Popular history does not record whether Sojourner Truth ever received an answer to her question, “Ain’t I a Woman?” In taking this question as rhetorical, the answer as self-evident, we assume that being human is self-evident, an assumption that is historically and conceptually inaccurate. We risk forgetting (or agree to forget) that much of what we term “human history” consists of un-humaning, of thing-making: not simply hierarchizing types of humans, but actively distinguishing between humans and non-humans, whether that be in the register of humans and things or humans and animals or humans and commodities or humans and unhumans. History teaches that these are more than conceptual distinctions: they are world-making, world-framing, knowledge-producing, knowledge-destroying distinctions, as rooted in law, commerce, and philosophy as they are in quotidian habits, beliefs, and practices.
What would it mean to demand an answer to Sojourner Truth’s question?
As the “terror operation” against Somalis continues and intensifies, several variations on Sojourner’s question have been asked. Many have protested images of soldiers touching Somali women inappropriately, demanding that these women be respected on gendered, religious, and cultural terms. Images of young children with military personnel looming over them have circulated, along with questions about how such operations affect such children. Stories are now emerging of women who have given birth while in police custody—in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. One story claims that an umbilical cord had to be severed using fingernails. Stories are now emerging of Somalis who are dying because of this “security operation.”
Each story and each image poses the question, “are Somalis not human?” A question whose answer is supposed to be so self-evident (“of course, they are”) that those asking (I include myself here) do not pause to wait for an answer or insist on an answer. The answer to this question is rendered unthinkable, unimaginable, even irrelevant, as, instead, state-legitimating distinctions proliferate that differentiate between “good Somalis” and “bad Somalis.” And, here, I would argue that this distinction does not address the problem of the human. (One is then left with the frightening prospect of asking about the unhuman “good Somali” and the unhuman “bad Somali.”)
What is going on is not simply acknowledging that Somalis are unhuman; it is also actively unhumaning Somalis, a fact acknowledged in one person’s question, “why are you treating us like livestock?” In this scenario, the unhuman has no recourse to human rights or to constitutionally-guaranteed rights. One notes, for instance, that almost no official discussions in parliament or in the newspapers have argued on the basis of, or even for, constitutionally-guaranteed rights.
To argue for the human has become difficult, if not impossible.
Popular activist culture in Kenya has made it difficult to think about the stakes of (and for) the human. The too-popular term “M-Pigs,” the coinage of #diapermentality, and various demonstrations have proceeded under the assumption that politicians should be shamed, their behavior described as “animal-like” or “child-like.” Absent from this activism has been any consideration about the ethics of un-humaning. In imagining legislators as less than human, as un-human, even, we have failed to ask what is lost when the position of “human” is absented from politics. That is, what happens when protests against de-humanization are staged as acts of un-humaning?
In part, it is this de-humanizing:un-humaning exchange (choreography?) I’ve been trying to think about through the term “disposability.” Disposability is expansive and greedy, ready and willing (cliché must be used) to accumulate more and more figures, objects, forms of life, humans, and unhumans into its logics and practices. In the process, it banishes (or makes impossible) any frames or practices through which the human (or the good, more broadly) can become visible, legible, or valuable.
Disposability can never be a holding out; it can only be a gathering in.
Under the logic and practice of disposability, the response to un-humaning is to multiply its effects. Thus, one response to the ongoing un-humaning of the Eastleigh operation has been to ask that it extend to all other places occupied by Somalis. Another response, a related one, has been to say that other areas have undergone similar state-led operations and thus to speak against this particular one is “hypocritical” or “much ado.” The logic of “if it happened at x, it should or can happen at y” extends the logics and practices of un-humaning, the logics and practices of disposability.
Locked into the dehumanizing:un-humaning dance, it becomes difficult to hear, let alone answer, the question of the human. And all those rights that hinge on the status of the human become irrelevant: they can never be posed.
I write this because I think the question of the human needs to be posed repeatedly, insistently. The question cannot (should not?) be taken as rhetorical, the status of human cannot (should not) be taken as self-evident, especially as practices and logics of un-humaning proceed and intensify. I write this aware that this kind of speculation—and the demands it makes—might appear out of place, indifferent to real suffering, as it poses what seem to be academic questions. I write this also aware that this kind of writing can seem cold at a time when so many of us are overcome with grief and rage and despair. And, I write this aware that to ask those being un-humaned to human those enacting the un-humaning might be to ask too much.
But to cede the human to disposability’s logics and practices risks ceding all claims based on the status of human, be they enshrined in national or international law, taught as forms of ethics or morality, or practiced as kinds of common sense.