Hello friends and readers! We set out here, starting with an agenda-based discussion on what it means to be a person, and how our society determines who we are. I shall begin this talk with a reference to a very emotional and beautifully tragic story of a man, Abdellah Taḯa, which will give us spark for a trajectory to purport a desperate need for real human rights. I will intentionally position this trajectory inside Foucault’s discussion of the caceral system. The point of this will encourage us to re-think why the world we live in collectively dictates—coerces—us into normalized identities. We are being imprisoned into our selves, and I shall argue this is so, but I want us to think of how to get out of our cages. For that, I will need your help.
The story of Abdellah Taḯa is universal. He is someone who was informed by society how to be; he realized this after he was admonished for who he was. Growing up in Morocco as a gay child was a form of discrimination most of us cannot fathom—at least not in the same sense. (Though, I will soon argue that we all feel it). I ask that you read his story, and come back to me here. There are two reasons to ask this. One: it is best that you form your own judgments of what he says, noting how he frames his description and quest of self. Two: This will be a long post, and I feel it best to save time on presenting my own biased interpretation of his life. Here is Abdellah Taḯa speaking on his own behalf,
Thank you for taking the time to read that. I do appreciate the effort, care and participation you give me here with my words and my hopes. I may not know some of you; I may never even know if anyone even reads this. But I feel like saying this in this space is good—that it says something to say it. Moving on with you, my friends.
Foucault generated the notion of the carceral system to establish a critical stance on how we can approach our social construct. This social construct is based on Foucault’s notions of “Discipline” and “Punish[ment].” For him, it was the Mettray juvenile prison that imposed a new structure upon our society, one that deems us all normalized within it. This prison ideology has infiltrated every corresponding institution in our collective realities: schools, employment, the home, and even our social interactions (yep, Facebook is an institution). Within the walls of each confine, we are told how to act and how not to act. The notion of right and wrong define what we can and cannot do (what we can and cannot say). If not, we are punished. Foucault says,
The least act of disobedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offences is to punish the most minor offences very severely: at Mettray a useless word is punishable’; the principal punishment inflicted was confinement to one’s cell; for ‘isolation is the best means of acting on the moral nature of children. (1491)
The Mettray prison knew the vulnerable impressionability of children, and they exploited it. To create a social system based on punishing the most “minor” of “offences” meant that the larger ones just did not happen. In Abdellah’s case, this meant being himself. Walking his way, his “inflections” made him suspect. This is what led to that fateful event he details. But Abdellah never did anything absolutely wrong. He just was. For a child in this country, that was unacceptable; it meant punishment and isolation. He turned inward, which forced him to find a way to be someone else and deny who he really was.
I feel this happens to all of us at some point. I mean: haven’t we all experienced humiliation, and then shrunk inside to combat the pain? I have. Plenty. Have you? Please tell me. Or tell someone else if you’d like. Our stories of confinement are significant; they are who we are. And we are significant.
The (more) frightening part of the carceral society is that it makes itself justifiable. Once implemented, it is fully functioning as perfectly normal to admonish, punish, and violate in the name of rightness. Normal is what appropriates itself as a technological device:
But the supervision of normality was firmly encased in a medicine or a psychiatry that provided it with a sort of ‘scientificity’; it was supported by a judicial apparatus which, directly or indirectly, gave it legal justification. Thus, in the shelter of these two considerable protectors, and, indeed, acting as a link between them, or a place of exchange, a carefully worked out technique for the supervision of norms has continued to develop right up to the present day. (Foucault 1492)
I approach this in several ways. Mettray originated at a time when the Eugenics Movement ran rampant. This “science” deemed normal patterns of race and behavior into the legitimacy of the law because, well, we “needed” society to be better. This justified many an atrocity: sterilization, murder, discrimination, lack of funding for education. You name it; eugenics defined it. Well, eugenics decried a standard of normalcy. However, we must always beg the question: what is truly “normal”?
We often think of normal through what I call texts; the Bible, scientific literature, our family’s discourse, our friends’ discourses—all through what Foucault sees as institutional configurations. These are boxes we must check and be checked into to fit. Abdellah realized how ill he fit into one box, sexuality, though he fit into others. He says,
I no longer remember the child, the teenager, I was. I know I was effeminate and aware that being so obviously “like that” was wrong. God did not love me. I had strayed from the path. Or so I was made to understand. Not only by my family, but also by the entire neighborhood. And I learned my lesson perfectly. So deep down, I tell myself they won. This is what happened. (“Sacrificed”)
Though, as he states earlier, he loved his religion, his family, and his culture, these things no longer loved him back because he embodied one difference. One! Just one. And not checking into this box meant he would lose all the others—every single part of his existence that mattered to him. I ask this, now: can we blame him for ignoring this one thing about himself in order to keep all the others?
I cannot. The fact that he did, for me, shows his strength, his ethics, his commitment to his values in the face of adversity. Abdellah sacrificed a piece of who he was to be the rest of who he was. Abdellah gave up a piece of self. And what was the cost? How much does a part of the self weigh?. It seems Abdellah’s piece here is an attempt to recognize this value; what it matters to him is all that matters.
Foucault refers this value to a submission to power. He argues, “In the normalization of the power of normalization, in the arrangement of a power-knowledge over individuals, Mettray and its school marked a new era…But what is still more important is that it was homogenized, through the mediation of the prison, on the one hand with legal punishments and, on the other, with disciplinary mechanisms” (1493). Here I argue. The fact that institutions are the ones doing the normalizing means that normal is a concept determined by a select few. They impose this as “power-knowledge over individuals”. This is what appropriates all of us. In Abdellah’s case, normalization meant he needed to submit his sexual preference to denial, in order to exist with the other normals of his life. He admitted that this piece of his self was wrong, imprisoned it, and disciplined the rest of his self to homogenization.
I am beginning to wonder how effective this really is. Sure, I can say that we all must cage parts of our selves that are a detriment to society. But I ask this in deep earnestness: is Abdellah’s sexuality really harmful? In what ways? To whom is he hurting? If you take me up on these questions, I want your truth. Give it to me raw, brash and unabated. However, I ask you to consider how your truth reflects the carceral system, and where the ideas of what you think is normal to you comes from. Which institution tells you what is normal? And, lastly, are you yourself always normal?
I ask these questions of you for one specific reason. Foucault recognized a crucial, and “normal” (ha!) criteria for the prison/caceral system to work: binaries. In order for normal to perpetuate itself, it needs abnormal. Normal is as normal is not:
The carceral network does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell: there is no outside. It takes back with one hand what it seems to exclude with the other. It saves everything, including what it punishes. It is unwilling to waste even what it has decided to disqualify. In this panoptic society of which incarceration is the omnipresent armature, the delinquent is not outside the law; he is, from the very outset, in the law, at the very heart of the law, or at least in the midst of those mechanisms that transfer the individual imperceptibly from discipline to the law, from deviation to offence. Although it is true that prison punishes delinquency, delinquency is for the most part produced in and by an incarceration which, ultimately, prison perpetuates in its turn…The delinquent is an institutional product. (Foucault 1496)
I get goosebumps every time I read this passage. We are asked to consider in what ways the caceral needs the delinquent and those that don’t fit—and how it actually needs law-breakers. They perpetuate the system of incarceration; they legitimize delinquency. But what does this mean for identity politics like those that create suffering for someone like Abdellah? It means that this system of normalcy demands that we either fit into what is right, or legitimize what is right by being wrong. We will only ever have two choices. I speak for myself here in saying I normally do not fit into a choice between two boxes; I often need the “other” option. My other option is because I occupy many liminal spaces of identity: Mexican-American, student-teacher, friend-lover, mom-woman, cyborg-“human”, et al. None of my own identities are separate, but they are usually at odds. Abdellah couldn’t be both gay and practice his Islamic religion. He could only be one or the other. Now I ask you all: are we ever/always one or the other of anything? Please tell me…
Again, I have motive for asking this. My last bit of this post now pushes you all to think about how we encourage and perpetuate norms upon each other. Foucault speaks of the carceral system as so prevalent and healthy that it is inherent to our every way of life. He says we are all judges of normal on behalf of the institutions:
The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. (1499)
Here we are, at the end. We may reject this definitive (in many ways) argument of Foucault’s. You are at liberty to do so. However, I think it is helpful for us to become conscious of when we are judging others based on what is “normal”. It is also helpful to become conscious of what form or institution has told us what this normal is. I promise that I will try. I fail often. But I am writing this with a hope that I will stay conscious of when I am working for the carceral network, or when I’m acting on behalf of something more inclusive, yet more liberating. I want to see people like Abdellah for all the selves he is, not pieces of him. Because, I have to brashly admit, I think he’s an amazing human. And that human is no deviant of mine.