A little over a month ago, I wrote about the scandal surrounding human trafficking activist Somaly Mam and the perils of heroic storytelling. I concluded that post with this summarizing thought: “Good storytelling is imaginative and emotionally compelling, but if the storyteller has integrity, the story is also, if nothing else, truthful.”
In light of the recent accusations, it really doesn’t seem that Somaly Mam passes the truthfulness test, and that’s a legitimate problem. But as Cindy Brandt reminds us in a recent Cardus blog post, there’s a degree of complicity here to be reckoned with as well:
There would be no incentive for fanciful storytellers to pull out the most heinous stories, or to embellish with exaggerated details, if they didn’t understand the propensity in human psychology to perk up to sensational reporting. We are drawn to the controversial, the scandalous, the extraordinary. The 1% success stories of heroic activism and justice work overshadow the 99% of boring, uninteresting, necessary sweat and labor behind it. Most moviegoers go to theaters to adore Tom Cruise on the big screen, not to heap accolades on the hundreds of workers scrolling through the end credits. How much blame do we share in the Somaly Mam scandal, for being the crowd thirsty for the most heartrending tale? What is chilling to consider, is that eventually the stories need to become more and more gory before they can gain traction. Like the rowdy mobs in the gladiator arenas, we are no longer going to be satisfied with mediocre brutality, but only the most violent of stories.
In the Newsweek article, Mam was noted in an interview to claim girls as young as three are being held in Cambodian brothels. In contrast, experts in the field say rarely are prepubescent girls found in brothels, although there is a steady supply of girls from the age of 14 and 17. Should we not be equally outraged at both 3-year-olds and 14- to 17-year-old girls being trafficked for sex? Why would a storyteller be tempted to make an inhumane situation sound even worse than reality? Could it be that storytellers exaggerate the level of horror because they know it provides the extra emotional leverage to reach for the donor wallet? We have created a hierarchy of evil, and our generosity has become conditional on the grade of injustice given to the stories we consume.
You can read the full post here.