Are some lives disposable?

Violence is not merely an aberration of a more peaceful and civilised normality.

The UN has stopped updating the death toll numbers in Syria [AFP]

What typically springs to mind when one speaks of “violence”? Would it be the systematic murder of civilians during the Holocaust, or the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus in the Rwandan genocide? Perhaps we are prompted to reflect upon all those killed during the two world wars of the 20th century, or the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is it the suicide bomber who blows themself up in a public place or the lone gunman taking fire on a group of school children and their teachers?

If the horrors on the nightly news or government warnings on the limits of non-violence are the benchmark we use to think about violence then maybe it is all of the above. Such narratives certainly dominate most of our contemporary discussions and demands for remembrance.

But can we reduce violence simply to a matter of state or non-state actors entering into conflict? Indeed, does violence necessarily have to be related to some form of physical violation?

What about all the species that have gone extinct as the climate changes and habitats disappear, and yet greenhouse gas emissions persistently rise? What might we say about the malnourished and starving living with crippling hunger pains and thirst on a daily basis while millions of tons of food waste enter landfills each year? Or for that matter the victim of psychological abuse who learns to live with the torment such that the eventual physical blow becomes a relief from what is imagined?

And then there are those who find themselves homeless and without a livelihood as a result of the global financial crisis, all the while the corporate architects of this very real and systemic tragedy continue to profit in these crippling times of crises and austerity. Surely we might argue that all these are equally worthy of being described as instances of everyday violence, where political strategies and economic systems render some lives invisible and inaudible, while affirming and legitimating others? 

There is a fundamental problem of representation here. Not only are many of our assumptions on violence linked to forms of political authenticity and the right to claim monopoly over the terms peace, security and prosperity. But also beneath the veneer of these types of discourse is the ability to strip lives of the ability to identify precisely the source of oppression and suffering.

What remains is a narrative that focuses on individual failure without any attempt to address the wider conditions of disempowerment, let alone change them for some alternative.

We are less comfortable looking directly at the daily forms of violence each of us might gaze upon, as we simply walk down the streets of any major city.

In January 2014 the United Nations announced it would suspend updating the death toll from Syria’s civil war explaining the organisation could not confirm casualty figures. But do the numbers adequately encapsulate the systematic nature of violence as it plays out in the contemporary world? The numbers used to summarise, measure, monitor, know, and evaluate life cannot possibly translate the exhaustion that must arise when living in a conflict zone that apparently has no end in sight, or the physical and emotional pain of losing a limb and the frustration of navigating rubble filled streets on crutches.

While the attempt to rethink violence may unsettle the liberal belief that its variant of democracy faithfully represents its constituency, we cannot simply rely upon diagnosing conflict with matters of both national and human security as if liberal societies do not produce their own novel and deeply embedded structural forms of violence. 

To reason otherwise is to condemn many of the world citizens to a type of statistical measure that is devoid of any appreciation of  systematic design, thereby failing to raise critical questions of agency and responsibility so often relied upon by the most oppressive and tyrannical systems of rule. To account for widespread suffering without diagnosing the conditions that continue to render lives disposable is to engage in the most remiss intellectualism of the most banal and ethically compromised form.

This lands us straight back where we began with the violence inherent to deciding what is seen and heard and what life is disposable. It is less the exceptional nature of different acts of violence or the actions of violent individuals, than the chilling normality of violent circumstances intrinsic to our contemporary societies that need to be interrogated.

It is somewhat easy to condemn violence when it appears in those moments of spectacular and terrifying rage. We are less comfortable looking directly at the daily forms of violence each of us might gaze upon, as we simply walk down the streets of any major city.

We need new and more imaginative ways for interrogating violence if we are to take seriously the meaning of global citizenship in the 21st century. This demands that we reframe the memory of violence and challenge the politicisation of remembrance, which absolves the violence we have committed in the name of better futures.

We can all accept that what happens in the past has a profound bearing on the historical conjuncture in which we currently live and benefit. Not all of it should be self-congratulating. So instead of getting caught up in emotional or humanistic sentimentality we should begin by asking what it says to us about the world we inhabit today.

In this current moment we therefore need to encourage our fellow citizens to consider the relations between violence of the past and the structure and logics of modern life in ways that don’t simply write off these atrocities as merely illiberal or some aberration to our more peaceful and civilised times. We do ourselves a great disservice by continuing to reason violence by applying outdated 20th century paradigms.

That is why we have decided to launch a global initiative to rethink the conditions that allow crimes to be committed against people who are rendered disposable without awkward questions being raised. This requires a more sober and honest reflection on the way power operates and violence is mobilised in a world that drastically needs a new vocabulary for making sense of the true scale of human destruction.

Dr Adrian Parr is the Director of the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center at the University of Cincinnati and a UNESCO water chair. Her recent publications include The Wrath of Capital (Columbia University Press, 2013) and Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press, 2009).

Dr Brad Evans is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the School of Politics and International Studies, the University of Bristol. He is the Founder and Director of the Histories of Violence Project. His latest books include Liberal Terror (Polity Press, 2013) & Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (with Julian Reid, Polity Press, 2014)