L. Rhodes


Ungrievable at the Border

In the introduction to her essay collection Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler writes:

Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed, which means that when they are destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed. To destroy them actively might even seem like a kind of redundancy, or a way of simply ratifying a prior truth. (p. xix)

She is talking specifically about the ways we perceive the lives most directly affected by war, the ways in which news reports frame those perceptions, and how those combine to lower our moral resistance to the conduct of war. It is not so much that the lives themselves are ungrievable, as that our epistemic relation to them has disabled us for a grief that might otherwise be appropriate.

If, for example, we think of Syrians only through the lens of one form or another of victimhood — as victims of the Assad regime, or of sectarian violence — then our moral revulsion will be muted when we see newspaper photographs of bombed-out cities, because the image has only confirmed what we have already accepted as a foregone conclusion. Popular Western perceptions of certain regions are so dominated by images of victimhood that we find it difficult to muster any sustained resistance to the wars conducted there, even when our own governments are involved. Within the frame through which we view those regions, the destruction of the people who live there feels inevitable, so we have trouble convincing ourselves that our involvement matters.

Butler is writing primarily about the “hot” wars of conflict zones, but it strikes me that her notion of “ungrievable lives” also applies to the immigration crises occuring at the border between Mexico and the United States. Crises plural, because there is the underlying crisis of a destabilized South driving migrants to seek safety in the North, and on top of that, the crisis of the US government’s policy of cruelty in response. Conscientious objectors to practices like “family separation” have sometimes attempted to persuade the political opposition by pointing out that many of its victims are asylum seekers who crossed Mexico in order to escape violence and oppression in their home countries. If Butler’s notion is correct, those arguments may have added to the perception that their victimhood is inevitable.

The connection may have been brought to mind by a Washington Post report that another migrant child had died in Border Control custody — the fourth since December. This may not have been one of those cases of negligent or even abusive treatment that have come so frequently across the wires over the last several years, such as the report that children were given psychotropic drugs to mute their grief at having been separated from their guardians. But nor is clear to me that the public at large draws a clear distinction. As far as most Americans are concerned, the child was already “lost and destroyed” before he even arrived.

It is not just that we are bombarded with a pervasive, counterfactual narrative about immigrants. Border hawks like the president may traffic in horror stories of immigrants flooding out of “shithole” countries, bringing crime and disease in their wake, but even those not taken in by such rhetoric may have a difficult time seeing detainees at the border as grievable. Our imaginations have been better atuned to sensing the hazards that hedge them in than to imagining the possibility of a future beyond migrancy.

Much of what makes migrants so difficult to grieve is the difficulty we have in imagining a future for them. The more we entertain the possibilities, the less inclined we are to accept their deaths and destruction as inevitable. Mostly what we see, though, is danger: the dangers they’ve fled, the dangers they’ve come through, the dangers they now face. No end of dangers, and because they are endless, it takes effort to feel responsible. Why take on responsibility for something you suspect cannot be avoided?

What’s needed to counterbalance the narrative of inevitability, it seems to me, is a concerted effort to explore migrant lives from the frame of possibility. There are now untold numbers of people living in America who arrived here after having fled from violence and oppression in their home countries, and who have, through significant struggle, made worthwhile lives for themselves here. Telling their stories would be not merely a reaffirmation of the old national myth of a melting pot society where people of all origins can flourish. It would also prime our imaginations to see potential future for the migrants currently in limbo. Armed with a sense of the lives they could have, we can learn to see them as grievable. Recognizing them as grievable, we may more accutely feel a responsibility for intervening so that they need not be grieved.

Yet, when we have read about them lately, it has mostly been to underscore the precarity of their situations. Anti-immigrant neighbors learn that a much beloved fixture of the community is undocumented only when ICE shows up to deport him. Bright young students find their promising futures thrown into doubt by potential end of DACA. Such stories are meant to emphasize the cost of current government policies, but can only do so effectively if the reader is able to see the crisis as interrupting the trajectory of a life, rather than as its inevitable destination. Currently, many Americans are unable to see it that way, and not merely on the political right. Coupled with the other popular narrative, the one favored by Trump and his like, the cumulative effect is to relegate them to that lost and destroyed zone of which Butler writes.