I have an ethical proposition:If you're incapable of having sympathy for someone you're writing about--don't write about them.
Amazingly, this post isn't inspired by the recent fandom-explosion on the topic of racism and inappropriate uses of tragedy in fanfic. (If you haven't seen this, and are interested, ask away and I'll point you to the right places. It's train-wrecky to the extreme.) It's inspired by a book I just finished reading, that, for obvious reasons, I'll refrain from mentioning by name. The book is very useful to me, because it includes data on a topic I'm working on, in a time period I both wasn't personally around to see, and from a different perspective than the other things I've seen. But about twice a page, I come across a statement that makes my jaw drop--that makes me think, "Did ze really just write that
It's not that the statements are out-and-out *ist (where * is the identity of the folks being studied--obviously you can make a good guess based on my work). It's more that the author, as a general principle, seems to feel that the assessments that those who are politically active in the community make are "alleged" or "supposedly." Moderates "believe," while more radical groups "feel" their political conclusions. One group faces "exploitation," the other "mistreatment." They "drape their causes in the mantle" of the ideologies they use, or find it a "convenient position," rather than actually believing those ideologies are useful to explain their political problems. A group is "in principle secular and democratic," which seems to imply that they would cease to be such in practice. A particular cause is central because "clinging to [it] is comforting," not because it's an important political issue that had broader political support than any other issue. The trend here is to devalue the political opinions held by members of the group under study, to subtly suggest they're the result of paranoia, misperceptions, un-American values, or perhaps even conspiracy.
It's clear the author has a preference for which political tactic these groups should take. I don't share that preference. Nevertheless, I don't begrudge hir that preference; of course we all have political preferences on the political questions we study. If we didn't, we wouldn't be political scientists, or even political beings.
But I do begrudge that, rather than stating this preference outright, the author undermined the alternate argument throughout the text. I do begrudge that the alternate viewpoints aren't given the respect of a thorough treatment. I do begrudge that the bias in the text goes entirely unmarked.
I'll admit that I had a very uncharitable reaction to the text. In particular, my response was "I should never read texts about [ethnopolitical identity A] by someone with [ethnopolitical identity B]." But that's crap, and I know it: I know plenty of people of [ethnopolitical identity B] who've written brilliant stuff on [ethnopolitical identity A]. Sometimes I disagree with it, but it's worth reading. This isn't a problem of identity, really--it's a problem of crappy writing.
I think the root of this problem is the inability to have sympathy with the subject of one's writing. Not sympathy in the meaning of pity--not to feel sorry
for one's research/writing subjects--but sympathy in the sense of being able to understand what they're feeling, and looking to see their perspective. To represent what is thought, and felt, and argued, and believed heartily by the people you are writing about: this is what we are called to, as writers of fiction, as writers of nonfiction, as researchers studying human beings, whether contemporarily or historically, through their actions or their texts.
I've been doing fieldwork on the Arab-American community in New York for two years now (sidenote: TWO YEARS? REALLY? *boggles*). I don't agree with everyone I've worked with, every cause I've documented, every political perspective I've written about. I've attended protests and organizing meetings for groups whose politics I agree with only in part. But that doesn't mean I'm exempted from explaining what their politics means to them, and what claims to validity it has. If I also, either at the same time or in a different piece of writing, want to lay out my objections to their politics, I may do so--and I should do so clearly, and in an aboveboard manner. But to dismiss them so casually through my writing is to do poor research.
Manuel Castells, in his book The Power of Identity
, writes the following:
[S]ocial movements must be understood in their own terms: namely, they are what they say they are. Their practices (and foremost their discursive practices) are their self-definition. This approach takes such away fromthe hazardous task of interpreting the 'true' consciousness of movements, as if they could only exist by revealing the 'real' structural conditions. As if, in order to come to life, they could necessarily have to bear these contradictions, as they bear their weapons and brandish their flags. A different, and necessary, research operation is to establish the relationship between the movements as defined by their practice, their values, and their discourse, and the social processes to which they seem to be associated.
This is my guiding principle for studying social movements: to document them as they understand themselves, first and foremost, and unpack their discourses in order to understand them. We aren't duty-bound to only study movements, communities, and subjects we agree with fully. We are duty-bound to represent our objects of study so that they might recognize themselves, and not feel dismissed, denigrated, or ignored in works that are intended to explain them to others--even if they disagree with our conclusions.