Philosophy department hosts Saba Fatima to speak on the meaning of being an American


Using as her basis a 2014 Senate report on torture, Saba Fatima of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville presented her research on what it means to be an American. Fatima’s interest is both American ignorance and social imagination, which together form an “epistemic blindness.”

Fatima shared that she is an American herself, and so her presentation was offered more as a self-reflection than as just a criticism.Having lived in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, each for nine years, Fatima believes that her “immigrant, brown body,” like other minorities, is simply more privy to the gap between the aspirational America that many aspire to, and the “sustained ignorance” that keeps the country from achieving its ideal.

The main culprit of American ignorance is its stance among others, often assuming a superiority over “the other,” which consists in a belief in the superiority of values and xenophobic attitudes towards “the other.” Fatima describes this as a “collective denial,” largely among whites. The unnecessary rectal hydration and feeding, induced hypothermia, or the use of loud music or even confining a “detainee” to a coffin for 128 hours are all revealed in the 2014 Senate report on torture, but still fail to create an “epistemic friction” for Americans. Knowledge about the other is deemed inconsequential in nature in order to avoid the acknowledgement of the role that America has played in the world and its part in a series of incorrect judgements. In this framework, liberal values mean more than civilian deaths.

Opponents to Fatima’s view are many and claim that it is “individual life choices” not any sort of flawed, systemic issue that creates injustice and wrongdoing. In this way, issues that are societal ones and effect the country as a whole become just “individual injustice.”

Any alternative, unflattering version or vision of America is simply subsumed, since it requires “too much cognitive labor” to consider the adverse effects that America has on other nations.

Fatima’s criticism in not limited to one president, administration, or political party. For instance, President Obama has demonstrated disinterest in criminally investigating torturers since 2009. What has happened since then is that torture has been outsourced in order to sustain the American social imagination, using a legalistic defense that claims that the country was not bound by the Geneva Convention in instances of past torture. Such thinking seeks to humanize ourselves as Americans, rather than detainees from war, and casts past evidence of torture as an “aberration within a larger manifest destiny.” America is able to see itself as a law-abiding nation rather than a nation that tortures and has tortured for a very long time.

Double speak also contributes to the desired ambiguity of those preferring to maintain American ignorance. The terms “insurgent,” used to refer to all unknown threats, and “detainee” are used to dehumanize. Critiqued, too, by Fatima, is the rhetoric to “support our troops” which often serves to shut down conversation about military actions and tactics.

Although the sort of nationalistic pride that helps perpetuate American ignorance is not unique to America, it does have disproportionate power and influence in the world. American ignorance is one in which the facts make no difference to what it means to be an American. The focus is on how we help others, and what makes us different, rather than ever seeing ourselves in relation to the “other.” For this reason, Fatima deems that many Americans have a meta-blindness, an inability to see that they are blind, and are “mistaken about what they ought to think about themselves.”

Endorsing American ignorance and social imagination creates less guilt for most Americans, who prefer to disassociate from examples of American wrongdoing, rather than work to “undo” it. This creates a “comfortably false, incomplete belief about ourselves as Americans.”

The question of “Why do they hate us?” was also critiqued by Fatima. She noted how it rarely seeks an answer that has to do with the historical account between America and other nations, which limits Americans from knowing and ever revising the narrative about themselves. In a country that has never paid reparations for past torture, Fatima believes a more appropriate name is “The United States of Amnesia.”

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