“The West and the Rest”

Yesterday during NOISE, we attended a lecture on war photography.  The lecture focused on the year 1989, but the required reading addressed a wider range of settings.  During the plenary session, one group brought up the issue of individual choice at Abu Ghraib.  The student said that these actions need to be understood in relation to the context.  She argued that the culture of military violence strongly influenced the soldiers to abuse the detainees, therefore the soldiers were both perpetrators of violence and victims of this culture.  I agree that we need to understand actions in light of the context, but we cannot forget about individual choice.  The framework of this argument can be applied in many other situations in which it would be much harder to justify abuses.  For example, we live in a culture of patriarchy and the oppression of women is commonplace.  Therefore, is rape an individual crime or should rapists be seen as victims of patriarchy?  Arguing that these individuals are victims of their culture is problematic because it dismisses the notion of choice and free will.  Although there are many ways in which one could attempt to justify such abuses, these soldiers did have the right to choose.  The issue here is whether or not the soldiers were prioritizing their own needs over the lives of the detainees.  If a soldier were to challenge their superiors, they could lose their job, income, education, etc.  These are all horrible consequences and make the matter much more complex, but does this make it okay?  Even if the soldiers felt they could not choose, how can we explain the need to photograph these abuses and share these images with friends and family in the United States?  What about their dominating body language, offensive hand gestures, and facial expressions?

In our tutor group, we discussed the issue of the dichotomy between “the West and the Rest.”  The West is often portrayed as the superior nation which all others rely on to succeed.  The West is infiltrating its way into every corner of the world and unique cultures are slowly being eradicated.  One way for the West to uphold this image of superiority is through media and photography.  For example, the recent cover of TIME shows a young woman from Afghanistan who was physically assaulted by the Taliban.  The text next to the image states, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?”  Although Aisha, the young woman in the photograph, was eager to share her story, the juxtaposition of the text and image completely shift the focus from her story to the American political agenda.  The image is meant to invoke feelings of guilt and sadness.  The woman is portrayed as the victim and the United States is representing itself as the hero.  This image is very significant, but the text was even more important.  This text was specifically chosen to sway public opinion.  The question implies that Afghan civilians will not be safe in the United States pulls out their troops.  However, the United States has been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and these types of crimes are being committed everyday.  Would this woman have been mutilated if the United States was actually in Afghanistan to help the women?

The cover of TIME magazine is meant to reinforce the dichotomy between “the West and the Rest.”  On the other hand, the images form Abu Ghraib help break down this dichotomy.  In these images, the American soldiers are not living up to the standards that the United States sets for itself.  The photographs from Abu Ghraib are supposed to show the United States as heroic because they are “punishing criminals” but we can clearly see that the only criminals in these photographs are the American soldiers.  These photos, which are meant to reinforce the dichotomy, actually do the opposite.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Gina
    Sep 13, 2010 @ 09:20:43

    I find myself having similar thoughts – how good of a role model is America for the rest of the world? It’s true that we are a country that has people of so many cultures coexisting beautifully (yes, we still have room for growth, but we’ve come a long way) – yet the way with which we utilize this power is often disappointing.

    I’m struggling with ways to tackle these issues– often so much effort is put into momentary relief instead of actually addressing the root of the problem. I was just thinking about how we can excite men about becoming feminists- I’m really interested in ecofeminism and believe that most men are also oppressed due to their conditioning in our patriarchal society.

    Keep posting Michelle, you write really well!


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