The Dehumanizing Discourse of Resilience
In this article, Malaka Shwaikh argues that the discourse of resilience is dehumanizing in how it imposes mythical terms on the colonized people worldwide. It deals with them as if they have supernatural ‘coping mechanisms,’ romanticizes them as exemplary in ‘enduring’ everything, obscures their humanity, reduces the depravity of colonial violence, and ignores layers of structural violence they continue to face. It also normalizes the colonizer’s violence, reduces its severity, and frees you from your responsibility and the feeling of guilt for not doing enough because of an expectation that the colonized are resilient enough and will come out stronger. If colonial violence is hardly protested, the colonizer will continue with these violations, expecting no outcry or calls for accountability.
In a January 2019 interview, Palestine’s Head of Mental Health Services Dr. Samah Jabr said “There is no ‘post’ [traumatic disorders in Gaza] because the trauma is repetitive and ongoing and continuous.” But we are continuously expected to ‘cope with’ this trauma. When my brother came back home traumatized after an Israeli missile fell a few meters away from him in Gaza, someone told me I should tell my brother to ‘stay strong.’ I am constantly asked how I am ‘coping with’ the situation back home and expected to stay ‘resilient.’ In the meantime, I see friends in Gaza using Twitter to express how terrified they are. The stories of children broke my heart the most. In one tweet, my friend Eman wrote, “Tonight, I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another.” In one video, a Palestinian boy is seen running towards his father’s body as it is carried away to be laid to rest. “Baba Baba, I want my father,” he says while crying. He is one of many Palestinians who had to bid farewell to their loved. And none of us is resilient. The Palestinians in Gaza are exhausted, terrified, and fed-up of Israeli colonial violence. No one should have to cope with or tolerate such violence. None of us is resilient. The narrative of expecting us to stay resilient is dehumanizing and violent. In this article, I explain why.
Resilience was first used by physical scientists “to denote the characteristics of a spring and describe the stability of materials and their resistance to external shocks.” In the 1960s, it entered the field of ecology. It has been highly influential in a range of social science fields, including disaster studies and psychology. It then continued to make its way to fields like international development. In the most traditional terms, resilience is about one’s ability to bounce back from adversity. It is a valued and cherished trait that evokes a positive image of strength and the ability to cope with hardship. At the term’s heart, feelings and issues like anxiety, fear, vulnerability, structural violence, and trauma are often masked as acts of heroism, which are then idolized by those outside.
The discourse of resilience is dehumanizing because it imposes mythical terms on the colonized and deals with them as if they have supernatural ‘coping mechanisms.’ It romanticizes them as exemplary in ‘enduring’ everything, obscures their humanity, and diminishes the depravity of colonial projects that work to maintain control over the colonized lives. In the Palestinian context, resilience is expected as a choice rather than a last resort forced on Palestinians. We are not given a choice. We have no other choice but to live through and resist Israeli structural violence. I wrote structural violence because the end of the most recent Israeli assault in Gaza does not provide justice or peace for Palestinians. Gaza has been blockaded by Israeli colonial forces since June 2007, controlling what gets in and out while our very basic rights are denied. Palestinians have been fighting this settler-colonial project that aims and works to eliminate us. It is those root-causes of violence that we should all resist.
The cheap (re)production of us as extraordinary people who will endure all suffering imposed on us is violent because it places the onus on us to be resilient on issues beyond our control. At the heart of this expectation is an ignorance of layers of structural violence we continue to face and the subsequent chronical trauma. This insistence on expecting our resilience minimizes, and at times, normalizes the colonizer’s violence. It reduces its severity. It frees you from your responsibility and the feeling of guilt for not doing enough because of an expectation that the colonized are resilient enough and will come out stronger. It lifts responsibility off your shoulder and that of the international community who may consider us resilient enough and undeserving of support, inflicting even further harm upon us. If we do not listen to the colonized voices and needs and take their fear and exhaustion urgently, the colonizers are able to continue with their crimes. And if colonial violence is hardly protested, the colonizer will continue with these violations, expecting no outcry or calls for accountability.
In Palestine, a long history of imperial and colonial violence has resulted in multi-generational trauma that continues to be ignored. Instead, the Palestinians are cherished for being ‘resilient.’ While the resilience narrative is currently attached to Palestinians, it also affects and is used to label the colonized, oppressed, and marginalized people worldwide. But we should not expect anyone to hide their struggles or deal with adversity with positivity and strength. Instead, we should ask ourselves how they got into a situation where they should even require such resilience. How can we prevent further trauma and end all forms of structural violence? What are the root causes for such violence? And equally important why the resilience discourse persists despite critiques? Who benefits from such discourse and the attempts to make crises appear individual, when in reality both colonial violence and ‘coping mechanisms’ to survive are deeply structural and collective? Does this individualization let states and humanitarian organizations off the hook for more structural issues instead of dealing with the existing ones?
It is time that our experience is defined by our own terms. Resilience is not the right discourse. Resistance may be better because the key to supporting decolonial struggles is resisting structural issues and challenging power dynamics instead of ignoring them. This is a collective responsibility that should be shared by all of us individuals, groups and states. It requires political action and demanding of accountability more than anything else. If those structural issues are not dealt with, the result will be merely a re-production of the pre-existing status quo, one which is inherently violent.