Covering trauma while respecting the story

By — March 2, 2016

James Dawes writes in the preface of Evil Men

“How can we look at violently invasive and traumatic events with respect and care rather than sensational curiosity? How do profoundly private injuries fit into our mercilessly public spaces? At the center of the answers to these questions is a single, structuring paradox: the paradox of trauma. We are morally obligated to represent trauma, but we are also morally obligated not to."

In response, I wonder (partially affected by my legal reading on naturalism vs. positivism): What does moral obligation consist of in this context? From where does it arise? Why is this a moral obligation? To the extent that trauma creates (narrative) obligations—what are they? And what are the implications of those obligations for how we tell stories, serve, and act?

In fact—how do we balance our obligation to different parties affected by trauma? In conflict and development discourse, we often speak of the need to let victims and survivors of violence tell their own story in the ways that feel right to them. While that is indeed an ideal approach, we are so often caught in the murkier lines of vicarious storytelling: We are trusted with the stories of others. We are trusted with their trauma. We asked questions to stumble upon these narratives, or perhaps they were thrust upon us. How, then, do we fulfill our narrative obligations to the person whose trauma this is? To the person to whom the trauma belongs? Does trauma belong to anyone in the first place?

When covering rape in conflict, survivors should be allowed to tell their story in the ways they want, Krystalli argues. Here, an 11-year-old girl lies in a bed in Panzi Hospital in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. She is seven months pregnant from rape. (Lauren Wolfe)

And what about collective trauma—who can claim ownership of it? Who can speak on its behalf? And where does that leave all the rest of us, interlocutors and witnesses of trauma who have been trusted to tell its story? And, should we figure that out, do we have an obligation to the reader or listener who may not have otherwise been subjected to this trauma had it not been for our narration of it? What are the components of these obligations and, most crucially, how do we begin to unpack and answer these questions without letting them sink us into a paralyzing silence?

Dawes writes, along these lines:

“There is a paradox to representing suffering. To stop people from being injured, we have to tell the story of what’s happening; but in telling the story, we can injure people in unexpected ways. […] We hope to elicit compassion from spectators, but sometimes further their desensitization or even generate disgust. We hope to give therapeutic voice to survivors, but sometimes retraumatize them. […]"

I repeat: How do we begin to unpack and answer these questions without letting them sink us into a paralyzing silence? And, while we are at it, what is our own place amid these narratives? I have often been told, in academia and conflict management practice alike, that we are/ought to be/aspire to be mere scribes. We are the vehicles by which these stories reach the world. We ask the questions, and we diligently write down the answers—when such answers exist, itself a rarity—and then we report back to the world, rendering ourselves little more than documentarians: secretaries of trauma. However, if I have learned anything from both feminist thinking and critical theory, it is that no process of asking questions, of selecting which questions to ask and which narratives to seek, elevate, or quieten, is apolitical. In The Curious Feminist, Cynthia Enloe prompts us to be surprised by the narratives that enter our lives, and to be curious about them and the processes of trivialization that underpin them. Which narratives did these ones edge out? Which stories are we not hearing? What processes make certain stories appear less worthy of the spotlight than others? How do we make those selections and what do these choices say about the prevailing systems of power?

Enloe’s questions presume agency—they presume an “I.” They presume more than a scribe. I have always found it difficult to render myself, as the narrator of others’ experiences of conflict, suffering, or trauma, entirely invisible, even when I am deeply conscious of needing to place those experiences of others at the center of the narrative. Yet, once one develops this consciousness that she, too, exists within the story, with all her narrative choices and curiosities, she can no longer ignore her own place and agency within the broader narratives that are not quite hers. Or, as Dawes would put it [emphasis mine]:

“The scale of atrocity is unselfing, and self-examination as a response is a natural protective reflex, a way of restoring one’s own emotional reactions to the familiar, central place. It is also narcissistic, and it is luxury morality. But avoidance—refusing to interrogate one’s own relationship to the desire to see, to make something see-able—is no better, perhaps worse. Why do you do this kind of work? What personal dramas are you playing out, and what blind spots might that leave you with? Atrocity work requires an appropriate drawing of the gaze toward the self that is inappropriate. So the “I” remains here in this book, as do the apologies—even if now they are disguised as analysis.

And a closing question, for now: What is the place of moralizing in atrocities discourse? Anyone who has ever borrowed a book from me cannot help but notice the color-coded Post-It flags emerging from the pages. After finishing a book, I go back to the flagged passages and copy them into a notebook, noticing the broader patterns that emerge (and the similarity of this process to the inductive coding of my primary research in fieldwork…). When I went back through Dawes’ Evil Men, I couldn’t help but notice the omnipresence of evil—starting from the title. Here is Dawes in the preface:

"How do societies turn normal men into monsters? With more focus: What is the individual psychological process and felt experience of becoming a monster? With yet more focus: Given that those monsters are so often men, what role does gender play in genocidal violence?"

Much as I love a good gender analysis, I was stuck on the word "monsters." It sounds rife in judgment to me and I wonder: Is that helpful when discussing, analyzing, and seeking to learn from atrocities? Is "helpfulness" even a useful standard in this situation? One might argue that we do need something to distinguish what Aukerman would call "ordinary crime" from "extraordinary evil." But how useful is the concept of evil itself? What purpose does it serve? What is the purpose of the multiple references to moral obligations? Dawes himself struggles with the question of whether "evil" is a relevant concept in atrocities analyses and discourse…but he does end up including it in the title, and my Post-It notes tell me that evil resurfaces regularly throughout the narrative, as do references to morality.

As a scholar of atrocities, and as a researcher and humanitarian practitioner who has had to confront many of these issues on the ground, I have developed some perhaps undesired intimacy with acts that Dawes or others might term "evil." I would not dream of justifying these acts, and I am dedicating my life to learning how to prevent, manage, or respond to them. I wonder, however: How does judgment blind us in these settings? What might we lose by being guided by narratives of evil and moral obligation? How might labeling perpetrators of mass atrocities "monsters" limit our thinking? Can we help that reaction? What does "monsters" capture that other words—like "perpetrators," even—do not? Is there a way to approach our study and understanding of mass atrocities with minimal judgment? Is that even desirable?

This article originally appeared on Krystalli's website "Stories of Conflict and Love."