I allow myself to feel the anger, sadness, despair over the things that humans are capable of doing in order to understand the phenomenon—in order to limit, to minimize, the things that cause the despair.
“To be involved in something like this you just have to be comfortable with stretching,” reflects Dr. Tracy Lemos (Theology), discussing her recent book Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts (Oxford University Press, 2017). In the book, Dr. Lemos investigates ancient and modern instances of dehumanization, interrogating the connections between hypermasculinity and status, and the ways in which these elements combine to give rise to ideas of what she calls “domination personhood” and cultures of violence both past and present. Studying acts of violence reveals how personhood is defined in a particular context: the understanding of who counts as a person—a human being recognized as having social value—and how this understanding is constructed.
Writing about violence and dehumanization as a scholar is an at times “crushing” task, according to Dr. Lemos; at some moments engaging the material requires pulling away and averting your gaze, while at other times it necessitates both the willingness and the strength to dig deep and wallow or dwell in the sadness of the material, without being hardened by it. The ultimate goal of this research is to refuse simple explanations of humans as violent by nature and instead understand aspects of culture that give rise to this violence so that these scenarios may be eliminated. “I allow myself to feel the anger, sadness, despair over the things that humans are capable of doing in order to understand the phenomenon—in order to limit, to minimize, the things that cause the despair,” explains Dr. Lemos.
This particular project was also stretching because of the wide-ranging interdisciplinary research involved. Dr. Lemos’s first book explored shifts in marriage practices that occurred in ancient Palestine over the course of a millennium. Shifting to writing about violence, and connecting to contemporary issues including racialized police violence in the United States, was for Dr. Lemos “a conscious choice to write about things I am not an expert in.” The success of this choice effectively demonstrates the ways in which a Biblical scholar with training in ancient languages and history has critical insights to offer current political conversations. Contemporary debates about policing, abortion, torture, and other forms of violence concern whose bodies we can treat in which ways. “Who has the protections of personhood is still an incredibly pressing question,” explains Dr. Lemos, “it would have been irresponsible to examine dehumanization and treatment of bodies in the past without looking at comparative phenomenon in the modern world. Sometimes it is only by stepping back that you can understand a phenomenon—this is the case with violence.”
The next projects on Dr. Lemos’s desk include coediting the Cambridge World History of Genocide, and a second project considering responses to dehumanization—asking by what mechanisms, whether psychological or cultural, groups find themselves able to resist. Both continue to tackle a broad geographic and temporal canvas. Making these connections is a bold step for a scholar to make in an academic context of specialization, and required a commitment to moving beyond a fear of critique. For Dr. Lemos, the liberal arts provide a context for this type of research, and for demonstrating the critical contribution the humanities can make to public conversation: “I feel the importance of the research I am doing. I know it matters.”