Saturday, April 9, 2011

Does Butler Stretch too Far?

In class last Tuesday we did a very focused reading of one of Butler's arguments. However, we got so nit-picky that we never actually made it that far. For clarification's sake, here's my bare bones interpretation of her argument: We are all individual, autonomous beings who necessarily interact with each other. Here she moves on to describe the idea of community and its necessity for human beings. At the end, she wished for us to extend our idea of community to include those not in direct contact with us, not in our country, not hardly visible. Her reason for this seemingly small request is that many times in war, people from other countries become numbers in our eyes. They lose their humanity and become statistics. Butler believes that an extension of the idea of community to include human community would help terminate this problem.

Now I think Butler's argument sounds good off-the-cuff but, then again, what philosophy argument doesn't? In her argument, Butler admits that this version of community she is reaching for is indeed a weak version. No more than a community of humanity. My question then is: What's the point? Is turning a statistic into a Susan that easy? I don't think Americans are excluding enemies from the human community when they see statistics. I believe the reason for this is completely distinct from that and lies in the practical.

There are small communities, bigger ones, and bigger still on up the line. Communities frequently overlap or completely encompass others. There's my family community, my neighborhood, then my city, state, nation, etc... There is the college community, the community of a sports team, community business men. Now in all these everyone does not know everyone. However, there is generally some interaction, if only through a chain of people. Once one gets further and further from the core of one's personal life, the significance of community dwindles. The more effects tend to be of the butterfly sort, the less sense of community there is. Communities are practical occurrences, not convenient titles for philosophical nonsense. And a side note: In communities as small as cities, people still end up frequently being stats so how can we possibly hope to stop this at the global level?


  1. I don't think Butler is saying that this change is going to be easy. I think that she recognizes the fact that we, as a society, are not used to looking at individuals or communities the way she suggests. However, the practical issue does not impede our ability to comment on whether or not it would be a good idea to change our conceptions of humanity. While we have made progress, there is still a lot of work to be done. Perhaps a change in the way in which we define humanity would be beneficial.

  2. I agree with Ben. This is no easy task, and I don't believe Butler ever says that it will be. But should it be dismissed simply because it's difficult to do? While it's true that people in other countries are often statistics, so too are we in our own country at times. The way we view ourselves as separate is unfortunate, and I see that for which Butler argues. I am saying this as Armageddon is on my television, and I think it's ironic because in the film, when the entire world is threatened, people from different countries all become one family, one community. Of course, this is just a movie. But it's definitely a nice ideal.

  3. I think that the smaller communities that give way to larger ones are the places to start this change. I agree that it will not be easy, and that it will take some time, but I think that the important thing is that there is progress. Moreover, if we start in these small communities, with the individual, then it can be easier to make these changes on a larger scale. If our country were to change the way that we go about torture, then perhaps other countries, other communities, would be more apt to follow suit.

  4. I don't think that Butler is as concerned with condemning the use of statistics so much as she is with acknowledging the tragedy of lost life in other nations. While it is true that we use statistics to describe our own communities, we also chose to report on stories that we identify as particularly heart-warming/heart-wrentching. It is not uncommon for these stories to even be the stories of soldiers stationed on the other side of the world or people that live on opposite ends of the country from myself, yet their stories are presented in local media. As our connections with these people are not so strong that we care what is happening in their lives independent of the reports, what is the difference between reporting about them and reporting about the tragedies of the people in the Middle East? Once I begin to recieve new about people that I have never met and am likely to never meet, it seems that the community that I am being asked to care about has already extended beyond anyone that I am likely to have any real connections with.

  5. These are all good points, but what about the representation of the other? I tend to believe that the entire reason for viewing the other as a mere statistic is partially at the fault of the media. It's true that viewing the entire world as the human community would solve this dilemma, but there is something inherently wrong with the way that the media portrays the other.


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