global politics, relationally

Je Suis … nameless?


#JeSuisCharlie and #JeSuisAhmed have been trending this week in response to the tragic deaths from the attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7. #JeSuisCharlie is being used to defend the freedom of expression and the press of the magazine, and stand with those killed defending it, and #JeSuisAhmed is to remind those who would essentialize Islam and violence that an Islamic man died defending the right of the magazine to mock his religion through free speech. These hashtags have been used more than five million times.

The New York Times estimated that more than half a million Iraqi children died before 1995 from the sanctions regime (before its height in 1996 and 1997). It is now estimated that 5.4 million people have died in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people. In the United States, 1 in 100000 people starves to death every year – that’s more than 3000 people. The leading causes of death on January 7, 2015; like on September 11, 2001 and other hallmark days for global terrorism – were largely preventable diseases, rather than war or terrorism. I don’t know any of the names of any of those people – the starved Iraqis; the dead Congolese; the Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians and others killed and displaced by the tsunami; the starved Americans. I may be able to find some of them, but the overwhelming majority of those dead people will remain nameless to me, as will most of the victims of most of the tragedies in the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I am for free expression, and against killing people for it (though also preferably for inter-religious respect and against essentialism). But, with Judith Butler, I am interested in what makes some lives grievable and others not – what the conditions that make life (and death) recognizable are. In a very different way, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been asking a very similar question – how do some lives come to be signified as meaningful and some as meaningless? How are some lives individually valuable and others aggregated in statistics, or just ignored? I think that, whatever the answer to those questions are, they must be definition be unjustified metrics of visibility. So with that thought, for today, #jesuisnameless.