On Selective Grief: Can we recognize all lives as equally precarious?

by | 15 Nov 2015

parisIn the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13/11, mounting criticism can be seen with regard to the outpouring of solidarity for Parisians and, at the same time, scarce expressions of empathy towards victims of other nations that have experienced similar events of terrorism. In the Australian independent media outlet “New Matilda”, Chris Graham suggests that the outburst of indignation in response to the Paris attacks are indicative of a hypocritical international community which selectively mourns the assassination of French citizens whilst blatantly ignoring equally horrendous killings in other parts of the world.1https://newmatilda.com/2015/11/14/paris-attacks-highlight-western-vulnerability-and-our-selective-grief-and-outrage/ Graham illustrates the lack of outrage and scarce media coverage with respect to terrorist attacks by ISIS in Lebanon that took place just days prior to those perpetrated against France, leaving a death toll of 43 and approximately 200 people injured in Beirut. He continues on to give an even more striking example of what he denotes as “selective grief” when he compares the massacre of over 2,000 individuals by Boko Haram in Nigeria at the beginning of the year, which did not provoke any significant reactions in the international arena, and the massive political and social mobilization that occurred, just a few days later, in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Currently living an hour away by train from Paris and having family members who live there, I embarrassedly admit harboring genuine feelings of solidarity and empathy for the mourning of Parisians which are significantly more intense than my grief for other human tragedies around the world. Perhaps geographical and cultural proximity combined with emotional family ties are what makes my feelings and viewpoints biased and relatively insensitive to human suffering elsewhere. However, the consistent imbalance of media coverage and expressions of shock found in international news outlets, statements by world leaders and social media by and large seem to point to a more problematic issue than any narrative which focuses solely on personal experience and individual bias could purport to explain. This scenario of rising empathy and care for the vulnerability of Western French lives and the concomitant neglect for equally vulnerable non-Western lives, whose deaths are not equally regarded as worthy of mourning and grief, can be analyzed from what Judith Butler identified as “precarity” (Butler 2010).2Butler, Judith (2010). Frames of War: when is life grievable?, Verso: London. Drawing on Butler’s lessons on vulnerability, precariousness and precarity, I seek to ignite a theoretically-informed debate aimed at a deeper understanding of our inability to recognize all lives as equally vulnerable and our ensuing incapacity to care and mourn equally for all violent killings arising from terrorist actions across the globe. The overarching goal of this provocation is to start a conversation about the extent to which our moral reasoning and emotional development as a society allow us to coherently pursue our struggle for upholding universal human rights and human dignity in the form of equal respect and concern for each and every human being at a global level.

According to Butler (2010), vulnerable subjects ought to be regarded as precarious lives insofar as life is imbued with fragility and destined to ultimately face death, either due to willful action, as instantiated by terrorist attacks, or fortuitous cause (Gilson 2014). In this vein, Butler’s notion of “precariousness” refers to the specific human vulnerability relating to the frailty of life in light of its inescapable ultimate destruction (Butler 2010: 13). She posits that precariousness may be minimized or maximized according to normative and institutional settings in which embodied existence unravels, in that social and political forces create normative constructions of the subject which entail different degrees of recognition as precarious lives (ibid: 23). In this sense, Butler’s point is that individuals experience different degrees of precariousness by virtue of discrepant levels of societal recognition, constituting what she coins as “precarity”, that is, the politically-induced differential allocation of precariousness.

Thus, in consonance with Butler’s theory, recognizing vulnerable lives as precarious implies acknowledging their loss as equally grievable and their sustaining as equally worthwhile. To clarify the process through which some lives may be perceived as precarious and other not, Butler sets forth the idea of “frame of recognition” as resonating with the Foucauldian notion of “grid of intelligibility” (ibid: 25). Indeed, she posits that frames of recognition depend upon apprehension and intelligibility schemes, in that apprehension consists in the rustic mode of knowing that precedes recognition, whereas intelligibility constitutes the historical scheme that defines “domains of knowable”, that is, the boundaries that circumscribe what may be captured by our cognition and transformed into knowledge. Apprehension and intelligibility, as Butler elaborates, are conditions for recognition, which ends up being the result of a Hegelian dialectical and reciprocal interaction between these two conditions. Butler asserts that a life has to be apprehended as intelligible, i.e., it must fit the pre-existing conception of what constitutes a life, in order to be recognized. In this sense, she argues that although schemes of intelligibility are ever-shifting, the production of life at a moment in time is partial or incomplete, for there are lives that are not produced according to the normative frame by which life is recognizable; nevertheless, one can still apprehend the living status of “being” outside the boundaries of the frame deriving from the norm. In the particular case under analysis, the concomitant acknowledgment of the loss of French lives as a reason for worldwide grief and the little concern or shock demonstrated in light of the loss of Lebanese or Nigerian lives in similar contexts of terrorist violence and brutality seem to instantiate how Western lives might be more recognizable under extant frames of recognition as precarious lives than non-Western ones, demonstrating the pernicious effects of precarity.

But how do we begin to tackle precarity and pave the way for recognizing all lives as precarious? Not only do frames of recognition contain, circumscribe and define what we are able to see and regard as precarious lives, but they also impose a condition of “reproducibility”, a pre-requisite that allows for the perpetuation of such frames and therefore entails a sense of continuity (ibid: 8). Yet, in light of changing contexts, reproducibility also entails continually breaking out of previous contexts to endow contents with definitive organization. Butler then suggests that when those frames fall apart, apprehension of who is living but does not have his or her life recognized as a life is made possible. She ascribes the characteristic of collapsibility to the norms underlying frames, which therefore enables them to break in order to install themselves, making the emergence of different patterns and ways of apprehension possible.

On this note, there seems to exist hope for an enlargement of frames of recognition towards a more inclusive and perhaps all-encompassing gaze which transcends the narrow and thus exclusionary logic to which our societies abide. Notwithstanding, it is vital to note the hardships presented by this endeavor, since this exclusionary logic alarmingly embeds even the processes through which we produce feelings and how we regulate our emotional openness, thereby interfering with our core ability to feel empathy for human suffering in distinct contexts. This is illustrated by the expressions of outrage against the Paris attacks that outpoured in social media which show, on the one hand, a selective (albeit unwittingly) perception of Western French lives as precarious lives and on the other hand, a failure to apprehend other lives who suffered similarly dire predicaments as intelligibly precarious. In response to the statement made by President Obama in which he categorized the 13/11 killings in Paris as “(…) an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”,3https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/13/watch-president-obamas-statement-attacks-paris Professor Hamid Dabashi, in an article for Al Jazeera, posed the following question:

Of course, the attack on the French is an attack on humanity, but is an attack on a Lebanese, an Afghan, a Yazidi, a Kurd, and Iraqi, a Somali, or a Palestinian any less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? What is it exactly that a North American and a French share that the rest of humanity are denied sharing?4http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/11/je-suis-muslim-151114163033918.html

These questions underscore the inadequacy of extant frames of recognition and merit deeper reflection, calling for transformative efforts towards an international scenario in which norms may collapse and new frames can be drafted in consonance with universal notions of shared vulnerability, precariousness and humanity. Notwithstanding, it is vital to acknowledge that this equality-seeking undertaking is far from being a straightforward task. Some of the problems that we may encounter in attempting to mitigate precarity involve insidious, cross-cutting and deeply entrenched forms of discrimination against which critical race and postcolonial theorists struggle against. However, this does not mean that we should shy away from the challenge. I will conclude by leaving a provocative quote by Butler, who portrays the complex and multifaceted dimensions of challenging frames of recognition in the particular context of human shielding, which may be nonetheless applied to the issue of responses to terrorist attacks addressed herein:

But as we can see, the instrumental value of a life in human shielding (and here I would say in both its voluntary and involuntary forms) depends on a prior differentiation among lives, those who are more or less grievable and valuable, those who are more or less living, those who exemplify the form of human life worth saving and those who in their person and their cultural or racial status come to represent a living threat to a form of human life worth saving. This last form of differentiation operates in racism and in forms of colonial rule that depend upon, and reproduce, differential value among living creatures of the human kind. Even that definition seems to stumble on itself, since the definition and form of the human are always at stake in a racist discourse: who is human, where does the human and the inhuman come together or diverge, who decides these matters of typology, and how does violence reside in every stipulation of this kind?

Butler, J., 1956- 2010, Frames of war : when is life grievable? / Judith Butler, Paperback. ed. edn, London : Verso, London.
Butler, J., “Human Shields”, London Review of International Law, Volume 0, Issue 0, 2015, 1 of 21, Oxford University Press, <doi:10.1093/lril/lrv011>, published 17 August 2015.
Gilson, E. 2014, The Ethics of Vulnerability: A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice, 1st edn, Routledge, New York.


Carolina Yoko Furusho holds a Master of Laws Degree with Distinction from UCL, University of London. She is currently an Erasmus Mundus Fellow and a Joint Ph.D. Candidate at University of Kent and University of Hamburg.

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    Butler, Judith (2010). Frames of War: when is life grievable?, Verso: London.
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  1. “Selectivism”?
    Or whatever?
    We still have segregated classes of people in the world today. There is still no better place to live. Everywhere is terror. What is the cause?

  2. Judith Butler (Paris, 16/11/2015) suggests that mourning seems constrained within national boundaries in France and that we might come up with a concept of “transversal grief”, thinking of measuring processes underlying grievability and why “the cafe as target pulls my heart in ways that other targets do not”, at


  3. Dear Yoko, congratulations for your article. It tackles an important challenge for those who want to build a more equitable and fair world. In my opinion, the lack of outrage towards the threats to lives in countries distant culturally and geographically lies in the moral exclusion which prevents from identifying others as equal. To be “apprehended” and “intelligible” Lebaneses and Nigerians must be recognized as human as French are. Simpathy and solidarity in a global perspective are only possible when one establishes a common identification to others in an ontological perspective which means: above and no matter what culture, race, religion, social class the “others” have. Bests

  4. Hi Yoko,
    Many thanks for your illuminating article. It lives on as you can see from this late response.
    There are similar issues in the case of disasters. When the Marchioness sank in the river Thames in London less sympathy was shown to those that died as they were stereotyped as yuppies. Similarly, which deaths at the hands of the State are deemed worthy of an Inquiry is another similar topic where some lives seem less valuable and less likely to arouse public concern. Prof. Stanley Cohen touched on similar themes in his work on denial in the face of suffering.


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