Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Whose story?

One of the ethical dilemmas of anthropology involves the telling of other people's stories.

There's the matter of privilege. Who is in a position to tell the story, and who is in a position to be told on? Whose business is it to visit other people without a compelling invitation and write about them?

On the other hand, there's the matter of not telling, of not even bothering to know another person, another culture. Is ignorance an ethical alternative? Should we live in a siloed world?

Of course not. Yet the world is slant, and the way privileged whites write about others, often people of color, may help to tilt the pitch.

A way out of this dilemma might be to own the stories we tell: the anthropologist - the fieldworker - writes her or his own story, her or his own experience, shaped inevitably by both the writer and others who share the writer's life. We're not telling another's story. We're telling our own.

The problem with telling other people's stories comes down to a question of ownership: Whose story is it? Who gets to tell?

Perhaps this is the impulse to memoir and fiction in anthropology, the desire to own not just the privilege but also the authority to tell the story.

My fear is this only defers the dilemma. I may be entitled to tell my own story, but I am privileged to have experiences that give me interesting stories to tell. That's an advantage few of the people I write about enjoy.

Here perhaps is another way out of the dilemma.

If I am privileged to travel (around the globe, around my neighborhood), then I have an obligation to use my privilege to help erase uneven advantages.

How else will slants be eliminated, or at least lessened, if we don't know about each other, even that others exist?

There's a reason to do what we do. It comes with responsibilities.

1 comment:

Daniel Lende said...

I like this reflection, John. It resonates with how I am approaching my book on addiction, to tell my own story here. Or to own it, as you say. Which is harder.

It's a struggle, to try to find a balance, to convey a story, to try to enlighten, to aim to move something forward. So back to it, I guess...