“My family is not struggling because we’re dysfunctional. My family is struggling because we’re displaced.”
I struggled to keep walking down the hallway once those words had fully registered in my mind. An angular, distinguished man was speaking in hushed tones with my organization’s building manager, desperation weaving its way in and out of his appeals but never overwhelming his speech. I pretended to rifle through some fliers to try to eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation, but the air conditioner drowned out her response.
Displaced, not dysfunctional.
How desperately I wish that simple sound bite would inform the Western media’s depiction of migrating or disadvantaged people groups. Too often the response that is deemed most appropriate by anchors and aid workers alike is pity – well meant, I’m sure, but pity nonetheless.
Pity does not empower. Pity does not transform. It does not replenish or renew. Regardless of the good intentions behind it, pity is a stagnant emotion that fails to provide a sturdy foundation upon which to build. If a reporter establishes an initial baseline with potential subjects based on pity, he or she will quickly discover that there’s nowhere to progress from there except towards the predictable and stereotyped.
I do understand where the temptation of utilizing the appellant language of pity to evoke pathos in an audience arises, however. Especially if that audience comprises donors and sponsors, it can be particularly difficult for those in the non-profit world to avoid, as funding is obviously vital to an organization’s success; but if our goal, as ethical storytellers, is to inform the public and empower the people, then pity is not a part of our organic lexicon and should feel forced when inserted into a piece. If language matters as deeply as we purport, then we should be using words that may be used as construction blocks for human identity, not adjectives that will serve as flippant identifiers for “the other.” There are plenty of those writers already.
Trust is crucial when another human is granting custody of his or her life story, and the misuse of pity – often under the guise of compassion – is guaranteed to sever that good faith relationship. An affective litmus test regarding whether an article encourages a victim mentality or pigeonholes a certain people group is to read it from the perspective of the subject; if the piece feels uncomfortable or unnecessarily histrionic, it may be worth the time it takes to approach the topic from a more legitimate perspective.
My hope is not that articles about refugee mothers and blue-collar workers experiencing poverty would discount the facts or gloss over the painful details of lives lived in constant struggle, but rather that they would convey the full weight of the courage that it takes to do so. That any given woman or man in those same circumstances could read that editorial and feel represented, even recognized for the stunning fortitude that it takes to consistently engage with their circumstances.
Storytellers are innately endowed with the responsibility of bearing others’ narratives in society – let us also be the pallbearers of disempowering rhetoric.
Natalie Sarrett resonates deeply with artisanal tacos, Gilmore Girls, and large doggos. As a former academic editor and long-time writing enthusiast, Natalie’s passion for the power of the written word and visual journalism was cultivated throughout her childhood adventures, as she grew up in Central Asia and the Middle East. These early cross-cultural experiences helped to foster a dedication to ethical storytelling that has inspired her pursuit of freelance writing. Visit natalies.exposure.co to read more of her work.