What blinds us to others?
What makes others invisible to us?
Who are these others?
Although we may (deliberately or non-deliberately) not perceive the grief or suffering of those around us, we cannot deny the amount of violence that surrounds us in the present age. This violence exists in numerous forms of which, the most obvious, the physical form is just one. While infliction of physical violence is easily discernible, I am going to discuss the imperceptible violence that occurs when we fail to recognize the existence of certain populations or individuals.
This violence of non-recognition occurs when lives of certain people do not matter. Their existence is erased even when they are alive because their lives do not matter. Their lives do not matter as we do not accord their lives with a dignity and sanctity with which we hold human life in general.
At first, such a claim appears baseless. After all, on what rational ground could we claim that certain existing populations are not recognised? And even if certain individuals are not recognised, how could this act of non-recognition be termed as violence? Perhaps a more comprehensive analysis of this claim would offer more substance than what appears in the first glance/encounter.
Non-recognition of existing populations occurs in various ways. We deny dignified recognition of individuals or certain populations when we fail to completely recognize their existence. This could be seen when we do not acknowledge or recognize existence of individuals who do not conform to norms of the binary model of gender. Consider the case of transgenders who are, more often than not, deprived of any sense of subjecthood due to their lack of conformity to existing gender norms. This non-recognition is an active process where an individual (as part of a certain population or otherwise) is denied a dignified existence as their lives seem to have no value at all. Their lives do not matter.
This is the kind of imperceptible violence I am talking about, wherein we deny subjecthood to certain people or wherein we do not recognize their existence as worthy at all. Another way this violence occurs is when we ask individuals to embrace the very norms they repudiate. This could be seen to occur in cases when we offer token recognition to women as subjects who are recognised but, who remain secondary to men. In the discussed situations, lives of individuals are not considered of value and their existence is not given due recognition. It would not be far fetching to state that this kind of imperceptible violence often leads to acceptance of physical violence meted out to these groups whose lives do not matter. It becomes acceptable to subject these individuals to physical violence and discrimination as the loss of their lives is not of grave importance.
This imperceptible violence is not only limited to individuals who do not conform to heteronormativity, but to all kinds of individuals whose lives appear to not matter. It equally applies to populations who are subjected to starvation, those who do not belong to upper castes, sex-workers, labourers and many more. This form of violence is most hidden yet, most rampant. It results in living conditions for people which involve existing without any sense of security. Their lives are unworthy of living and they are, thus, exposed to a constant threat of tangible violence.
We have a tendency to assume that this kind of violence is inflicted by the society or the state to the vulnerable and marginalised populations. But, we could not be more wrong. When I refuse to grant the status of a worthy existence to the labourer sitting next to me in the metro, or; when, as a teacher, I refuse to acknowledge the presence of a Hindi medium student in my class, or; when I fail to acknowledge the sexual life of my homosexual batch-mate as an authentic life, or; when I regard the life of the gatekeeper at my office as the life that does not matter, or; when I do not pay any consideration to the struggles of identity of my north-eastern batch-mates in everyday interaction, I am actively inflicting violence on all these people by not recognizing their existence through either a complete failure to recognise their lives or, by asking them to embrace the norms they themselves repudiate. This non-recognition of their existence, then, results in their invisibility for me.
How many of us could say, without a flicker of guilt, that we are not perpetrators of this kind of violence? By not considering certain lives as worthy of living, we doom them to a lifetime of vulnerability, insecurity and fear. We subject them to a life of invisibility.
But, it must be asked, what is it that makes us blind to their existence? According to Judith Butler, “for a life to be regarded as valuable, it has to be grievable”. This is to say that we only grieve the loss of lives of those whom we consider valuable and those we do not grieve, their lives do not hold any value. Lack of grief on our part for their suffering makes us indifferent or rather, blind to the kind of life they are subjected to. Theirs is a life which does not matter.
A life which is not recognized is in many ways already lost and this non-recognition, the imperceptible violence, is not grieved for. The populations, the ones we have discussed above, are in a sense “socially dead” and already lost. The non-recognition of their existence results in their social death which makes them invisible to us. We do not grieve this loss which allows us to accept any kind of discrimination being meted out to them. As their deaths, actual or social (in the stated symbolic sense), would not matter for us, their lives do not too, and we go on committing this gruesome act without being held accountable or responsible.
Entire populations face this imperceptible violence by us constantly and we go on living, only because their lives do not matter to us.
Author: Apoorva Hasija
Feature Photo: Jim Fischer