Making precious what is precarious

Sam Donaldson is a Quaker who lives in Hull and was part of the CTBI delegation that visited Mediterranean Hope refugee projects in Lampedusa and Sicily in April 2017.

In this article, he reflects on his experience in Lampedusa.

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world”. (Paul Farmer)

At the heart of the Quaker tradition in which I stand lies the conviction that every life is equally precious. As Quaker Advices and Queries number 22 puts it, “Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God”. Thankfully we Quakers are not alone in thinking this way and many other traditions, both religious and secular, share this common conviction that every life is precious.

In her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? the philosopher Judith Butler is less interested in the abstract metaphysical question of whether living beings are innately precious and more interested in the question of how we come to see and make lives precious, or as she puts it, “lives that matter”.

Visiting Lampedusa as part of a CTBI-organised delegation, and hearing people’s stories of horrendous journeys from their homelands through Libya to Europe, I received a stark reminder that in this world of ours there are many lives that are not seen as lives.

There are lives that we have made not to matter.

These are the lives of those left in poverty and war, with no way out and with no one to protect them. These are the lives of all those who suffer horrendously and die on their perilous journeys from their homelands to the shores of Europe. These are the lives of all those children and adults just left in massive refuge camps, to be preyed upon by traffickers. We are not outraged at the loss of these non-lives, that we have made not to matter. We do not weep over them. We do not act.

Judith Butler explores the issue of how we ‘frame’ situations and lives so as to see some lives as lives that matter and some lives as non-lives that do not matter. In her book she reminds readers:

“… the frames through which we apprehend the lives of others as lost or injured (lose-able or injurable) are politically saturated. They are themselves operations of power.”

The powers-that-be benefit from the current frames that we have that make us see many lives as non-lives. The powers-that-be benefit from this imperialistic, white-supremicist, capitalistic, hetero-patriarchial system that we live within that deems billions of lives as of no importance, as literally worthless.

Returning from Lampedusa, I have had to face the unsettling realisation that these ‘frames’ are not external and separate from me but are part of me and actually shape how I see and feel about lives. I have had to face the unsettling realisation that while I may hold to an abstract principle of the equal preciousness of all lives, I do not actually see and feel in the same way that I think.

At the heart of Judith Butler’s thinking on this issue of framing are the two concepts of precariousness and grieving. She writes:

“Precisely because a living being may die, it is necessary to care for that being so that it may live. Only under the conditions in which the loss would matter does the value of the life appear. Thus, grievability is a presupposition for the life that matters.”

This is a powerful idea. Only when we see a living being as worth grieving over do we begin to care for them. Only when the potential loss of that living being hurts us will we act to nourish and protect it.

One of the most difficult parts of our recent CTBI trip to Lampedusa was our visit to the graveyard, to visit the graves of some of those who had died making the Mediterranean crossing over from Libya.

We visited the grave of one young girl, Welela, who had been terribly burned when a gas cylinder exploded, and who then died in the middle of the sea.

Visiting those graves unsettled me, because it turned statistics into faces, and that demanded grief, and action.

Five thousand people died last year making that crossing. There are 23,000 unaccompanied minors in refugee camps in Greece and Italy, who are often trafficked and abused. Each one of these lives demands grieving, demands outrage, demands action.

Something urgently needs to change in our response to the growing crisis of mass migration, a result of our horrendously unequal world. And unless we shift the frames through which we see, and come to really grieve for each living being, that urgent change will not happen.

“If we have learned anything from the liberation movements, we should have learned how difficult it is to be aware of the ways in which we discriminate until they are forcefully pointed out to us. A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons, so that practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable are now seen as intolerable.” (Peter Singer)