Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Why Context Matters

Sociologists are all about context. Why here at Minnesota, we even have a sociology magazine called Contexts. We focus so much on context because, as people studying the social world, we know that you can't simply look at something and understand it, you need to put it in a time, place, etc. For example, when I teach intro classes, I often use the example of female genital cutting. FGC is a practice in some African nations where a young girls' clitoris is cut off (often with a shard of glass or jagged piece of metal) and then her labia are sewn shut to preserve her virginity for marriage.

As an outsider looking in, it certainly looks like a barbarous practice. But if you look at in context, it you find that most women who undergo it choose to do so (though, granted, it's a pretty loaded choice), and who are we as a society to judge when we cut off the skin of the penises of our male children for no reason?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm still totally against FGC, but when looking at in context, it becomes a much murkier picture and it isn't so easy to immediately and completely condemn it.

The imprisonment of suspected radicals in Guantanamo Bay is another perfect example of why context matters. If you simply take the given reasoning behind it with no other information, it looks like a perfectly rational decision. The men held in there are all radical terrorists hell bent on killing innocent people, so it makes sense to keep them locked up indefinitely. And if some abuses occur, well that's too bad, but even some abuse of these people can be tolerated given what horrible things they would do if they weren't locked up in there.

But if you understand Guantanamo in context, it's suddenly not such a rosy picture. For instance, many of the men imprisoned there were not captured by American forces, they were delivered to American forces as people who should be detained. What isn't widely known is that often the Army will pay out cash rewards for turning over a suspected terrorist. Now think about that -- in the middle of a chaotic civil war with multiple hostile factions, isn't there a decent chance someone might take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by putting one of their enemies into indefinite detention and earning some cash on the side? Or might someone who lives in a money-starved nation with few resources see a weak stranger as the opportunity to make some good money really quickly? These scenarios are spelled out pretty well in Taxi to the Dark Side, a fantastic documentary that spells out exactly those (and several other) scenarios that lead innocent people to be put in Guantanamo.

And to add further verification to these logical exercises in context, of the 50 Guantanamo prisoners who have been able to go to a habeas hearing to determine if they should even be locked up, 36 of them have been set free for lack of any evidence to hold them. Just to repeat, 72% of Guantanamo prisoners that have had a habeas hearing with a judge provided by the very people imprisoning them have been set free because there is absolutely no evidence they are dangerous in any way, shape, or form. Why is this number so high? Well, because of the reasons described above. People are simply being rounded up and then sorted out later.

So when you get some of this context surrounding the Guantanamo detentions (high numbers of innocent people, really shady situations leading to imprisonment in the first place, etc.), suddenly it's not so easy to support the existence of Guantanamo or take politicians at their word that all the people housed there are dangerous and cannot be let go.

And that's why context is important...

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