In the peacebuilding Olympics, I am a medal contender for the storytelling event. There is nothing I enjoy more than a dramatic (complete with arm flailing and sound effects) recital of something that I have experienced. My favourite is my motorcycle accident. Each time the pus explosion is a little larger and the audience is a little more awed by my survival.
Currently, my job is telling stories, but what I tell and how I tell it is more than a job. It is an ethical responsibility, especially because my the majority of my audience is not made up of Colombians, but people whose only experience of Colombia is based on my stories and general stereotypes. I write from a position of power. What I say is taken as truth about the realities of this place. I am developing a Spanish section, but not everything I write is accessible to those I am writing about. The stories I tell about my experiences are filtered at home through Canadian experiences, knowledge and culture. Representations are easily misinterpreted.
We like to rescue people. We love individual heroes. My facebook newsfeed is constantly filled with petitions and stories of violence and victims worldwide, especially related to sex trafficking and rescue industries. We share these stories because, as human beings, we care and want to make a difference in the lives of others and the stories that we tell have the power to move people into action. But what action? And based on what information? Who is actually telling the story? And how does that story play into globalized realities of colonization, economic structures and power inequalities?
Money and other resources are funnelled into situations and towards people because of the stories we tell. Last month, Newsweek’s cover story was an expose about Somaly Mam, a famous Cambodian woman in the sex trafficking rescue industry. It turns out, how she was portraying herself and the supposed victims of trafficking, was blatantly untrue. Yet, in part because of her stories and the prominent support she received from influential people in the US, billions of dollars have been poured into an industry which does little to actually examine the structural causes of migration, labour, and economic policies; it’s main goal is to make us feel good about ourselves and our power to save. In reality, many of the woman “rescued” in Cambodia end up in foreign funded sweatshops, creating our clothes. (An excellent book on the topic is Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins.)
As Chandra Talpade Mohany reminds us in Feminism without Borders, “Writing is itself an activity marked by class and ethnic position. However, testimonials, life stories, and oral histories are a significant mode of remembering and recording experiences and struggles. Written texts are not produced in a vacuum. In fact, texts that document Third World women’s life histories owe that existence as much to the exigencies of the political and commercial marketplace as to the knowledge, skills, motivation, and location of individual writers…After all, the point is not just to record one’s history of struggle or consciousness, but how they are recorded; the way we read, receive, and disseminate such imaginative records is immensely significant.” (78).
What happens when I, as a Canadian, write a graphic description of an experience of personal violence in Colombia, for a Canadian audience, as a blogger for Canadian Mennonite recently did? There is a good chance that the context in which the situation took place will not be familiar or understood by my Canadian audience because they do not live here. Instead, their understandings of violence in Colombia may be be further cemented towards stereotypes. The victim of the incident may become the hero, for being brave enough to live and work for change in such a dangerous place, while the Colombians already working for change remain unseen and unheard.
Even though the experience is true, Colombia is misinterpreted and the structures and stereotypes that have helped contribute to increasing urban violence across Latin America are perpetrated. Policies of structural adjustment, free trade deals, deportation of migrants, military interventions: all of these global realities remain unacknowledged and an opportunity to think critically about our negative role is lost because no context is provided.
When our stories portray Colombia as a land of chaos, filled with terrorists, random violence and poverty, we justify Plan Colombia and other interventionist policies. We rationalize the spending of development dollars, such a the collaboration between mining companies and giants of the development world, on economic policies that end up harming the people we believe we are helping. We ignore the Colombians already working for change and become heroes. It helps to remember, as Magaly Sanchez points out, that “Rather than viewing violence as a personal deviation from societal norms, it is more appropriate to consider it a product of structural inequalities, a social phenomenon in which multiple actors resort to the use of violence under similar social circumstances and in mutually reinforcing ways, not as isolated individuals.”
This does not mean that we cannot share our stories of violence. #yesallwomen is a powerful opening to talk about the global violence against women everywhere. To deny our own stories simply because they happened outside of our local context is to also become a victim. But by choosing to work and live in another context, we also must accept the ethical responsibility of how and where we tell our stories so that violence and stereotypes do not continue to be perpetrated, especially when, because of language and publication location, those we write about are not able to respond. Even the way I tell my accident story or write this blog is implicated and requires revision.
4 comments on “Storytelling, Ethics and Violence”
Anna, thank you for this!
Your points are valid, and figuring out how to honor Colombians while not perpetuating stereotypes was something I really struggled with while writing my blog for Canadian Mennonite.
When I was talking to my Colombian Co-worker and superior, she thanked me for not putting my story in the wider news because it would deter future delegates from the North from coming to Colombia. As I talked to friends and family I found that this was definitely a reality… many people said something along the lines of “what do you expect when you go to a country like that.” I tried to address this problematic thinking in personal conversations. However, as we know, gendered violence happens all over the world. It is for that reason that I chose to focus my articles on that topic, and link it to the Elliot Roger killings in California – to show readers that this is a global problem that can’t be written off as unique to Colombia. My intent was to decrease stereotypes specific to Colombia not “cement them.” The number of personal emails I have recieved engaging the topics of gendered violence and trauma are extraordinary. You are right though, I should have provided further commentary on the context of violence in Colombia, because it is unique.
Interesting article. Here are a few thoughts after reading it.
1) “The stories I tell about my experiences are filtered at home through Canadian experiences, knowledge and culture. Representations are easily misinterpreted.” My comment: Yes that is true and can be misleading. However we as international workers are a bridge between the two cultures. It is equally true that without that bridge there would be even more misunderstanding. As a video producer I am constantly trying to tell the story in a way that a North American audience will understand. This means that I will put into my own words the meaning behind what I am describing so people back home CAN make sense of it. A Cambodian (my context) making a video for North Americans would not have that same insight just as I would not in making a video for a Cambodian audience.
2) “Money and other resources are funneled into situations and towards people because of the stories we tell. Last month, Newsweek’s cover story was an expose about Somaly Mam,” Yes, and even the best NGO’s, governments and companies make mistakes. Just today in talking with one local Cambodian NGOs, Love Cambodia about another, ODOV we were talking about learning from each others mistakes. Love Cambodia and ODOV have made mistakes, tried things that didn’t work, and regrouped and worked until they found things that did work. This doesn’t make them failures, this is how we get to success. If you aren’t making mistakes then you aren’t trying in anything you do.
3) I disagree with the sentiment ” it’s main goal is to make us feel good about ourselves and our power to save. ” I think that is way too simplistic and a cynical way to look at donors. It is making a huge assumption that all donors individuals and organizations are really selfish and don’t really care about helping others. This is simply not true. People give their time and money for many many reasons on a large and complicated spectrum of reasons many of which are truly unselfish and giving.
4) “We ignore the Colombians already working for change and become heroes.” I agree, If you are ignoring the Colombians already working for change then you are missing the story. But why would you do this? If you are, then change. But don’t assume as your baseline that all writers for a North American audience are that blind and shallow.
5) “But by choosing to work and live in another context, we also must accept the ethical responsibility of how and where we tell our stories so that violence and stereotypes do not continue to be perpetrated,” Yes. Absolutely. That is a given a baseline too. But in this article you act as thought this is a new thought for you, that no one is doing this or has even thought of this. Yet this is the basis of all good writing and writers and has been historically. If you are writing about how FOX news reports then yes i get it. But this article seems to say that all writers who work and live in another context have never thought of ethical responsibility when writing and that is a disservice to the many many good writers I know.
Thaks for your comments Michael. You make a number of great points! First of all, I would like to clarify that I know a number of wonderful writers, filmmakers, and communicators in general that do an excellent job at ethically portraying the situations that they choose to live within. It is through conversations with them, and people like you, that I have been challenged to put these thoughts in writing. This is not a new thought for me, but one that I continue to be challenged with and to deepen within my writing and my work life, to be, as you put it so well, a bridge that communicates well is a responsibility I take very seriously, as a Canadian whose job is to communicate Colombia to Canada. But being a bridge goes both ways- I am also accountable to the Colombians whose story I am telling to ensure that they are also happy with the representation.
This post is a response to some communications I have recently encountered that do not portray the situations they are working in well. It is not meant to be a wakeup call for the entire communications world, but rather reflections on how specific examples, including the attack story I mentioned, could have been presented differently because they are stories from a different context and culture.
As you mentioned, it is important to learn from mistakes. I am excited to hear about your organizations that are regrouping and working for change! However, the majority of the media coverage of Cambodia that I have received does not talk about that regrouping. Maybe I am simply not looking in the right places, as I am sure it exists, but it is not as popular in mainstream media. I would love to read more about it.
Thanks for the reminder that our Northern audiences are not ignorant- you are absolutely right. However, stereotypes about Colombia abound and the majority of mainstream news sources that simply talk about deaths because of conflict or drug trafficking can perpetuate those stereotypes. The same goes with donors- my work is only possible because of the generosity of many people; we need to respect the intelligence and altruistic nature of these people by sharing complex and truthful stories of the places we work, not reducing them to soundbites, as you and many other are already working to do.
Again, thanks for joining in the conversation.