Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Ottawa shootings and "the race to innocence"

There's this phrase that scholar Sherene Razack has used that I've been thinking about: "the race to innocence." I've been thinking about it as I've watched the reactions to the shootings in Ottawa unfold.

By this phrase, she means "a belief that we are uninvolved in subordinating others" (Looking White People in the Eye, p. 14). My understanding of how she uses the idea of "innocence" is that she's trying to capture the ways in which people with privilege often assume that we are not involved in social relations that cause harm to others and benefit us, and we act and speak and come to know the world in ways premised on that (faulty) assumption that we don't benefit from and contribute to perpetuating harm. Not only that, we often do things that, however they work for us internally, sure look a lot as if, on some level, we really know that we're not innocent at all. It can be hard to read some of these actions as being about anything other than trying to perform innocence, to broadcast innocence to the world, to make sure that at the very least it is the innocent image of ourselves that everyone else in the world has to see and deal with. Now, from what I remember of that book -- I read it a long time ago -- she uses this idea mostly to talk about racialized relations of power among women, and there is something specific about the connection between dominant notions of white femininity and the idea of "innocence." But I think it's also a useful way to think about a lot of really common ways that white Canadians in general talk about ourselves and act in the world. I think it has been central to a lot of the reactions to this week's tragic events, and I think it is an important part of preventing us from finding more politically constructive ways of reacting.

I'm not going to try to be exhaustive, but I want to talk about two things I've noticed. I'm far from alone in noting the kinds of things of which these are examples, and I only notice them because I have observed wiser and more perceptive friends, comrades, and writers notice similar things in other contexts, so I'm not claiming great insight. But I find them infuriating, so I'm writing about them.

The First Thing

I think I could probably write a longer, more involved piece about how patterns of sharing things on social media are actually a really useful way to learn about the social organization of knowledge and about the social organization of emotion, but I'll stick to the specifics here. In a moment like we've been in over the last few days, people who rarely share links on social media that are about "issues" tend to do so, and people who have a certain set pattern of issues that they share links about often break out of those patterns in ways related to the crisis of the moment. This is, of course, perfectly understandable. It's an awful event that grabs people's attention, so they share news reports as the events are unfolding and immediately after. And there is a fairly significant outpouring of public emotion, so various expressions of shock and sorrow and grief, as well as sympathy for the family and loved ones of the young man who died, and respect and thanks for any who played a role in resolving the acute crisis, are shared as well.

The problem, of course, is not that people are shocked and horrified by violence, or that they express empathy and grief in response to the young man who was killed. What I find gut-wrenching is the way that this sharing casts in stark relief all the violence, suffering, and death that most of us don't emote about publically and share things about on social media. What does that say about what violence we actually see as violence, whose suffering we think matters, and whose lives we see as important?

Now, there's lots going on in that massive non-reaction. One awful element is that what is legible as violence depends a lot on who has been harmed and who has been doing the harming. There's a reason, for instance, that one of the powerful slogans coming out of the resistance by the Black community in Ferguson in the aftermath of the police murder of Michael Brown is "Black Lives Matter!" -- that is, for centuries, the dominant white supremacist society (and I'm talking here about the one we live in, not trying to push it off onto the US alone) has been very clear about acting as if they don't. There's something specific about Black experience in this regard, of course, but there are other axes as well along which certain people are automatically and always treated as full members of humanity, and other people have a much more tenuous admittance, or no admittance at all. Tragically, this has everything to do with the presence or absence, and the shape, of public responses to instances of harm, violence, and death.

That's not all that's going on, though. Another factor at play (that, admittedly, intersects with what I just said in ways I'm not going to fully explore here) is our sense of connection with the violence at hand. A lot of people feel a lot of really intense connection to the events in Ottawa -- an individual committing a series of deeply anti-social acts that involved killing one individual and attempting to kill lots more -- when they might not to similarly anti-social acts in other circumstances because both the acts themselves and the post-act media hype have tied them very deeply to this thing called "Canada". One part of that is what Benedict Andersen calls the "imagined community" of the nation, where various factors work together to give us a sense of having a connection with millions of strangers we will never meet. Now, I think that's a kind of peculiar thing, and often a very troubling one, but getting into why I think that and what we might want to do differently is at the very least another post, and probably more like a book or two. So we'll just note that part of why people were reacting to this particular instance of violence is because of a sense of connection that an immense amount of social work has gone into creating.

It also follows that if there is some other violent incident -- say a shooting where an individual commits a series of deeply anti-social acts that involve killing one individual and attempting to kill lots more -- that happens halfway around the world, well, there isn't that same sense of connection for most of us, so probably if we hear about it, we note disapproval and sadness in a very perfunctory way, and move on. Again, this seems reasonable.

To bring this back to the race to innocence, though, there's a whole other category of violence that we usually do our best to forget exists. And that is that the Canadian state is an immense source of violence. I'm hardly alone in noting this, even just in the last couple of days. Canada bombs people, it deprives people of resources, it legislates people into the violence of poverty, it kills people through policing, it causes immense harm via prisons, it has done and continues to do incredibly amounts of colonial (often gendered) harm in the very claiming of the land it claims, it pushes global trade and investment agreements that quite predictably cause various sorts of direct and indirect harms, it pushes resource extraction activities at home and abroad that are huge sources of violence to the earth and to people, and on, and on, and on. Of course I recognize that making the case that all of these things do in fact count as violence to people who don't already understand them in that way would take much more than a list, and I don't have time or space for more than that, so you may now have moved into a mode of "Pfft, he's ridiculous" or "But...but...but...but...". As I said, I'm not going to try to convince you, but I'll restate the claim more directly: There are many, many forms of violence that we are connected to through "Canada" because of people and institutions connected with "Canada" committing that violence. But because Canadianess presumes a sort of liberal innocence, none of this registers, so there is no sense of being connected to this violence, so links aren't shared, and there is no public affect to circulate or process...except perhaps resentment at people who point out this violence and its connection to us.

The Second Thing

The other thing I want to comment on has to do with a certain category of link and tweet and story that I've seen lots of people sharing. I saw, for instance, quite a number of people shared a tweet about how even in the midst of the crisis the Ottawa police had sent a message to Muslim community leaders in the city that if people in their communities felt unsafe, they should call the police and the police would respond. And I've seen lots of non-Muslims sharing links about how various Muslim organizations and communities in Canada have condemned the attack and expressed their sympathies about the death of the young man at the War Memorial. And lots of people have been circulating, with all due and appropriate horror, word of the violation of the mosque that happened in Cold Lake, Alberta. And not only have they been sharing news of the violation, they have also been sharing news of the rapid and seemingly spontaneous community response by non-Muslims in the town to help clean up the mosque and show some solidarity with their Muslim neighbours.

In some ways, not only are the decisions to share this material understandable, they are also useful. They help to circulate a sense that acts of direct hate against Muslims are not acceptable, and they encourage further acts of support. They work against the white supremacist, colonial tendency to blame Muslims, en bloc. Certainly there are limits to what such general circulation of sentiment will accomplish, but we shouldn't underestimate it either.

There is more to it, however. Often, part of the work done in the circulation of these kinds of stories is an active distancing of overt hostility and violence towards Muslims from "us" and from the idea of "Canada." It is a way of saying, look, our cops are being supportive, we actively know not to blame Muslims, the nasty hate crimes are from people who are not-us, and the "us" gets together to help in the aftermath. It is a kind of pro-active pushing of badness out of any association with "us." It is an example of racing to innocence.

So if my first example of the race to innocence was evidence of how the presumption of innocence seriously impairs our ability to understand our place in the world, this one feels to me like a much more active (though by that I don't necessarily mean conscious) sort of performance. It feels a bit like a pointed comment directed at the United States, in the vein of the perpetual Canadian liberal smugness that I have always found both irritating and largely unwarranted. And I can't help but think it is an active attempt to deny or repress the fact that people and institutions associated with "Canada" have been committing horrid acts of violence against Muslims in very open ways for a long, long time. This includes Canadian complicity in the sanctions that killed in excess of a million Iraqi civilians in the 1990s. It includes the long Canadian involvement in the conquest and recolonization of Afghanistan, the somewhat-reduced-by-protest but still extant participation (notwithstanding Liberal mythology) in the conquest and recolonization of Iraq, and the participation in the bombing of Libya, all of which have resulted in a great many civilian deaths and, by and large, have made things immeasurably worse for the people who live in those countries. Then there is the utter devotion of our current government to supporting the occupation of Palestine, including the brutal siege and even more brutal assaults on Gaza. And then you have the utterly horrid ways that the Canadian national security state has treated Muslim communities here on Turtle Island, from instances of indefinite detention without charge or trial, to intimidation, to blackmail. To quote the subtitle of a different book by Sherene Razack, Canada has been an active and enthusiastic participant in "The eviction of Muslims from Western law and politics." And now, of course, we have committed to participating in the latest Western imperial venture in West Asia.

Again, this is not meant to blame individuals for sharing the kinds of things described in the first paragraph of this section, or for participating in the circulation of knowledge and emotion of which doing so is an element. The point, rather, is to note that these stories about how this thing we call "Canada" relates to people who are Muslim make us feel good about ourselves and we feel a social impetus to participate in their circulation. But other kinds of stores, other kinds of knowledge, other kinds of feelings get erased or squelched or recategorized into not being relevant or worth mentioning. These are generally ones that refuse to erase the awful violence against Muslims that all of us are connected to through our association with "Canada". And that happens for a reason: "the race to innocence."

Okay, So Now What?

I don't have any particularly satisfying calls to action in response. I think we need to be collectively active and vocal in opposing the ways in which this tragedy is already being used to strengthen the oppressive powers of the Canadian national security state as well as to generate enthusiasm for Canadian participation in the latest invasion of Iraq and Syria. I think such activity is important, but it doesn't really get at the underlying organization of knowledge and feeling that I've been writing about, and I'm not sure how to respond to that. I suppose refusing the pressure to be silent under the banner of "civility", which in this case means that the dominant political readings of tragedy (a la Harper and Mansbridge and co.) are treated as acceptable and supposedly apolitical, while actually pointing out the political content and context of tragedies themselves and of the dominant narratives about them is verboten, ill-mannered, wrong. But I also wonder if there is something to be learned from Sara Ahmed's observation that we tend to construct our immediate environments to maximize our own comfort, and the proximity thus constructed shapes how we know the world and what we know about the world. So, while it sounds painfully individualized, perhaps there is value to encouraging people to adopt a discipline of working against the kinds of avoidance of discomfort that I think are a central mechanism in how we sustain and reproduce the association between "Canada" and "innocence."

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