Identity Frames and Humane Response to Suffering

By Abel Merawi

Human suffering EthiopiaAugust 5, 2021 ( -- I wish I could write about the past with the intelligence and arrogance the present affords. But almost anyone with possession of historical documents can do so since one would no longer be captivated by the magical spell of an identity frame. For instance, I could write or even mock the false frame of identity that made aristocracy or serfdom possible since these types of identity are outdated and hokum to me. We no longer afford such luxury when faced with imminent horrors in the present, which add folly to future annals of history. Currently, as both victims and agents of parochial identities, we either gaze in bewildered indifference or actively partake in the making of tomorrow’s regrets. I know my writing will be a failure because I am blind to my generation’s mythical social identity. Nevertheless, I will write of social anomalies that I can discern because I believe change demands consciousness and public discourse.

Humanity always presupposes an encounter with a fellow human being. In other words, we respond humanely when we deal with a being worthy of our compassion. I think we are all humane on a theoretical, abstract, and limited level. But our humanity suffers in practice because it depends on identity frames that differentiate - humanizing some and dehumanizing others. Our identity is already framed before a situation arises that demands humanity, and so we only respond to the suffering of those identical to us. When our identity is framed ethnically, for instance, our humanity also becomes ethnic. As the contemporary intellectual, Judith Butler in ‘Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?’ remarks, our humanity and humane responsiveness is constructed in ‘unreasoned schism’ that divides us and “makes it impossible to react with the same horror to violence committed against all sorts of populations.” Thus, we can escape our isms and schisms only by recognizing how they frame our identity.

Identity frames are expressions of various standards that constitute the collective and individual concept of our humanity. We may define humanity as an expression of empathy and compassion to humankind. Accordingly, humanity finds expression in our identity, or with whom we identify ourselves. If my identity is defined by kinship, ethnicity, religion, ideology, or color, then my humane response is restricted only to such humans. As to others, they either do not enter my field of vision or they are seen as ‘the others’, ‘them’ or ‘the enemy’. To penetrate our hardened hearts and minds, let me relate gruesome instances in Ethiopia’s recent past.

Do you remember the savagery of the mob that crucified a human being upside down, those who surpassed, in evil, the crucifiers of Jesus? Or those who wreaked havoc in Shashemene? Well, this mob and their supporters weep and wail for slight harm on a member of their pack. In the same manner, the robbers of life in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera), grieve the death of their ruthless gang and call it unjust in the name of humanity. The primitive militias and affiliates who burned down Ataye City and slaughtered innocent people, still manage to mourn for their comrades. The ongoing slaughter of precious people of Amhara in many parts of Ethiopia remains nameless, while the nation condemns the protests against this ethnic brutality. The innocents killed in various parts of the Oromia Region remain ignored, but when a prominent figure dies the nation is expected or even demanded to mourn. Similarly, it is sickening when you look back at the slaughter and pillaging committed on our Southern brothers and sisters in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, by mobs who are seldom brought to trials. Equally sickening are the seemingly ambivalent people who even become defendants of bellicose mobs. Currently, the murder, rape, and starvation of innocent people in Tigray do not affect the political and ethnic bigots who are ready to defend everything by saying: ‘Sacrifices should be made!’ I just wonder whose sacrifice we are speaking of when we audaciously make such remarks from a safe distance.

These and all other catastrophes Ethiopians suffered in all parts of the nation must not be forgotten. Above all, the suffering of innocents all over the world must be recorded to the last detail and grieved. This is vital because the remembrance of suffering compels us to respond humanely. Sadly, there are shifty systems that make sure our humanity remains stunted. I imagine the cultivation of collective cruelty and heartlessness requires diabolical determination. Admittedly, our calamities are created and fostered by diabolical agents we ignorantly revere. Firstly, the invisible hands of norms and cultures forever bound the obedient member, and these traditions become a powerful weapon in the hands of interest groups. These groups are occupied by ‘shapeshifters’ that appear as politicians, philanthropists, media experts, intellectuals, or religious leaders. They all desire to occupy center stage and dictate the narrative of our identity. Being the gullible subjects we have become, we accept our prescribed identity.

Our identity is framed by what the acclaimed writer Toni Morrison calls the ‘Master Narrative’. She explains that the master narrative is made by our leaders to guarantee their hegemony over the rest of us. The master narrative is designed by the dominant class and the system it creates. It makes the rest of us subconsciously accept and reaffirm the very narrative that operates to destroy us. The master narrative dictates the public discourse by reiterating some aspects of reality while silencing any truth that contradicts it. Then, the media does the rest of the dirty work. As Judith Butler explains, the media controls the narrative by framing reality to serve its masters: telling us what to condemn, whom to grieve and whose death to celebrate. Moreover, by never uttering the suffering of those who oppose the master narrative, the media creates a ‘Disney Land-ish’ world, for us to forget the existence of supposed enemies. The sheer weight of the master narrative creates the lens through which we conceive reality. We then succumb to parochialism; our humanity trapped in shallow identity frames.

Casting away this moral abyss will be the arduous task we must begin today. To do this, we must first accept that human life is precarious. And as James Baldwin said: “The states of birth, suffering, love, and death, are extreme states: extreme, universal, and inescapable.” When we fully admit this universal human condition; we can join Judith Butler to accept our universal responsibility to one another. This humane responsibility is not a special privilege we dispense to some and deprive others. Our humanity must accept suffering as a human possibility and strive in unison to ease the burden of life. This requires abandoning identity frames constructed in childish fantasies that make us believe we are somehow special and invincible. Our cars and houses may be bulletproof; we are not! We may take pride in military excellence, but it will not protect us when the oppressed and neglected finally rise to reclaim their dignity. Our only protection is universal humanity and goodness. As the motherly paragon of humanity, Maya Angelou movingly expresses, ‘being good gives us the kind of protection that bodyguards can’t provide.”


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

The Plurality of Identity

Necrophilia – The Affliction in Servants of Death

Public Trust in Social Media

Even Monkeys Can Use Smart Techs

Invisible Citizens

Adwa – Triumph of Unassailable Humanity

Democracy and Democratic Institutions

Democracy and Democratic People

Paideia or Deep Education

Educational Purpose: Good Citizenry Vs Rational Autonomy

Crowd Leaders as National Enemies of Ethiopia

Ethiopia Under the Threat of Crowd Mentality

Conformist Realism in Ethnic Federalism

Alternatives to National Identity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part II: A National Stand for Unity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part I: EPRDF and the Creation of Ethnic Division

Forms of Human Violence (Part II)

Forms of Human Violence (Part I)

The ‘Having’ Mentality

Group Narcissism

Segregated Justice


Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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