The Line

There is a line. It is a barely discernible line, but it is there nevertheless. One has to learn to see it. 

Journalism’s myths say it is about the pursuit of truth, a check on political power, independence, objectivity, transparency, and non-partisanship. I argue instead that journalism is primarily a defence of this line.

On one side of the line exists a “fantastical” West, a world of free speech, gender equality, democratic politics, the rule of law, environmentally responsible consumption, social civility, material wealth, capitalist perfection, and cultural tolerance. To be on this side of the line is to be an agent of history, individual consciousness, morality, and humanity. To be on this side of the line is to be at the apogee of historical progress and modernity, the possessor of rights, commitment to equality, an agent of justice, and a consciousness of human concern.

On the other side of the line exists repression, despotism, misogyny, “terrorism,” fanaticism, corruption, patriarchy, under-development, inequality, and suffering. On the other side of the line is to be abject, helpless, passive, voiceless, and, more often than not, Muslim. To be on the other side of the line is to be expendable, apathetic, traditional, fixed, forgotten, exotic, trapped, conservative, fundamentalist, and easily killed. However, a select few on the other side of the line can be saved, modernised, liberated, reformed, developed, guided, educated, or, more succinctly, Europeanized.

The line isn’t fixed, and it shifts and moves. It cuts across race, ethnicity, nation, and culture but often follows the contours of class.

It is not a geographical line that separates regions, countries, and continents. The line exists even within the West. An American journalist crosses it when she steps into a Black neighbourhood, or when a French journalist goes into a predominantly Muslim community, or a Pakistani journalist travels into what are labelled as “tribal” regions.

It is not a cartographic line but an ideological one. It relies on a faith in the myths of modern liberalism–democracy, equality, individualism, technological advancement as a sign of cultural and civilisation superiority, freedom for all, and Western culture as the epitome of human progress. These myths are self-evident truths. They are sacrosanct to the Europeans but can be equally so to many non-Europeans who attempt to breach the line. A select few manage to get across it. With the proper education, connections, and outlook, they find a residence on the civilised side of the line. But each breach makes its defence more urgent, and those that get across join to ward off further encroachments. It is common for non-European transgressors to be the most passionate and viciously protective of the line’s sanctity.

The line’s origins lie in Europe’s colonial history, but it survives that history’s presumed end. It is, however, a temporal line. It acts like a time machine as one travels out from the “enlightened” side to the “other” side; you travel back in time to places, peoples, societies, histories, memories, values, traditions, arts, and politics that are not yet “Western” or “European” enough and yearning to catch up. To travel across the line is to cross into Europe’s past, where people and societies are “earlier” versions of the West and at various “stages” of their “development” towards the West.

The line is a sieve between false opposites: modern/traditional, democratic/despotic, developed/underdeveloped, capitalist/feudalist.

The line is a lullaby. It drowns out the protests emanating from our zones of war and occupation, the prisons of the dictators we finance, and the slums of our “free trade” partners. It quiets the protests of those telling us how our privileges and comforts emanate from their deprivations and dispossessions. If a country is “underdeveloped” or facing “political turmoil,” it is because of its internal, domestic administrative incompetence, cultural failure, or inability to be “modern.” It disappears victims of Western wars and occupations, whitewashes invasions as “liberation,” occupations as “democracy,” war crimes as “collateral damage,” exploitative trade agreements as “open markets,” sweatshops as “free trade,” environmental devastation as “development,” population displacement as “globalisation” and Indigenous cultural complexity as “under-development.”

The line is a barbed-wire fence. Nations are seen as self-contained, bounded entities, independent of each other, filled with culturally homogenous communities with clearly defined civilisational, cultural, ethnic, and geographic attributes. If a nation is “underdeveloped” or facing “political turmoil,” it is because of its political corruption, administrative incompetence, cultural failure, or inability to be “modern.” Journalists rely on essentialist and reductive ethnic and nationalist generalisations to explain political and economic realities. They report on pathologies and social ills that may also exist on the “enlightened” side of the line but become interesting when “outsourced” to the other side. There, they “discover” corruption, patriarchy, misogyny, state violence, rigid tradition, religious anachronism, anti-secularism, exuberant nationalism, sectarianism, “honour killings,” and militarism.

The line is a permit. It allows Western journalists to do the most immoral things to “get the story.” They practice their craft with a different set of principles and ethics. They will not hesitate to coerce people into sexual acts for their cameras, publish names of victims of sexual violence, strip children naked to photograph them, bribe the weak to perform for them and depict the weak, ill, and suffering in humiliating and degrading circumstances. They will play with black and brown bodies, lives, and emotions in indecent, unethical, and cruelly voyeuristic ways.

The line is a test. Those not sufficiently “Western” must be transformed, corrected, reformed, developed, modernised, improved, and saved at any cost, even if it means killing. Under the banner of the secular, the liberal, and the modern, they call for and celebrate forms of violence that veil themselves behind discourses of humanism, tolerance, and equality. It is “translucent” violence, as Talal Asad so wonderfully put it, one that is “violence of universalising reason itself. To make an enlightened space, the liberal must continually attack the darkness of the outside world that threatens to overwhelm that space.” It is just and necessary violence because it “redeems the world and punishes the recalcitrant.” It is unlike the violence of those on the other side of the line, the violence of the jungle.

Western journalism is not about speaking truth to power, bearing witness to the suffering of others, investigating crimes or covering the world. It is always only the defence of this line.

The essays here trace this line and make it visible.