Sunday, October 7, 2007

First-Hand Accounts of Othering

I’ve been remiss in blogging this week – I’ve been swamped at work and this has fallen to the wayside. However, I’ve got a few entries coming up that I’ll be posting this week, which should make up for the gap. I've been thinking a lot these days about Othering, because it's been such a major theme in the reading I've been doing - which I discuss below.

Most social scientists are familiar with the concept of Othering: the idea that the process of dehumanization involves people identifying and reifying social, physical, psychological, historical, and behavioral characteristics that become salient markers differentiating “them” from “us.” We construct an archetypal (stereotyped) Other whose being-ness diverges from our own in ways we identify as important, and we apply this construct to individuals we perceive as members of the Other group. Whether or not we want to admit it, most of us engage in mild forms of Othering whenever we categorize or stereotype: think of the last time you walked through the grocery store, or watched people in a restaurant. You’ve got your own markers for sorting people into various social groups.

Under the right conditions, it is a short step from Othering, in which we identify someone as not-quite-the-same-as-us, to thinking of the Other as not-equal, therefore not-deserving-of-the-same-treatment, perhaps not-fully-human. The political, institutional, social, and economic conditions under which “difference” devolves into “dehumanization” are complex. They emerge across multiple levels, from the macro (the state, political leadership, large-scale economic trends, popular discourse) to the micro (as when individuals begin to recognize and act on perceived differences that demarcate group boundaries). Even groups that have historically perceived themselves as part of the “same”(town, neighborhood, county, church, state, etc.) may fall into the trap of Othering. The consequences can be devastating: think of genocide in the Balkans, Darfur, Armenia, Rwanda – or the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, or the torture of Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

Which brings me to this week’s reading. One of the things I’ve been asking myself is what’s missing from the thousands of pages of DoD investigations. Not surprisingly, given the dearth of critical social scientists in the ranks of the military, social science theories of Othering are mostly absent, despite the fact that most of us would begin our investigations with the problem of Othering as a basic condition for explaining abuse. One notable exception is the Schlesinger Report, which introduces psychological research like Zimbardo’s to emphasize the importance of recognizing and mitigating the social dynamics that enable people to torture each other. However, most of the reports focus on such abstractions as the failure of soldiers and their superiors to follow Army or DoD doctrine (the concept of “doctrine” is actually an important theme for critique, as is the question of why the reports take the tack that they do, but I won’t get into those topics here).

However, the theme of Othering is very salient in the voices of prisoners and soldiers themselves. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken a break from reading government reports to focus on first-hand accounts of interrogation and detention operations in the Global War on Terrorism (under which I include operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo). I’m aware of three such accounts:

Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain. 2006. Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. New York: The New Press. ISBN 1-59558-136-7.

Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian, 2007. Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq. New York: NAL Caliber/Penguin. ISBN 978-0-451-22112-4

Eric Saar with Viveca Novak. 2005. Inside the Wire: An Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guanatamo. New York: Penguin. ISBN 1-59420-066-1

Inspired by anthropologists Catherine Lutz and Keith Brown’s essay, “Grunt Lit: The Participant Observers of Empire,” I’m working on a review of these three books as an example of "Torture Lit," fodder for anthropologists trying to understand the institutional, social, and cultural dynamics that emerge during, and contextualize, prisoner-guard-interrogator relationships. These books provide coverage over several years of GWOT detention and interrogation, as well as the main sites in which such operations are occurring: Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, as well as Guantánamo (Begg), Abu Ghraib and Mosel in Iraq (Lagouranis), and Guantanamo (Saar). Begg is held as an enemy combatant for three years, while Lagouranis and Saar are both Arabic-speaking graduates of the Defense Language Institute who work for Army Intelligence – Lagouranis as an interrogator, Saar as an interpreter.

The similarities and complementarities among the three men’s accounts are striking; read against each other, and in parallel with some of the better government investigations (the Schlesinger report comes to mind), they highlight the role of Othering in dehumanization and abuse. What’s really interesting are the ways that their separate descriptions of the rituals of Othering converge with Phil Zimbardo’s account in The Lucifer Effect of how he and his fellow experimenters set up the demarcation between guards and prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment. I’m working on a series of short entries about each of these books, and another entry about the rituals of Othering in all four books, which I’ll post this week.

Another source of voices are transcripts of testimony given to DoD investigators. These transcripts are often included as annexes or appendices to the official reports. For example, the Taguba report include testimony from thirteen detainees as well as a number of soldiers who witnessed the abuse or were in Abu Ghraib when it was occurring. As fragmented and incomplete as these accounts are, they make for emotionally devastating reading. I’ll write about these in an upcoming entry.


ramar said...

Dear Laura,

Thanks for your precious lecture tips; unfortunately, it is hard to find these books in Europe.

good luck!

vaughn said...

This was about othering which many people do , and its basicly wrong . Othering goes on all around the world and its wrong for people to judge the people around them for the type of groups they hang around with , and that are there friends. We should give everyone a chance to get to know them and what they are about.

Fiza said...

Dear Laura,

I was trying to locate the posts you have published or were meant to publish (mentioned in this post). I would love to read your work on Othering related to the prisoner-guard, Gitmo, DoD.

Further, if you have any other examples of Othering in broadcast media, print media or digital media that you think isnt receiving enough light but would like people to notice, please do suggest.

Thank you for your post!!