On Nudity and Culture

There has been a big brouhaha of late over Obama's course decision about no releasing hundreds of new photographs of the atrocities committed by the US military at Abu Ghraib. During the campaign, Obama stated unequivocally that they should be released. Now he's not releasing them because he doesn't want US servicemen to be attacked because of what's on the photos. Many are suggesting that the photos aren't being released because they would show the extent of the atrocities- that it wasn't just a few bad apples, but in fact a covert policy of the US military to demean and torture. And if that's true, higher heads would roll. But there's a completely different reason why these photos shouldn't be released.

They shouldn't be released because of the reason that the original photos should never have been released. Yes, the photos should be investigated, and every individual who was responsible for these actions should be fully prosecuted. But the photos should be viewed only by those who need to seem them directly- defense and prosecuting attorneys, and judges and juries.

It was quite clear that the perpetrators of Abu Ghraib knew what they were doing. They were making use of Arab cultural norms and fears to intimidate and demean their prisoners. They used Arab dislike of homosexuality to put Arab men in compromising positions. But more to the point, they used the Arab conventions against nudity to attack their prisoners.

This isn't only true in Arab culture. It's a widely held Middle Eastern belief, found even with Noah at the time that the Genesis stories were being told and written. Nudity is inappropriate- to a far greater degree than we find in Western culture. In early hadith in Islam, one is told that even a husband and wife should never be completely naked in front of each other. (It is unknown, naturally, how much these particularly hadith are followed. But even today, there are imams calling for this to be followed.) In the wider Arab and Middle Eastern culture, the shame of nudity never transfers to the person viewing, but rather to the person viewed; to the one who is naked. That person is exposed in front of others, in a culture where what others view is paramount above all else. These are shame cultures, not guilt cultures.

Thus, when the perpetrators of Abu Ghraib took pictures of nude Arab men, they were knowingly attempting to shame them. When we allowed those pictures to be reproduced in newspapers and the American nightly news, ostensibly in order to reveal America's crimes to the world, we were unknowingly assisting the perpetrators of Abu Ghraib in their crimes. We were increasing the shame of the Arab victims a thousand fold, beyond the wildest dreams of the evildoers of Abu Ghraib.

Now we hear that there are more pictures, hundreds more. This can only mean more shame, for more people. Haven't they suffered enough at our hands? Is there any reason to assist the perpetrators of Abu Ghraib? Prosecute them, certainly. But let us end the suffering of our victims. Don't publish these photos.


Aimee said...

Thank you for this Jedidiah. When I first heard about this new batch of photos I felt it was wrong to release them, but I didn't even know about the cultural impact. I just thought there is enough violence and awful stuff out there, it would be sick to sensationalize these photos (as the media would) and sort of lose track of the truth behind them. For me, it's enough to know that torture was done and that it won't be done again. I feel like there is some sort of sick fascination, and eventual desensitization, when photos like these are shown.

chris white said...

I hadn't thought about this aspect, but you have a very good point...