Reflection: what Edward Said brings to the discussion of Neda Soltani

No doubt many of you have read about the death of Neda Agha Soltani, who was killed during Iranian protests over the country’s recent election. (Like other bloggers, I will leave you the choice to go Youtube the graphic video yourself.) The blogosphere has led me to consider points of views I would not have otherwise and, after stumbling upon YouTube clips of cultural theorist Edward Said, I wanted to include him in this conversation.

The debate surrounding Soltani (as far as I have read) has been about American viewers’ reactions to the video. Some have reacted negatively to Kate Harding’s article “I am Not Neda.” One commenter satirically “translated” Harding’s word:

‘ Her death touched and horrified people. Although, to be honest, I much rather that people revolt and die more *sniff* discretely. Also, I’ve seen people die in movies and so I’m not shocked, which shows the underlying problem with reality itself, not me. But more importantly, how can I take all these things, from sweeping historical events to a personal, public death, the special providence in the fall of a sparrow, if you will, and turn it into a discussion about me?’ 

While I do believe that Harding does come off as lacking empathy, I give her credit for explaining,

we should be awfully wary of enjoying a frisson of self-congratulation when we do [watch the video], or getting so swept away by the emotional momentum of someone else’s fight — I’ve seen several bloggers express excitement and even a twisted sort of envy while watching the intensity of the Iranian people’s passionate political engagement — that we lose sight of just how much we don’t know and are not actually experiencing. 

If we take her seriously, Harding is attempting to push viewers to recognize their privilege of not being in Iran and– due to that privilege– their disconnect from it.

Tami’s post on Racialicious and “Pilgrim Soul” at Pursuit of Happyness both challenge readers to ask if using Soltani as a martyr is right. I also agree with PSoul when she argues that martyr status dehumanizes people: “Either human beings are human beings, or they are ciphers for grand ideas. And when someone is demoted to the status of stand-in for Progress or Democracy or Liberation, however laudable those goals might be, I don’t think you can call what you are doing anti-oppressive work.”

In PSoul’s comment thread a discussion between the writer and “BeckySharper” leads Becky to counter, “I don’t think there’s anything self-congratulatory about bearing witness, at least, not what we’ve been talking about in this thread. There’s relatively little I can do materially to help protesters in Iran. I can, however, be aware and speak up about it on my end of things. I have free speech, and I can use it.”

And to this, I also say, right on! …Wait. What? Am I just being agreeable today? No. The truth is that these writers all are touching on significant and complementary angles of privilege and politics. Viewers of the video would benefit from awareness of their privilege (and shoot, anybody of a privileged position or background for that matter), which is what Harding struggles to raise. Those working towards anti-oppression might also want to resist turning Soltani into a martyr, as PSoul and Tami write. In addition to all this, the video and its audiences exist in a larger historical discourse that raises the stakes of this video and so-called “citizen journalism” (Twitter, YouTube, etc) throughout these Iranian protests. For that matter, “bearing witness” should be taken seriously too, as a limited first step.

Let’s consider now the YouTube clips of Edward Said speaking about the themes in his seminal work Orientalism (1978). (I’ve posted clip 1/4 of his discussion below and the rest is great as well). He speaks about how the U.S.’s orientalism has equated the Middle East with Islam, terrorism, the exotic—essentially stereotyping and dehumanizing the Arab world. This leads me to say that Said could provide an answer to Tami’s question: “…why does the Western world (and here I refer mostly to the dominant culture, not marginalized groups) have to see these things to be shaken from its complacency?” and specifically, “Why must we see an Iranian woman die on a city street in order to understand the gravity of the country’s political upheaval?”

Well, Said may suggest that we (the Western world/dominant culture to which Tami refers) have demonized the Middle East for so long that we in turn tragically need something so shocking to stir us into recognizing Iranians’ humanity. If seeing this video pushes viewers to thinking of the Middle East as a diverse and complex region, if it aids people in resisting stereotypical portrayals of Middle Easterners, then this media has extreme significance in combating a historically oppressive orientalism. Yet if viewers forget the ultimate humanizing goals of anti-oppression work, then it is all for naught, as PSoul raises. And moreover, readers must develop consciousness of their own privilege in order to recognize that the real test remains for citizens to take action in issues we can affect, such as speaking up in the face of racism or even advocating for sincere and fair negotiations over Israeli and Palestinian statehood.

There is a bit more I want to say to conclude, but I feel this is mental overload for one post. Part II, coming shortly.

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Filed under essays, gender, iran, race, third world

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