Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On reading "Indefinite Detention"  in Precarious Lives by Judith Butler.

In this chapter, Judith Butler outlines the dangerous implications of the U.S. government's (or any government's) arrogation of the power to detain people indefinitely and without trial.  I learned a great deal from this chapter. For example, amazingly, I hadn't known that if and when detainees at Guantanamo Bay are tried in military tribunals, a verdict of innocent can be set aside by the President. Due process and the separation of powers do not prevail: a dangerous precedent and breach of the Constitution.

Butler's chapter is written in a philosophical language that is likely to be inaccessible to all but philosophically sophisticated people, specifically those who are conversant with the work of Foucault, and with post-structuralist, postmodern, language in general.  This amounts to a small audience for a political argument.  I suspect that people who are inclined to become sophisticated with this body of thought are unlikely to need convincing that indefinite detention makes a mockery of due process and the separation of powers in the U.S. government.  On the other hand, the great majority of people who might be influenced in their opinions by Butler's arguments are unlikely to be conversant with her language, not because of any inherent incapacity, but due to unfamiliarity with the jargon of this branch of philosophy or critical studies. These considerations lead me to wonder: for whom is this chapter, and other articles like it, written, and for what purpose?

There is value for many of us who are conversant with Butler's language in clarifying our thoughts on these issues in the face of our fear and confusion about terrorist threats.  The process of writing and reading is often coterminous with the process of thought itself.  Additionally, much writing in the tradition of Foucault is addressed to unpacking rhetoric that justifies the marginalization and dehumanization of people.  It is possible that the deconstruction and unpacking of such rhetoric requires a technical language to get underneath the subtle and obscure manipulation of people's opinions, in this case by evoking fear and rage simultaneously with a sense of righteous victimization and entitlement to retaliate. Perhaps an obscure language is necessary to illuminate how techniques of manipulation are obscurely carried out.  Nonetheless, we need to try to translate our thinking into plain language if we hope to have a significant impact.

Butler's arguments, however, have a rhetorical force of their own; they are not simply objective demonstrations of the uses and distorting effects of rhetoric on the other side.  There is an argument being engaged on both sides as to whether it is a good or bad thing to detain people indefinitely who are suspected of plotting violent attacks on the United States and its people.  Each side seeks to demonstrate the flawed arguments being deployed by the other side, as well as the rhetorical techniques deployed, in the course of marshaling arguments in favor of a particular point of view.  But my impression is that those who defend indefinite detention present their arguments in a much more broadly accessible form than those who take a critical attitude.

If the purpose of articles such as Butler's is ultimately, to influence the opinion of the populace, how does it happen that those who oppose indefinite detention present their arguments in such an obscure manner that the great majority of people would not be able to decipher what is being said?  In this way we, those who oppose indefinite detention without due process, are creating or reinforcing the impression that this position is the province of an exclusive elite.  While both sides try to dismiss or disqualify the views of the other, only those who present an argument against such detention present their arguments in such an exclusionary way.  Those who do not identify with the intellectual elite may be left with the impression that a position critical of the status quo is not for them.

There is a temptation among those of us who think of ourselves as "intellectuals" to talk and write in a way that signals our membership in an elite intellectual club.  We may need to forego such satisfactions if we hope to make a difference in the wider world.