Bending (False) Binaries: A Sociological Plea for Deconstruction

Scene from a vigil in Chicago, Illinois, in solidarity with those affected by the Orlando shooting. Photo by Bob Simpson.

By Marie Berry

“The moral cogency of a human rights narrative is compelling but partial: it is incomplete and it takes sides.” – Alex de Waal

Last week Alex de Waal wrote a powerful and important essay titled “Writing Human Rights and Getting it Wrong” (if you haven’t read it yet, you should). The gist of the article is that in seeking to bring attention to human rights crises and atrocities around the globe, human rights activists—including de Waal himself—have often framed the crises in the best way to generate global attention and outrage. On the surface this might not be problematic, but de Waal shows how such simplified or essentialized framings inadvertently obscure the root causes of conflict and its complex and ever-changing dynamics. In the worst of cases, such framings can limit the possibilities for peace and can provide cover for those on the side of “good” to perpetrate unimaginable harms, as de Waal notes in regards to Rwanda and Paul Kagame’s RPF.

The essence of these arguments represent a basic social science conundrum: we make sense of the social world by categorizing it, but recognize that these categories are produced by social processes embedded in broader power relations. And we create these categories along binaries: we think of political violence as either war or genocide; we speak of state versus non-state actors; we identify individuals as men/women who are gay/straight, citizens/non-citizens.

I just finished reading The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s brilliant new book of “autotheory.” The entire text meditates on what it means to obscure such false binaries and categories. This recognition of fluidity, or identities that defy categorization, is (at long last) gaining recognition more broadly. On Friday, for instance, an Oregon state circuit court ruled that a resident could legally change their gender to “nonbinary.” Women’s colleges, after long, hard years of introspection and foot-dragging by administrators, are finally accepting students born male but who identify as women (see here). Pride Festivals taking place this month across the globe celebrate an eschewing of the gendered social order which neatly categorizes people. Within the academy, feminist scholars and philosophers have long pushed the idea of a spectrum when understanding gender or sexuality, while sociologists like Rogers Brubaker have problematized the very idea of “groups” itself.

Such efforts at deconstruction aim to challenge the tendency for categories to unintentionally produce what they seek to describe; as Brubaker notes, our tendency to see violence as between “ethnic groups” reifies the very existence of these groups themselves. Instead, attempts at deconstruction work to reject the neat packaging of the world into limited social categories.

But such intentional deconstruction has yet to find a strong foothold in studies of political violence, and thus de Waal’s piece is a critical reminder of what is at stake. As de Waal admits, labeling violence in the Nuba mountains to be genocide “unlocked a single, powerful script at a time when the Nuba predicament had become more complicated.” The result was that those well-positioned to negotiate a settlement between the warring parties had lost their moral authority to do so. I made a similar point on this blog a few months ago, noting that the labels we give some episodes of violence can create hierarchies of victimhood that have lasting effects for years and even decades to come.

The horrific and gut-wrenching shootings in Orlando over the weekend provide an awful addition to this conversation. I woke up on Sunday morning to a Twitter feed full of debates about whether this was a terrorist attack, a hate crime, or both. These debates matter. But in our effort to categorize and make sense of the shooter’s motivations, we inevitably put them into boxes—a Muslim, a homophobe, someone who is mentally deranged. Such attempts at categorization limit our ability to see that people are complex and identities are not static; these binaries (Muslim/non-Muslim; citizen/non-citizen; stable/insane) are just as unable to capture the full range of the shooter’s identity as the categories of man/woman were able to capture the plaintiff’s gender identity in the Oregon case. When we assume “being Muslim” or “being insane” is a sufficient explanation as to why a person would commit such a heinous crime, we fail to step back and see the systems of oppression and violence that may better explain how an individual comes to be radicalized or bigoted or “insane” in the first place.

What would happen if human rights activists and scholars eschewed typical, taken for granted categories and began unpacking the fluidity that is present in all social life? What would happen if we stopped debating whether genocide was happening (say, in Burundi, as Patrick Pierson pointed out on this blog last week) and looked more broadly at the totality of harms inflicted on those in war zones? Or, what would happen if we foregrounded a deeper understanding of how violence begets violence in our world, finding that the history of colonialism, US foreign policy in the Middle East, and the massive gun lobby in the US may better explain why the shooter came to murder than his religion, skin color, heritage, and so forth, ever will?

Though no analysis will prove wholly conclusive or satisfactory, it may be that an honest attempt to engage the complexities of identity, conflict, and violence writ large will prove more fruitful than any reductionist reliance on well-worn tropes of religion, skin color, heritage, etc. In some ways, the need to make sense of the senselessness (such as the events in Orlando) reflects our unease with explanatory ambiguity. Because we don’t have answers, we retreat into categories and simplifications that provide a false sense of coherence or that serve ulterior motives (such as the “attention-grabbing” noted by de Waal). Ultimately, this results not only in a perversion or misrepresentation of conflict and violence, but may also serve to hurt the very people and communities we intend to help. As such, it is important to remember that how we think about – and study (see Thomas Zeitzoff’s recent post on the topic here) – our world matters; not just for reasons of conceptual clarity or explanatory coherence, but for the all-important role of standing with vulnerable and conflict-affected communities in the midst of their pain.

  1. ‘What would happen if human rights activists and scholars eschewed typical, taken for granted categories and began unpacking the fluidity that is present in all social life?’

    I think the numerous people who love to moralize and to tribally divide others into the sheep and the goats would be seriously dissatisfied and would identify those practicing fluid rhetoric as apologists for Evil. It would be necessary — indeed, it is already necessary — to precede any rational analysis of violent persons and actions with a ritual denunciation, and to sprinkle one’s language with words like ‘horrendous’, ‘horrific’, ‘atrocious’ and so on, to assuage the passions of one’s moralizing, tribalistic audience. It’s just the way we are.

  2. “foregrounded”
    That’s a great word, perfect for these situations, i like it. One for the zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance toolkit.

    This is not so alien though. We’re all familiar with both ethnicity and race, that’s an easy start. A person can be anywhere along an entire spectrum. How about conflicted ethnic or racial identity? An easy second step to see. How about, still with race/ethnicity, a situation where a person goes in and out of two or more categories depending on circumstance? Still easy. With sexuality, similar, just a little more social pressure, a little less room to maneuver, more possibility for generating discomfort in some people. Similarly with religion, just a little. Ever see an atheist get mad at an agnostic? Departures from the world of black & white can cause all kinds of reactions.

    Who knows, maybe the Orlando shooter was a person with some gray areas, lacking the mental tools to handle them.

    The philanthropic imperialism mentioned in that link is another such gray area. Actually the entire collective personality of the US government is kindof one of these.

    There are lots of ways out of these verbal traps… ways to recognize them, ways to make sharp analytical distinctions while at the same time avoiding them. The ways out can be taught.

    So, why did the shooter shoot? Why did the group of people murder another? Why did a third country end up in a situation where it felt it had no way out of a dilemma except to wrap up a pallet of guns and ammunition, and airmail it to the aforementioned group of people in the midst of a sectarian conflict? You’re gonna need some sharp analytical distinctions to get to the bottom of that one. Cutting thru the wrong thing, lose the meaning. Back up, cut again along a different line. Fun stuff.

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