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Are You Sufficiently Scandalized?

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.

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On Being a Global Citizen

In Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture, subsequently published as In Praise of Reading and Fiction, the Peruvian writer describes his experience living far from home and sheds some light on the way this has shaped his literary work:

I never felt like a foreigner in Europe or, in fact, anywhere. In all the places I have lived, in Paris, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Washington, New York, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic, I felt at home. I have always found a lair where I could live in peace, work, learn things, nurture dreams, and find friends, good books to read, and subjects to write about. It does not seem to me that my unintentionally becoming a citizen of the world has weakened what are called “my roots,” my connections to my own country—which would not be particularly important—because if that were so, my Peruvian experiences would not continue to nourish me as a writer and would not always appear in my stories, even when they seem to occur very far from Peru. I believe, instead, that living for so long outside the country where I was born has strengthened those connections, adding a more lucid perspective to them, and a nostalgia that can differentiate the adjectival from the substantive and keep memories reverberating. Love of the country where one was born cannot be obligatory, but like any other love must be a spontaneous act of the heart, like the one that unites lovers, parents and children, and friends.

I carry Peru deep inside me because that is where I was born, grew up, was formed, and lived those experiences of childhood and youth that shaped my personality and forged my calling, and there I loved, hated, enjoyed, suffered, and dreamed. What happens there affects me more, moves and exasperates me more, than what occurs elsewhere. I have not wished it or imposed it on myself; it simply is so.

Having been born and raised in a country where I no longer live, I really resonate with Vargas Llosa here—and I’d wager anyone else who was raised a third culture kid will feel likewise.

I don’t get a chance to return to Guatemala as often as I’d like, but my love for Guatemala is real—it is not obligatory or imposed. While my dual citizenship may have come to an end when I turned 18, my Guatemalan upbringing still nourishes me in important ways. That’s why, as Vargas Llosa puts it, “What happens there affects me more, moves and exasperates me more, than what occurs elsewhere.”

Nonetheless, there’s a sense in which I don’t fully belong to Guatemala, just as I don’t always feel at home in the United States. In their defining book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken write, “The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

That’s precisely why I gravitate toward those who have also found themselves between cultures—with all the joys and complications such a life entails. The details of my life may differ widely from someone like Vargas Llosa—I’ve never been to Peru, I haven’t won a Nobel prize, and I wouldn’t think of marrying my cousin, for starters—but on the matter of unintended global citizenship, at least, the two of us stand on common ground.

[Photo via Iniciativa Debate]

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The Creative and Destructive Power of Stories

Not long ago I was reminded of the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, which first started making the rounds some five years ago. As I re-watched it, I was struck by the continued relevance of her message:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

We absorb stories in many different ways, but it has occurred to me lately that one of the most formative ways that stories take shape in our imaginations is through news headlines. In truth, few of us read entire news stories in print or online, and even fewer of us have the attention span that so-called “long-form journalism” requires. And for what it’s worth, I’m not aware of many people who actually watch the evening news in any sort of intentional way. But if you’re like me—someone who is on Twitter and Facebook with some regularity—you have a pretty good feel for what today’s headlines are. And when it comes to shaping the way we see the world, that’s a dangerous thing.

Adichie reminds us that no person, place, or issue can be understood through a single story—much less through a single headline. Without the broader picture that multiple overlapping stories provide, we’re left with stereotypes. Stereotypes, of course, generally aren’t entirely untrue. But they are always—yes, always—incomplete.