. A contrasting set of human rights is both embedded in international law, especially with the right to adequate food,[13] and expanded upon in recent scholarship. David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, for example, write,

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[14]

Martha Nussbaum, arguing that humans (and animals) should be enabled to develop to their potential,[15] lists several central human capabilities:

  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Bodily health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
  3. Bodily integrity. being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault an domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  4. Senses, imagination, and thought. being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
  6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
  7. Affiliation. (A) Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.) (B) Having the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.
  8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Control over one’s environment. (A) Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association. (B) Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.[16]

What we should observe here is that just as some victims are “worthy” and some victims are “unworthy,” some humans are recognized as being human and accorded the rights pertaining thereto, and some humans are not recognized as being human and are not accorded the rights pertaining thereto. It is unpersuasive to argue that social order or economic necessity demands this dichotomy when those who are recognized as human are invariably those who are in some way in power over others and that the principle distinction between those who are in power and those who are not is in whether these rights are recognized. This is, rather, a bit oversimplistically, about who has dignity and whose face is being rubbed in that they are denied dignity.

It is also about recognizing the connection between the war(s) being waged overseas and the class distinctions here at home, and the connection between the innocents being killed overseas and the subalterns who are the victims of ongoing violence here. It is inescapably about the war on terror as a euphemism for the war against national self-determination (being that the 9/11 attacks can indeed be seen as a retaliation for U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Israel and Palestine) as it is about class, race, and gender war. It is about understanding what “worthy” and “unworthy” really mean.

  1. [1]Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  2. [2]James Barron, “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut,” New York Times, December 14, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/nyregion/shooting-reported-at-connecticut-elementary-school.html
  3. [3]David Muhammad, “Will Obama Cry for Inner City Youth?” Truthout, December 22, 2012, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/13486-will-obama-cry-for-inner-city-youth
  4. [4]Owen Bowcott, “UN to investigate civilian deaths from US drone strikes,” Guardian, October 25, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/25/un-inquiry-us-drone-strikes
  5. [5]Noah Shachtman, “Not Even the White House Knows the Drones’ Body Count,” Wired, September 29, 2012, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/09/drone-body-count
  6. [6]Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva, August 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516.
  7. [7]Barron, “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut.”
  8. [8]Greg Miller, “Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing,” Washington Post, December 13, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/under-obama-an-emerging-global-apparatus-for-drone-killing/2011/12/13/gIQANPdILP_story.html; Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times, August 14, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/world/15shadowwar.html
  9. [9]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  10. [10]Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2011).
  11. [11]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  12. [12]Lenski, Power and Privilege, p. 23
  13. [13]George Kent, Ending Hunger Worldwide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011).
  14. [14]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 7.
  15. [15]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  16. [16]Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 33-34.

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