Recognizably Human

I am immersed in my Orals Exam preparation in which I am reading and re-reading important and relevant texts in my chosen subfields within Sociology. Judith Butler’s work in social theory and philosophy is significant, seminal, and canonical. Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) basically changed the ways in which social theorists think about gender and sexuality.  Late last week I was  re-reading some of her work, including Undoing Gender (2004).

Speaking to a broader audience in Undoing Gender, Butler posits that recognition is what places us in society and confers status.  She suggests that some people in society are considered more human than others; they are recognizably human.

 In the introduction, Butler states:

The terms by which we are recognized as human are socially articulated and changeable. And sometimes the very terms that confer “humanness” on some individuals are those that deprive certain other individuals of the possibility of achieving that status, producing a differential between the human and the less-than-human. These norms have far-reaching consequences for how we understand the model of the human entitled to rights…Certain humans are recognized as less than human, and that form of qualified recognition does not lead to a viable life. Certain humans are not recognized as human at all, and that leads to yet another order of unlivable life…This means that to the extent that desire is implicated in social norms, it is bound up with the question of power and with the problem of who qualifies as the recognizably human and who does not… If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life, and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?” (2-3, Undoing Gender, 2004)

When others are thought of as less than—for gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, nationality, able-bodiedness, etc.—they are not being recognized as human. What does it mean to treat others as less than? Obviously, physically harming someone or applauding harm is treating them as less than. More insidious and more common is being dismissive of people and their experiences, especially when different from that of the (presumed) majority. This lack of recognition suggests to people that they are less than.

Saturday, June 11th, 2016. Here in Orlando. Fifty people killed at a popular gay club and over 50 more injured. This is just prior to the one-year anniversary of the terror attack on a black church in Charleston. There are hundreds (hundreds!) of violent, mass attacks in our nation each year, many on people who are treated and considered unrecognizably human in this country.


Who is recognizably human in this country? Who is not?

How do we as a society perpetuate narratives that deny recognition to certain people and populations? Who perpetuates those narratives? Why?

As kind and thoughtful people, how can we be part of solving this problem?