“The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we actually live.
Amartya Sen, in his book “Identity and Violence”
At the AWID Forum in 2016, at an evening memorial for women human rights defenders who were no longer with us, we chanted: “We honour the dead, and we fight like hell for the living.”
Recently, I’ve been wondering what honouring someone’s life looks like in our quick-to-share, digitised cultures, especially when those lives are familiar to you in some way. For viewers who share aspects of their identity with the group upon whom violence has been inflicted, reading or learning about that violence can be in and of itself traumatising. For others who don’t share that identity, sharing and learning about the event might further entrench their feeling of privilege or superiority. So when does sharing stories of violence, turn into inflicting violence upon other members of your collective identity group, and to what extent does it further existing inequities in how that violence is felt?
More simply put: when does sharing a story – often intended as an act of solidarity – turn into perpetuating violence upon the persecuted, and further entrenching existing power dynamics?
I’d always thought of honouring someone as lifting their story up, sharing it so that others learn about them, ensuring that their life is not forgotten, raising awareness of who they were, and in the case of an unjust death, fighting for justice on their behalf. But recently, watching the rise of Islamophobia play out offline and online, sharing stories has felt different. I notice in myself a reluctance to click or to read, and I’m learning to listen to that reluctance, and to switch off when I feel it getting too much. I’m lucky that my job, while political in many ways, doesn’t require me to be online 24/7. I’ve realised that turning off social media and not looking at the news is, in many ways, my best bet, and I realise that that is a privilege in and of itself.
Shaista Aziz writes of the shock, worry and anxiety felt in Muslim communities around the world since the Christchurch attacks (and indeed, before.) This is not undue worry, it’s backed up by data. In the UK, for example, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by 593% in the week following Christchurch.
In the context of police brutality against African Americans in the US, clinical psychologist Monnica Williams’ research suggests that “for people of color, frequent exposure to the shootings of black people can have long-term mental health effects… graphic videos combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
So, we’re left with somewhat of a conundrum. On one hand: learn, share, raise awareness of this increased violence, in an attempt to educate others, increase pressure on politicians, let people know that this issue has not been forgotten. At the same time, doing this might contribute ‘severe psychological problems’ to the very people you’re trying to support (and yourself.)
Beyond what journalists and human rights investigators jobs call vicarious trauma - the trauma that results from working with graphic or distressing content - I’ve been feeling like there’s something more that comes from being a digital witness to violence be inflicted upon people who you identify with, that Williams’ work touches upon. There’s an extra gut-punch that comes from learning of an event, and knowing that the identity under attack is one that you share - and thinking, that could have been me. It arises not just from the content (and sometimes, not at all from the content itself) but instead from simply learning of the event in a certain way, combined with the act of self-identification with the victims or survivors of that incident.
This isn’t to say, though, that we should stop educating ourselves about acts of violence – nor that we should stop sharing them, necessarily. Far from it. I want to acknowledge that for some groups, or some identities, violence is not going to go away, particularly in this political climate. For the more privileged, violence is something that they are watching being inflicted upon others. Essentially, the most privileged are the most protected against this kind of ‘extra’ trauma, and similarly, those who need to protect themselves the most against violence are the ones who are most exposed by educating themselves and elevating stories of their fellow community members. This is the exact opposite of how it should be.
For me, while I want - and in some ways, need - to stay well-informed about topics like attacks against Muslims that scare me but that I want to act against, I realise that I want to be able to control how I learn about these events. For me, the rush of cold shock that I felt when I learned about the sudden death of a dear friend by reading someone’s tweet, will always stay with me. When I participate in elevating events of Islamophobia or other kinds of violence, I don’t ever want to contribute to that feeling for someone else – whether that feeling arises from a personal connection, or a collective identity one. Of course, my intent is always of honouring those people, of educating and elevating - but there’s no way of knowing how it is perceived by others.
What would the right to self-determination look like, in these cases? What would it look like to have a system explicitly built to acknowledge how violence is perpetuated between different groups, or a system that worked to balance out the inequities in our society in how violence is experienced and felt? How could the people who feel that violence most strongly, take charge of how their stories are shared and seen?
In essence: what would it look like to share those stories, to encourage others to learn about those events, in a way that doesn’t further perpetuate violence?
There are, of course, some best practices in how to ‘share’ or report on extremist work in a way that doesn’t further their own agenda - like Whitney Phillips’ work- but that’s not quite what I mean here. I don’t know any of these answers, or even if this is the right way to frame these questions, but I know there’s been a lot of important work done on related topics. In 2017, I moderated a panel at Theorizing the Web where we began to explore these issues, but more from the perspective of imagery, and how power dynamics change when previously persecuted groups get the ability (or the technology) to be able to tell their own stories, capture their own images, and show their side to violent events. We were talking mostly within the framework of police brutality against African Americans in the United States, and how, as one of the panellists that day, Rooney Elmi, put it: “their death is becoming a beckoning call to revolt.” (That panel is online here)
If there’s other work I could look at to help better articulate this issue, I’d love to hear suggestions.