Called to Collectivize
There's an organizing campaign underway at my university. Here is why I am supportive of this effort.
The decision to begin building a union is often a reflection of two things: Current events in a particular labor market and a desire to provide safety for workers in that market into the future.
I’m from Appalachia. My community was filled with railroad workers and coal miners. I had friends whose parents worked at the uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio. All of these people – the railroad workers, miners, and uranium plant workers – belonged to unions. Unions which fought for safer work practices, fairer schedules, and better pay. Unions that worked to ensure the safety of their members, often after accidents or strikes or contract negotiations which exposed how poorly workers had been treated by their employers.
There is a renewed interest in such protections in the United States as workers all over the country, in education and retail and food service, are organizing for fair pay, for fair schedules, for fair treatment.
We often treat the work of academia as a calling, rather than as labor. We often groan about the need to protect our time, but not often the need to protect ourselves. Which can sometimes mean we find ourselves laboring virtually round-the-clock, including during times in the year when we’re not officially on the clock. For untenured or non-tenure track faculty, it can be difficult to know when you can say no to something. There is an often constant worry that if you don’t say yes to everything you’ll not be seen as a team-player and will face repercussions of some kind in the future. This pressure can be particularly potent for faculty from minoritized communities who don’t move through the ranks in higher education the way their white counterparts do.
In essence: Our generalized framing of academic labor as a calling has helped create an inequitable distribution of the work of academia throughout the university and inequitable distribution of pay as well.
At the same time, higher education in the United States is at a crisis point. Funding from the federal and state government remains low. Both President Gregory Crawford and Vice President for Finance and Business Services David Creamer pointed out during the spring 2022 budget symposium that Miami University receives the fewest state dollars of any public university in Ohio. This, as the potential student body is shrinking and overall student debt increasing.
Transparent decision making only becomes more important when an institution faces financial challenges, but, all too often, that transparency is lacking.
During the height of COVID 19, we saw how willing some institutions were to use the cover of the pandemic, the cover of crisis, to make potentially culture altering choices. At Miami, many of us watched as our visiting professor and instructor colleagues were not renewed, leaving about 150 people without jobs, or health insurance, during a global pandemic. Other institutions encouraged faculty into early retirement without replacing their lines, leaving their programs scrambling to figure out how to cover class and service assignments with fewer faculty. Which may be a situation we soon find ourselves in here at Miami.
One of the slides Dr. Creamer showed during the budget symposium seemed to suggest one way Miami may work to address the financial challenges it faces is by not replacing faculty lines which go vacant. Such a choice could undermine the mission of the university. Miami prides itself for being “high touch” and undergraduate focused, but how can it remain so if it shrinks the faculty?
And, importantly, how will decisions about what lines will be filled and what lines will be allowed to remain fallow be made?
A union, though imperfect, provides workers some protection from the caprices of employers. It also forces institutions to make decisions in a transparent and open way. A union, through the negotiation of a contract, can help establish procedures about everything from workload to pay to how staffing will be filled or will be cut.
The contract here is the key. It’s negotiated by union leaders with employers and then voted on by union members. It is, at its very core, a document created by and for employees.
I don’t know what the future holds for higher education. I don’t know what the future holds for Miami University. But I do know that we no longer live in an environment where we can treat our jobs as callings and not as work; not as the labor they are.
This is not about any one personality or set of personalities; not about particular politicians nor policies. It’s about being proactive about protecting our jobs and those of our colleagues. It’s also about being proactive about protecting the things we care about in higher education in the face of a looming industry wide crisis.
Now is not the time to sit back and watch what others do. In Ohio, the only public universities to operate without unionized faculty are Miami, Ohio State University, and Ohio University. At Ohio University, my undergraduate alma mater, they are facing a budget crisis, with at least three faculty recently being told their contracts would not be renewed.
One of those faculty reportedly taught in the African American Studies program and the two others in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Those terminations were made as the university considers the “possible restructuring of colleges and departments.”
Perhaps such a restructuring is necessary. Perhaps such a restructuring will be necessary at Miami University one day.
If it is, there is nothing now in place that would guarantee the decisions made about such changes have to be made transparently. A union contract, should Miami faculty vote to create a union, would force such decisions to be transparent. Shared governance under a contract would not mean that a handful of faculty were consulted about something, but that particular, negotiated procedures are followed to minimize harm to faculty and to the university’s mission.
In a way, forming a union is an attempt to do a bit of future-proofing. Should hard times continue coming our way, a union contract can help set up a way through that is transparent, that faculty have some say in, and that does not come as a surprise.
People will use fear to convince you that a union is not good. That it is a waste of money. That it is a performance of distrust.
A union, I would argue, is a form of care. Care for yourself. Care for your colleagues. Care for the institution. As faculty, we might not face mine collapses or train derailments or radioactive leaks, but we do face threats of both a financial and ideological nature. Those threats can have devastating consequences in the near term, but if we don’t find a way to protect what we care about those threats could continue to be devastating in the long term as well.
A union is one way to begin protecting ourselves, and our profession, from the worst of such devastation.
I was sitting in the airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight to D.C. when I got an email from my department chair asking me to stop by his office. The request was then followed by a list of some 10 blocks of time he’d be available over the course of the day.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s not good.”
And it wasn’t.
I called him immediately. Was I familiar, he asked, with a particular article on a particular white supremacist website?
“Oh, my god,” I said, “Yes. But I didn’t write it.”
Six months earlier I’d received an email from someone asking if I was the Rosemary Pennington who wrote this same article for the site.
No, I’d replied, I am not. I went on to describe who I am and the work I do and how the group’s views and motives are antithetical to my own. I heard nothing back. I’d meant to talk to my chair about it, but the email had come at the end of a busy spring semester and, once summer began, I’d forgotten all about it.
Now, someone had found the article and was passing it around, alerting others to it. I know this, because a woman had contacted my university, wondering how a white woman could be allowed to teach students of color when she held such racist views.
First, I’m not white. I’m multiracial. My father was a person of color. The issue of passing has been one I’ve struggled with my whole life.
Second, I don’t. I’m not a white supremacist. I’ve never held white supremacist views. I’ve never worked with white supremacist organizations.
Between conversations with my chair, the university’s communication officer, and the university lawyer I was able to find a way to convince the woman I was not the author of the article.
I took a breath and hoped the whole thing would pass.
Off and on since, I’ve received emails or social media messages asking me if I was the author of this article. More recently, I received an inflammatory screed that left my face scalding, not asking if I was the author, just assuming I was.
Here’s the thing: I hate writing about this and talking about it. I don’t want any spotlight on me, but on my work. I know there are marginalized people who suffer terrible discrimination and prejudice every single day and talking about someone misusing my name seems so small in comparison to their struggles.
However, my name and the reputation that goes with it is all I have.
Before becoming an academic, I was a journalist. A job I loved, that I was good at; a job where my name became my calling card.
I’m still early in my career as an academic, but I’ve been publishing and presenting since I was a graduate student. I also served as the managing editor of a social media project – Muslim Voices – that has worked since 2008 to help increase understanding of Muslims and Islam.
My name is all I have.
After first learning this was happening I visited the white supremacist website in question and discovered that not just one, but multiple articles had been published there which used my name as a byline.
On top of that, many of these articles have some tangential connection to the work I do; so, it began to seem as though I had been specifically targeted because of who I am. The problem is that there is no link to my university website or any other type of connection to my academic identity beyond the use of my name and that topical link to the work I do.
It’s hard to sue for defamation if you can’t prove that kind of direct connection.
I’ve reached out to an organization that researches hate groups about this. The person I emailed with said they were aware of the issue, but they weren’t sure what kind of help they could really offer me. I’ve tried reaching out to the Ohio ACLU, but haven’t heard anything. I don’t expect to; or, if I do, I expect to hear more of the same – that they can’t really help because the white supremacists are just using my name, they aren’t tying anything specifically to me, to my identity.
That is, until two summers ago.
I travel frequently to Germany. I have been doing so since late in 2000. During my first trip, as a 21-year-old college student, I visited Buchenwald – a Nazi prison camp just outside Weimar.
That trip profoundly changed me.
No matter how much you’ve read, how much you think you know, nothing can prepare you for the sorrow, unease, and anger that fills you as you walk through the camp gates or as you walk along the gravel where barracks once stood.
You are surrounded by death, by the ghosts of the dead, and by the ghosts of those who did nothing.
Fifteen years later I went to another camp – this one Sachsenhausen outside Berlin – because I felt like it was my duty to see it, to witness it as it stands now.
I had a panic attack at Sachsenhausen.
Walking through the “infirmary,” I saw a wilting rose lying on a tiled table where countless horrors were committed and I began to sob and ran outside as fast as I could, overcome with sorrow and grief and the need to vomit.
I will never understand the violence hatred and bigotry can lead to. And I don’t want to.
It was shocking, you might imagine, to discover a column claiming to be written by me, a column linking back to my Miami University identity, that could be construed as – if not Holocaust denying in nature, then at the very least skeptical of the Holocaust.
This time, because they tied my real identity to the post, I had something to fight with. I emailed the university police department about it. I never heard from the police, but a search of the site now turns up nothing related to me – no biography and no Holocaust denying post.
It’s a small victory, but it’s a victory all the same.
My grandmother was a small woman. I’m not sure she stood 5 feet tall, but that might be me misremembering. She was kind and sweet and loved pink and flowers and smelled of roses.
I remember once, after telling her I’d gotten into a fight with a girl who had been picking on one of my brothers, her looking up at me and saying, “Good.”
“Good,” she said. “You can’t let bullies win.”
She then told me the story of how, when my mother was in grade school, she made her go out and fight a boy who had been picking on her because he was just going to keep doing it if my mom didn’t stand up for herself.
“That little asshole left your mother alone after that,” my grandmother cackled.
I remember this quote exactly because it was the first time I’d heard my grandmother curse. She then told me that if she ever found out I was letting someone pick on me and didn’t stand up for myself that I’d have her to reckon with.
Looking at that creampuff of a woman I realized any bully’s taunts and possible black-eyes were worth avoiding that little woman’s anger.
“You can’t let bullies win.”
The people who do this sort of thing – who steal the identities of people and trade on them as they spout their bigotry and hate speech (I’m not the only person this has happened to) – depend upon the silence of those they malign.
Who wants to kick up a fuss and bring attention to hateful writings? Who wants people, even those who know you would never in a million years think of writing such things, to see that connection between your name and everything you’ve spent your career as a journalist and now an academic fighting against?
I’ve tried to counter this by taking to social media – Twitter and Facebook – to point out I’m not the one writing these things without linking to them because that would bring more attention to them and clicks to the websites of these hatemongers.
At a panel discussion at my university about difficult topics, an attorney said of distasteful speech that the best way to counter it is “with more speech.” I’ve tried, and will continue trying, speech. I don't know what else to do. Writing, communicating, is what I'm good at. Though, I will say, it sometimes feels as though none of it matters, nothing will change.
Sometimes I just want to give up. But then I think of my grandmother, her hug and her words.
You can’t let bullies win.
My name belongs to me. My ideas belong to me. My intellectual life belongs to me. I will not let anyone take those things away from me.
One of my favorite comments I've gotten on student evaluations the last several years is something along the lines of, "Be prepared to talk about social empathy in this class - A LOT."
The class the student is referring to is the Introduction to Journalism class I teach at Miami University most semesters. And the student was right - we talk about social empathy A LOT in that class.
I have wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember wanting to be anything. For me, the power of journalism lies in its ability to help people understand the systems and infrastructures that support various types of inequality in the United States. Social empathy, defined by Elizabeth Segal as "the ability to more deeply understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities," is the concept I use to help my students consider inequality and injustice as we discuss the function of news media in American society. (We actually read the journal article I linked to.)
We also discuss social empathy because journalism ethics is one of the things I care most deeply about when it comes to the profession. For me, to be an ethical journalist, one must be willing to report on difficult subjects, such as inequality, in a deeply human way; in a way that does not stigmatize people and that actually helps your audience understand their world a bit better. Journalism ethics is a big part of every class I teach, whether it's the introductory course, a multimedia course, or one focused on "Sex and the News." When you're working in a newsroom, you might discuss ethical issues as they come up, but there's never much time for a deep reflection on what it means to do ethical work as a journalist. So, I make time in my classes to help my students think about what it means to report ethically to them.
The first ethical mandate set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, the major national journalism organization in the United States, is to "seek the truth and report it." In my classes, I always emphasize that we can't capture a capital "T" truth, but in our work we can do our best to represent truth as the people who are featured in our stories understand it. We can respect that, but our job also requires that we provide context for claims, that we analyze and interpret ideas, that we help our audience understand why some particular claims might be more trustworthy than others.
If we don't do that, and if we aren't transparent in how we do that, we aren't doing our jobs.
If all we do is regurgitate what other people say or tell us without interrogating the ideas, the histories, the contexts shaping what they say, we may as well be stenographers, not journalists. We also need to be able to call out lies when they are spoken and not use sources in our work who we know aren't honest with us.
And yet ... news outlets covering the current administration interview sources who lie all the time. Those who defend that work say they can't not cover the administration, and I'd agree, but you could do it in a different way because every time a lying source is interviewed - in a news story or during a live interview - their appearance in the news media gives them a kind of legitimacy. It also, in a way, legitimizes their claims. By allowing them to appear in reporting or on Sunday morning shows, reporters and producers suggest there's something worth engaging with in the message somewhere.
Which brings me to "the wall." In the lead up to President Trump's Oval Office address on the issue, spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed the idea that thousands of possible terrorists were caught by border police.
A lie, as FOX News's Chris Wallace seemed to point out in a recent interview with her. Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, defending Sanders, glibly claimed that "everybody makes mistakes."
Both Sanders and Conway in the past have been caught spinning other mistruths (if you're uncomfortable with the world "lies") and yet they appear time and again in news stories about the White House.
This seems like the perfect situation in which reporters could simply cover what's said in news releases sent out by the White House rather than engage with the human beings pushing the content. I realize this is easier for print or text based outlets than broadcast, but a lot about the news business is changing - maybe the way outlets, particularly broadcast or cable ones, cover DC is one of those things that should change.
Of course, there's the content of Trump's border wall address itself. Reportedly penned by Stephen Miller, Trump's über-anti-immigration advisor, it was filled with the kinds of fearmongering that has been the hallmark of anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric for centuries.
It was also filled with its fair-share of distortions of facts, mistruths, or lies. This paragraph about immigrant children coming to the United States was particularly bad.
Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States — a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.
The conjuring of "gangs" and traffickers in relation to this discussion of children is meant to remind the audience of why these people are all so scary and dangerous - it also obscures the fact the vast majority of the children who are crossing the border illegally come with their parents.
Masha Gessen visited Miami University in the fall and, during their evening talk, suggested that when officials lie it's generally because they are attempting to hide something and it is the duty of journalists to figure out what they're hiding. Trump, like Putin Gessen said, lies to lie. Conversations after the talk with Gessen revolved around the question of what to do in a situation such as this - how are journalists to "seek the truth and report it," to factcheck, when the individual they are factchecking does not care about truth or facts?
I would argue one way to handle the situation is, at the very least, to not provide primetime space for that individual - be they president or beggar - to peddle lies. Nor, should journalists or news executives attend an off-the-record lunch with this same individual.
Historically, what the president said was understood to automatically be of news value. Agenda setting research suggests the president is one of the most important agenda setters for both politicians and journalists. The particular moment we are in would suggest that maybe it's time journalists stop following the lead of those in power and, perhaps, look for other ways, better ways, to report on policy or claims.
The second ethical mandate of SPJ's Code of Ethics is to "minimize harm." I would argue providing a platform for someone in power to spread lies, hate, and bigotry is a monumental failure in that regard. It sensationalizes a story that is already fraught with tension and does little to inform the audience.
The issue of sensation is at the heart of another ethical misstep by a news outlet recently.
There are a lot of issues with the above story, but the most basic is that news outlets covering this story have run this photo a number of times. The woman is not the professor who committed suicide, but the arrangement of headline and photo makes the audience think it is. It's not truthful in this most basic presentation of the story.
The Tampa Bay Times story is about the death of a young girl, Ela, at the hands of her father, her father's then suicide, and the custody battle that preceded their deaths. The story is a complicated one about abuse and domestic violence. I'm not going to go into all the details in my post, People did a decent job of providing the basics of the story, I'm going to focus on the reporting and writing in the specific Tampa Bay Times article I linked above.
I've been a big fan of the newspaper for a while and I teach the 2016 story The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck almost every semester in one of my classes. So, I was shocked by the sensationalistic and unempathetic way they covered the murder-suicide story in followup reporting.
Things you should know: Ela's parents were divorced and shared custody, but it was rocky. Ela's father did not return his daughter to his ex-wife, Laurel Friedman, as planned in early December. Friedman tried to get a judge to force a return, the judge did not, saying the custody agreement should be adhered to. When Ela's father, Ayhan Aytes, still refused to take Ela home to her mothers', Friedman asked police to do a welfare check. It was on that check that they found both dead - Ela murdered by her father, Aytes dead by his own hand.
It is already a sensational story. One in which allegations of abuse fly - both during the marriage and since its dissolution. Aytes was from Turkey, so there was also the fear he might flee the United States with his daughter. There is no reason to make the story anymore salacious than it already is.
And ... yet ... in their followup story published after the contents of Aytes's suicide letter had been revealed, the Tampa Bay Times seemed to revel in the most lurid details of the story.
Aytes was hanging from a rafter inside the screened patio, just a few inches from the ground, a thin green rope around his neck and a plastic bag on his head, the affidavit says. He was dressed in a black suit and dress shoes. His body faced a framed photo, sitting on a table, of himself and a girl who appeared to be Ela.
When writing a story such as this, there are a lot of choices a journalist has to make, the most fundamental being how much detail should be provided in the story. Higher in the story the reporter had made clear Aytes hung himself and that Ela had been found in bed. I would argue that this level of detail is unnecessary and adds nothing to our overall understanding of the story. It does not minimize harm for Ela's family and loved ones. It does not minimize harm to Aytes's family, either. It is the journalistic equivalent of rubbernecking, of sharing not to inform, but to participate and perpetuate the spectacle of the carnage.
There is no news value in knowing Aytes used a green rope or that Ela's hands were lying palms up. We don't get a better understanding of who these people were in life, only how they appeared in death. All the intimate details of their deaths are available for all to see - which, I would argue, is unnecessary.
The reporter could have said Aytes was found hanging with a bag over his head and that Ela was found in her bed and that there were no signs of trauma to her body. That's enough. That's all anyone needs to know. That information is still painful, but it doesn't work to re-traumatize Ela or Aytes's loved ones.
What was so profound, I think, about The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck, is the way the reporter used the story of the little girl's death to explain the multitudes of systems and people who failed both father and child.
The story about Aytes's suicide letter does none of that kind of work.
Though the wall story and the murder-suicide are very different stories, what they share is a surplus of information related to them.
In the case of the wall, that surplus is often not truthful and is often framed by centuries of bigotry, fear, and hate. In the murder-suicide, that surplus is in intimate details that are not necessary in order for a reporter to tell a compelling, thoughtful, empathetic story about the death of a very young girl at the hands of her father.
The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? - David Puttnam
I've written before about how compelling I find David Puttnam's idea that journalists should practice a duty of care when reporting stories. In his discussion of the concept he points out that politics is about choices, and (as I've argued on this blog) so is journalism.
Journalists can either continue making choices informed by tradition, choices which have often served to inflame more than inform, or they can make new ones. They can decide to treat official lies as lies. They can choose to be mindful of those they may, and sometimes do, hurt. They can choose which information is most necessary and maybe that takes their reporting down a different path than they may have followed in the past, that is not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to be willing to do it (and to have an editor who will let you).
I believe deeply in journalism. Americans clearly care about it given the rise in readership post the 2016-election, but studies suggest Americans still distrust news media.
Abandoning ethics, or overlooking them, as we swim in a sea of information - including both untruthful information and sensationalistic information - is a path to perdition. More than ever our audiences, the publics we serve, need journalists to contextualize, interpret, and analyze information. If we don't do that, if we print more than we should because we think it will get page clicks or if we provide a platform for a person in power to spread lies just because we always have, we fail our audience.
The Washington Post's slogan claims "Democracy dies in darkness" - it also drowns in a sea of prurient or dishonest information.
If journalists truly want to seek the truth and minimize harm, if they want to report in a way that is ethical, that holds the powerful accountable for their actions, exposes inequality and injustice, and helps their communities better understand their world, then they simply have to make different reporting choices. Maybe harder or braver ones, too.
Do they want to inflame or inform? If inform, then tradition may not be the best agenda setter.
Calling Things What They Are
"Politics," British filmmaker David Puttnam said in a 2013 Ted Talk, "is about choices."
Puttnam's talk was about whether journalists have a "duty of care" to their public and to their society. Duty of care is the idea that an individual, in the course of his or her work, took reasonable care to ensure that work would not cause unreasonable harm to another individual. It's a legal/medical term and Puttnam was suggesting that journalists, like doctors or businesses, have a duty of care.
I often use Puttnam's talk in my journalism classes during ethics discussions. The mandate to "minimize harm" in the SPJ Code of Ethics and the concept of duty of care seem to go together well. And I like framing ethical decisions as a form of care -- care for sources, care for community, and care for profession. Because, like politics, journalism is also about choices. Every decision made in regards to a story shapes the way it is understood. Shapes, too, the impact that story may have on the community which reads it.
I have been thinking a lot about this in regards to the coverage of Unite the Right 2. NPR's interview with Jason Kessler has produced an interesting debate over whether or not he should have been given a platform to spew his particular brand of bigotry. I am swayed by arguments both for and against the interview's airing. There's a utility in understanding the rhetoric of hate groups if you hope to counter them but, at the same time, Kessler's rhetoric is not new and, if not new, not newsworthy.
But what's really bothering me about the reporting in the lead up to Unite the Right 2 is the euphemistic way news outlets write about white supremacist beliefs. Or white supremacists. It's not specifically tied to the rally, but this New York Times story about a white supremacist living in Ohio drew particular ire from readers.
If you're been on Twitter at all, then you've seen the thing that has bothered me most this last week -- the way the death of Heather Heyer has been framed. Heyer was the woman murdered by a white supremacist who drove into a crowd of counter-protesters last year.
Some social media posts and headlines have used the word "murdered" or "killed" when writing about the anniversary of Unite the Right and Heyer's death; however, there have been too many which have produced posts or headlines which mask the truth of what happened. NPR is among those facing criticism for this tweet.
The wording "a car rammed..." is what has upset some people because it's only partially true. It erases the fact that the car was purposefully driven into the crowd by a man fueled by hate.
"A car driven by a white supremacist" or "A white supremacist drove a car into a crowd" or "One year ago Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville" would have all been better, more truthful choices. Choices that remind the audience that someone chose to do this, it was not some random accident. You don't drive a car into a crowd of people without the intent to kill and/or injure. Heather Heyer was murdered by an act of hate. 19 others were injured in that act of hate.
It was an act of domestic terrorism though it is rarely framed in reporting as such.
Scholar Robert Entman wrote that to frame something is to "to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition.”
To frame something is to make a particular interpretation more accessible or visible than another.
The way reporters and news outlets frame stories shapes how we understand what happened. Framing stories about United the Right in a way that minimizes the racial violence and the intent of some to do harm takes the teeth out of the truth. Framing Heather Heyer's death in a way that makes it seem less like the intentional act of an individual -- that makes it seem less like murder -- is not a truthful retelling of the story.
Her mother, Susan Bro, has said that she is keeping the location of her daughter's remains a secret to keep neo-Nazis from disturbing them. Heyer's death was an act of hate and the reporting on it and on its aftermath should not, must not, shy away from that reality.
If the most important job of journalists is to "seek the truth and report it," then to do anything less is a dereliction of duty. To frame something in a way that obscures what happened is a failure of the journalist's duty of care.
Sometimes, such framings are not the result of a purposeful intent to obscure -- sometimes they are made out of concern for space or how something will read on the page. I acknowledge that. But I would argue that even then, it is not unreasonable that journalists ask themselves if the way they are framing the story is really an honest depiction of what took place. If something was a murder, call it a murder. If someone was convicted of rape, call him a rapist.
Journalists can't be afraid to use the most honest, direct, truthful language in their reporting.
In this case, a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer with his car. That's the story.
Journalists have to call things what they are if they truly care about their role as watchdogs in a society and if they truly care about the communities they are reporting on.
Are we human or are we academic?*
I was 27 when I re-entered academia. I left a career I loved as a broadcast journalist (public broadcasting, folks) to attempt a career I'd dreamt of since my first college class -- that of professor.
And, here I write, a little more than 10 years later, in Sweden doing some preliminary work on a possible future project after presenting research in Finland. I had a moment, a few days ago, where I was like, "What the hell am I doing here?"
It wasn't so much imposter syndrome -- I know how hard I worked, and continue to work, to be where I am -- but it was simply the absurdity of where I am in life.
My father was a person of color who didn't finish high school. Though accepted into college, my mother never realized her dream of going. Both of my parents pushed me to embrace my intellect, to read as much as I wanted, to be curious, and to be unafraid to go where my brain took me. They supported me as I left for Ohio University in 2001 and happily rushed emergency funds and supplies to me when I called home crying, not even a week (I think) into that first quarter.
I am now a tenure track assistant professor at a school that I knew I wanted to work at as soon as my interview was over. I have survived my first two years, getting some publications out, presenting my research, networking. Figuring out who I am as a teacher and as a mentor. Doing everything I should be doing.
And yet, there was a moment standing in that Stockholm square, where I felt so alone and lost.
Graduate study, good graduate study, teaches you how to manage research and teaching with as much grace as you can muster. What it does a less great job of doing is helping you figure out how to manage that on top of everything else.
For instance, how to navigate the minefield of your child's early teen years.
Or the death of your beloved father.
Grieving & Grades
My father had been ill for years. In fact, his first major health crisis erupted as I was in the midst of my first year as a master's student.
It threw me into a tailspin. I had given up a job I loved to pursue my dream of a PhD and here was my dad, virtually a cripple, and I had to decide whether to continue on. I did, but it wasn't easy. I carried a lot of worry on my shoulders. My father and I had always been close; to see him suddenly so ill, so not himself, was really difficult.
What we worried was an acute illness was actually chronic and he and my mother learned to manage it until the last few years when he seemed to be in a slow decline he was having difficulty pulling out of.
In February, not long after my spring semester started, I got a call from my mother saying my dad was in the hospital and so I rushed down to my parents' home and spent about five days with my mom. Every day we'd pack up and go to the hospital and sit with my father. The first day I walked in, Dad didn't know who I was, but the day before I left we got to take him home. He seemed better. I think there was a sense of relief that he'd made it through this crisis and hope that, with the new medications he'd been prescribed, he'd be on the mend and back to himself.
About two months later I sat in my office, beginning a day of one-on-one meetings with students immersed in work on final projects, when I got a phone call from my mother. I thought, perhaps, Dad had been ordered back to the hospital.
I was wrong and my world hasn't been the same since.
I was gone for almost a week this time, home with my mother as she took care of arrangements, spending time with my brothers and mother as we all sat with our loss; sat with the new emptiness we found in our lives.
I finished out the semester. I got my students through their final papers and final stories. I got their grades turned in and then I left for Finland.
I survived, somehow, what was my most difficult semester as an academic.
"I grow old ... I grow old ..."
The thing about death is that no one knows what to say to you. There are awkward questions. There is your attempt to engage, to be honest, but not too honest. Your failure at this.
I'm lucky. As soon as they heard the news my colleagues contacted me, asking how they could help, what they could do.
Nothing, was my response.
Because there was nothing. No one can do anything to take away the sorrow, the pain, the anger, even, I feel. In regards to my classes -- my students' final projects were all personal things they'd been working on, that I'd been coaching them through; there was no way anyone else could slip in and get them through to the end. So, keeping in mind my dad's adage that "someone else always has it worse," I got us through to the end.
And then I curled up in my bed, listening to the birds chirping in the woods behind my house, and sobbed. And then I sobbed talking to my husband. And then I sobbed in the shower. I sobbed after talking to my mother on the telephone. I sobbed after my daughter left with friends to go do something. I sobbed in an airport bookstore after picking up what seemed like an innocuous title that, when I read the back cover, was about the death of a parent.
I have sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed.
I sobbed on the morning of what would have been my father's 71st birthday just a few days ago. I stood alone on the back of the huge ferry that had taken me across the Baltic Sea from Finland to Sweden and watched the sunrise and sobbed as I remembered I wouldn't be able to tell my dad (who served in the Navy and loved nothing more than to be on the water) how beautiful it had been, how quiet, to be at sea as the sun was waking up.
My father's favorite poet was T.S. Eliot. Something we shared. He had a bad habit of stealing any copy of Eliot I'd come home with from college. When I finally took back my copy of the book that contained both The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I opened the little volume to find it filled with my father's marginalia and underlinings. Aggravating upon first discovery, I find it comforting now, to have that book filled with his thoughts about something we both loved.
The lines, "I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," from Prufrock have always reminded me of Dad for some reason. It might have been his obsession with discussing what kind of old man he'd be and the fact that, for most of my life, my dad wore painter's bibs. I have the memory of watching him roll them up, which I'm not even sure is real, but I think the things together, and his obsession with water, might explain the reason those lines stick with me.
I can hear him reciting them to me over the telephone, while making one of his huge Sunday morning breakfasts, as a reminder to me that he, and I, were aging.
I feel, therefore I teach
I teach because I believe in the power of learning and of education. I embrace barbaric yawps (I know there's some academic out there who is going to tell me how terrible Dead Poet's Society is; I don't care, both Dad and I loved it). I embrace feeling and emotion.
I am not a distant academic. Who I am walks with me into the classroom. I probably curse too much. (My dad was a sailor, I come by it honestly.) I talk about my kid, my cats, about pop culture things I love, why I think journalism is amazing, and my deep, and abiding, love of tacos and corgis.
I don't give tests, generally. I make my students read and write and talk. The talking sometimes they resist, which is fine, I did too when I was in undergrad (and sometimes even when I was in graduate school). But I want them engage with what we are learning -- and what we are learning is not always to be found in the readings they've been assigned for that day.
I end almost every semester with presentations. The final day, I try to carve out about fifteen minutes for myself. I show them a short animation of part of David Foster Wallace's This Is Water and then go into some soppy spiel about how education is about more than grades and memorization; it's also, and I would argue most importantly, about giving you the material to decide who you want to be in the world.
Your grades matter now, I tell them, but what matters when you leave here are the choices you make about how you treat people.
This last day happens after I've gotten them to complete student evaluations. I do not want to make some sappy speech about the importance of living a full life before I ask them to grade me as a teacher.
This was especially important for me this semester because I decided to tell them about the death of my father. He'd been gone only two weeks at the time and, while I managed to make it through my morning class without tears, when I was talking to my freshman later that afternoon I could feel the tears welling up.
"I don't want this to be maudlin," I told them. "My father always said, 'There are assholes everywhere, all you can control is whether you're going to be an asshole, too' and if you take anything from this class, I hope it's that salty seaman's mantra."
I teach because I believe in what I do. I believe in curiosity and kindness; empathy and intellect.
I stress to my students to not get so caught up in what's coming tomorrow, of whether they should study abroad or do that internship or take that class three years from now, that they lose sight of the beauty of the moment they are living in.
I believe assholes are everywhere and my choice is to not be one and so I share and I'm open, even when I'm tired and sad and angry and want nothing more than to sobsobsob my guts out listening to Leonard Cohen.
Graduate school prepared me to handle rejection and research; it did not teach me how to navigate that while dealing with the emotional tsunami that comes with being a middle aged adult with aging parents and a sassy-mouthed child.
I choose to be both human and academic, I just wish there was a Google Maps for how to do this.
*My apologies to The Killers.
(FTR: There is no one way to be an academic or a teacher. This is who I am. There are countless, valid, ways to be in the world. This is the way I've chosen.)
Of Ethics & Empathy
As I write this, Cleveland police are searching for a man who used Facebook's video feature to broadcast his murder of 74-year old Robert Godwin Sr. In the video the suspect talks about how he's always seen as a bad guy and so he's going to kill some people to prove how bad he is -- he also claims to have killed people before the death of Godwin.
I know about this story because NBC Nightly News came on after I checked the local weather and their top story was about the shooting. It showed a large chunk of the video leading up to the murder of Godwin, freezing the moment the murder suspect raises his gun on Godwin and then cutting to an image of Godwin on the ground.
It made me sick.
British filmmaker David Puttnam gave a TED Talk several years ago I use in my Introduction to Journalism classes to begin our conversation around ethics and a journalist's duty to serve their community. In it, Puttnam argues that, when covering political stories, journalists have a duty to inform their audience, not inflame it. They should not sensationalize stories.
Though it is a story about a crime and not politics, the use of the Cleveland murder suspect's execution video is the worst type of inflammatory reporting.
[Update Monday morning: A number of non-broadcast news outlets are also sharing the video, including the Washington Post, this morning. The suspect remains on the loose. Several news outlets have reported that he claimed to have killed as many as 14 or 15 people on Easter, but only evidence of one murder has been found.]
There is nothing news worthy in seeing the gun drawn nor in seeing Godwin's body on the ground. And, yet, that's what was shown on a number of television news broadcasts -- the moment just before Godwin's murder frozen over and over and over again.
He raises his arms to shield himself and you feel his terror and it is the most cruel and callous violation of a man's final moments.
Among the mandates set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, is the idea of minimizing harm.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Showing the moments before Godwin's death shows no respect to him or to his family.
Showing his interaction on the video with his murderer shows no respect to the man nor the life he lived.
It does little but shock the viewer.
In Puttnam's terms: The video inflames, it does not inform.
Here's how this video might have been used:
And that's it. You set the stage for what happened and then you tell your viewer it happened. There is no need to show that final interaction nor Godwin's body moments later. There is no way to ethically, compassionately, or empathetically cut that video so that seeing Godwin's body does anything but shock; anything but sensationalize.
Just because the video exists does not mean you must show it to your audience.
This is not a new argument, of course; debates have raged for decades over when, how, and where to show images of death. I generally tend to lean in the direction of showing, not telling.
Human beings generally process visual information more quickly than other kinds. Photographs and videography are powerful storytelling tools. They have the ability to create intimate moments that build empathy and compassion and help an individual emotionally connect with a story.
But not everything captured should be shared.
Here's the question I tell my students to think about when they are considering what multimedia elements will go into their reporting: What work is the element doing for your story? What is it helping your audience understand?
If you can't answer that question, then it's unnecessary.
The image of Robert Godwin Sr. throwing his arms up, a shopping bag in one hand, communicates terror. But it is not necessary to make the audience feel a connection to the victim; it is, frankly, a cheap visceral moment. One that, to me, feels like a violation of a man's last moments on this earth.
A friend of mine, a colleague from my graduate program, posted on Facebook asking individuals to stop sharing the video of Godwin's death because "You are helping achieve the very thing he [the suspected murderer] was hoping for" -- exposure.
SPJ suggests that journalists should "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
I would argue that social media has made it far too easy for journalists to overlook that suggestion. Whether it is the personal photographs of a student who died of alcohol poisoning, Facebook posts by suspected criminals, or live videos of criminal acts as they happen -- journalists far too often given in to lurid curiosity. They scoop up what they find, sometimes contacting loved ones in Facebook or Twitter as their grief is warm in order to get a photograph or a quote; sometimes scooping up videos or photos a user thought were private and making them public in the name of little more than getting some detail another news outlet did not.
A man is dead. Murdered as he walked down the street on a warm April day in Cleveland. He had a life. He had a story. Robert Godwin Sr. deserves more than to have his murdered body broadcast across the world as his family, his friends, and his community grieve.
Americans' opinions of journalism are incredibly negative. Americans don't trust journalists for a lot of different reasons. I would argue that sensationalizing the murder of an innocent man and giving exposure to a possible mass murderer who, on the video, seems to say that he's doing this to get attention is a failure of journalism's duty of care to the public it serves.
Towards the end of his TED Talk, Puttnam says, "The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? Because in the end, it comes down to a combination of trust and leadership."
Why should we expect Americans to trust news media when we can't be trusted to pay attention to our own ethical guidelines?
Of Empathy & Public Media
I cry on airplanes. I've done it ever since I started flying. I throw on headphones, click play on music -- anything from Ryan Adams to Neutral Milk Hotel to Patty Griffin -- and I think and I cry; sometimes, I weep.
I have always been someone who manages her emotions. I don't bottle them up so much as I quarantine them until I can deal with them later. Unfortunately for the people sitting near me when I fly, I often deal with them on planes.
There's something about being trapped on this tin can in the sky surrounded by strangers -- you feel both so isolated and so surrounded. No one knows you. No one will judge you for crying into your ginger ale and Biscoff cookies.
Or, if they do, it doesn't matter because you'll likely never see them again.
I sat between two men when I flew home from Boston yesterday who were very uncomfortable with my tears. But, this time, I wasn't crying for myself or because Jeff Mangum was singing about a two-headed boy -- this time I was crying over the life of a man I'd never met.
The man in question is John B. McLemore and he lived in a small Alabama town he referred to as "Shit Town." An Alabama town I have been to as it's not far from Birmingham where I worked for four years as a host/producer for WBHM FM.
John's story was told in seven parts in a podcast called S*Town that you've likely heard of if you are at all internet savvy.
I was hesitant to listen to the podcast at first. I grew up in Appalachia and I lived in Alabama and I am all too familiar with the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about those places in media. The fact S*Town was produced by Serial and This American Life gave me so hope, but I was still wary after listening to the first chapter.
After the second chapter, however, any wariness was gone and I couldn't stop listening.
I'm not going to give you an overview of the podcast because you really should listen to it. I will say that I haven't come across anything so deeply felt in media in a long time. The reporter begins work on the project thinking it's one thing and then the story changes in a profound way. Each time you think you know what the story is about, who John is, something shifts.
There are questions being raised by some about the ethics of the project and, while I understand where they come from, it's clear the reporter approached the story from a place of deep care and concern.
Empathy & Emotion
In the introduction to journalism class I am teaching this semester, my students and I are currently waist deep in a discussion of empathy and emotion. Last week we read and discussed one of my favorite pieces of recent journalism -- The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck -- and explored the ways emotion is used in the piece to make us feel a connection to the people in the story ... including the individual who would be the villain in a less skillfully reported piece.
In S*Town, Brian Reed and his producers manage emotion in a way that feels genuine and human. We care for the people who are in John's life and, as with the Phoebe story, people who seem like villains seem less so when given the space to speak; when treated with care and with respect.
That was the draw, for me, to public broadcasting. I grew up listening to it and, when I was in college and realized it was something I could actually try to get a job in, I ran toward the industry as fast as I could.
The beauty of public media -- particularly programs like This American Life or Radiolab -- is that they provide space for stories to breathe. There's not a feeling of rushing to get to the next story or to get to the point the reporter is trying to make -- instead, the stories most often are meditations on life and relationships. They make us feel, deeply.
What more can you want as a reporter or writer?
That's part of the reason I have been so angry about the proposed federal cuts to Corporation of Public Broadcasting spending. The CPB provides funding to public radio's member stations. It's never a huge amount, but it's significant.
While working at WBHM I was able to report on stories about mental health, addiction, the AIDS epidemic, and homelessness -- all in a way that, I hope, helped the listener see, understand, and empathize with the subject of my story.
Empathy, being able to understand the feelings of another human being, fuels connection. Connection is what we should strive for in all we do. Connection helps us, personally, feel less alone; connection, too, can help us approach difference in more thoughtful way.
To empathize with someone is not to agree with the choices they make, or to even like them; it simply provides a way to understand another person.
In my class last week, I took my students through an exercise where they stare into a partner's eyes and imagine their whole life cycle -- from birth to death to birth again. When I asked the students how they felt, they often pointed to a feeling of vulnerability and discomfort.
"Good journalists," I told them, "are striving for something like that in their stories. Obviously, it can't be as profound as what you felt, but if we can't find a way to make our audiences sometimes feel vulnerable or, at times, uncomfortable, and then leverage that into understanding for someone else, then we aren't really doing our jobs."
Public media does that.
Public media provide spaces for empathy and understanding; vulnerability and discomfort. Programs like This American Life, Frontline, and now S*Town open up the world to the audience, open up ways of being in the world, and ask you to sit there in your vulnerability and discomfort.
Ask you to sit and be and feel.
As I listened to S*Town, there were moments when I cringed. Moments when no one seemed sympathetic and moments where everyone seemed sympathetic. There were moments when I recognized people I knew, people I loved; moments, even, where I recognized something of myself.
That ability to produce empathy, to make an audience feel deeply for a story and its subjects and to connect to them, that's the power of public media.
That's the power of S*Town.
It's something we should celebrate and support; not something we should be defunding.
Reconsidering Productivity in 2017
I have not stopped to breathe since starting graduate school in the Fall of 2007. Productivity has been my name, with each year more productive than the one before.
This year I've taught two new preps, I've prepared an edited volume for publication, worked to pull another edited volume together, and begun building the scaffolding of a solo authored book. I've written and revised journal articles and reviewed others for publication and conference presentation. The syllabi for the classes I teach have been finished long before they need to be and I've wrapped up grading before some of my friends and colleagues have final projects in.
I have been busy. I have been productive. And while I am starting to feel the edges of burn out creeping in, I still wonder if I am being productive enough.
Graduate school trains you to always be working. In class you are working to make sure your professor knows who you are and that you have mastered the material. You work at home pulling together research papers. You also work on collaborative projects or, if you are a TA, on grading. Graduate school trains you to feel like you are always behind. You are the cyclist in the Tour de France who can see the peloton, but who is not part of it.
You are productive and sweaty from the stress of it.
The hoped for result of all this sweat and stress, of course, is gainful, fulltime tenure track employment at an institution of higher education.
A result I realized beginning Fall of 2015.
My first year and a half has flown by as I worked to find my place at the university -- both physical and otherwise. I've taken on service commitments that are deeply meaningful, taught classes which stretched my students and myself, and worked on research that is important to me.
Although I have plants growing in my office (I hope they are still growing; I haven't checked on them in a week), I haven't taken the time to stop and smell them. I barely remember to water them sometimes.
I like feeling productive but, at the same time, I think I need to slow down some. I need to be unafraid of letting the peloton get a bit farther ahead of me so I can catch my breathe.
My dear friend, and sometime research collaborator, Jessica Birthisel (who is on the tenure track at Bridgewater State University) published this blog post about her resolve moving into 2017. As always with her writing, it is thoughtful and thought provoking.
It provoked in me a consideration of how I want to approach 2017 as an academic. Which brought me back to my own blog and this post which I started writing in August but abandoned because I got too busy. While I certainly have a host of things I plan on working on in my personal life in the coming year, here is my plan for reconsidering productivity in 2017.
1. Be more mindful about what I say "Yes" to.
I don't think anything I'm suggesting for the new year is groundbreaking, but for me it's all going to take such a conscious effort. I don't stop. Really ever. I like the buzz I get when I am busy, when I'm being productive.
I really enjoy working.
But I like living as well.
I don't imagine my level of productivity will be all that different if I can do at least some of these things, but I do hope that fear I have of never catching up, of falling forever behind, will ease up a bit.
Now if you'll excuse me, it's still 2016, and I have several things to check off my to-do list before the new year rolls around and I actually have to try to embrace this.
'Names have power.'*
As a child, I hated my name. It felt too big, too old, too heavy. In a sea of Jessicas and Kellys and Lindseys, I was the lone Rosemary. Then I grew up and worked in public radio and the name 'Rosemary Pennington' was a very nice public radio moniker. 'For WBHM, I'm Rosemary Pennington' sounded nice rolling off my tongue. I'd practice saying, 'For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Pennington' so that it would feel natural when I finally got to say it for real. (Once. Only once.)
It's not a terrible academic name, either. A bit old-fashioned, but the weight I hated as a child seems appropriate to me now as I teach and research and chase tenure. My name is mine. Even if its Victorian sound obscures my multiracial background.
What I'm trying to say is that my name sounds as though it belongs to a white woman -- maybe some nice old grandma crocheting blankets or a British school teacher sighing over a cup of tea after a long day herding children (which is like herding cats). It does not sound like the name of a woman who grew up in Appalachian Ohio to a dark skinned dad and a white mother.
Maybe that's why white supremacists have been using it on a website.
I know. I buried the lede. But I have said 'I am not a white supremacist and I have not written for a white supremacist outlet' so many times in the last few months that I decided to change things up a bit.
As my name once did, this situation weighs heavy on me.
Not only am I a multiracial woman who has struggled with that identity because her name obscures her background as does her light skin, I am a scholar who researches minorities in media with the express purpose of countering stereotype and prejudice.
That is who I am. That is what my name means to me.
I am not linking to the website where my name shows up, but I will tell you that the writer has published articles claiming 'blacks aren't human,' an article on German men not wanting to have children (and why this is a terrible thing for the 'European races'), and an article stating that white Brits refuse to 'mix' with (as in have children with) other races.
First, I have traveled a lot to Germany and have conducted research on German media representations of minorities. Second, I have also traveled to the UK and done research on British media. So, the fact my name has been applied to those two articles does not seem to be coincidental.
Third? This is all terrible. Which seems obvious, but bears repeating.
It's terrible. And, again, the author of the articles or anything else appearing on that particular site or in any other white supremacist media is not me. It is someone who is using my name.
I have worked my guts out since I was 13, working four jobs at one point in undergrad, to get to where I am today. I sacrificed years of my life to get a PhD and am living my dream of teaching journalism to college students. I have managed a successful multimedia project, the Twitter account of which has more than 100-thousand followers, and I have published journal articles and edited a book.
My name means something as a journalist and as an academic. My reputation is built upon it. I kept my maiden name when I married because -- yeah, feminism! -- but also because I was already 'Rosemary Pennington, Journalist' when I met my partner. To have racists using it to publish hate speech and bigotry fills me with anger, frustration, and nausea. (There is nothing like getting an email or a tweet asking if you are the author of hate speech to make you immediately want to vomit your guts out.)
The stealing of identities by white supremacists is not new, apparently. In trying to figure out how widespread this is, I found this article from the Guardian in which a man discusses how white supremacists stole his identity to get a rabidly anti-Palestine piece published in the Times of Israel. On the site that's been using my name, I've also seen the name of another scholar from my PhD institution who is certainly not a white supremacist. So, this is happening. How to stop it becomes the issue.
The emails and the tweets I've gotten about this are not from white supremacists. Frankly, I don't know how people are coming across these writings, but they are.
I do not want my name associated with this bigotry and hate speech. I'm looking into how to move forward; trying to figure out what I can do about this situation.
But, for now, I just need you to know this is happening. And I need you to understand that I am not a white supremacist nor have I ever written for, nor will I ever write for, a white supremacist publication of any kind.
*Quote from (and theme of) Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief.
We see their faces, caked in blood and dust and history. We see their bodies lying on sandy beaches, waves seeming to peacefully lap at the shore. We see their bodies carried from bombed out buildings. We see them clutching tattered blankets or stuffed animals as they cry for their mothers or fathers.
We see them, over and over again, and we say, 'How terrible' or 'How awful' or 'That poor child.'
How can you not see those tiny, vulnerable bodies hurt or dead and not feel a deep sorrow and anger?
The problem lies in what we do with that sorrow or anger. It's often nothing.
Research has long shown that media cannot make you do anything. It can influence attitudes and opinions, but it's not going to make you eat healthy or get more sleep or donate money to a charity that will help children like those we see on the news.
The most many do is change a social media avatar or claim to be praying for the country the child came from. Both things are forms of communication that are important, but they're never enough and they will never be enough. Sure, they help raise awareness, but aren't most of us aware of the tragedies unfolding before our eyes?
Scholar Birgitta Höijer has written about how this type of mediated witnessing helps produce two things -- global compassion and indifference. She notes that 'in international politics as well as in the media, many victims never qualify as worthy victims.' Children, women, and the elderly are often framed as 'worthy victims' -- victims who are worthy of our sorrow. Worthy of our compassion.
Höijer also points out the compassion we feel toward victims such as Aylan Kurdi, the young refugee child whose body was photographed on a beach last year, and for Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy who was pictured covered in grime in an ambulance, is often dependent upon those visual representations.
This is spurred, in part, by what Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites suggested is a desire of the audience to 'see themselves' in images. That's why the concept of the worthy, or ideal, victim can be so important -- we were all once children, or have children; we all have elderly people in our lives we love. Ideal victims can form a bridge between the near and the far. Barbie Zelizer as well as Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski have suggested this bridging helps us feel closer to victims. Helps us feel, too, as though we better understand the violence which causes such suffering.
That bridging, though important, still does not resolve the lack of action such images produce. (Although it's being reported that the image of Omran Daqneesh has so disturbed Russia that the nation is looking to broker a 48-hour ceasefire in Syria.) What are we, collectively, to do with all this suffering? All this sorrow? Particularly as it pertains to victims who are physically so far away from us?
Every time I see a photo of a new Aylan or a new Omran I feel a deep nausea. It is fueled partly by the sorrow I feel at the sight of such suffering, but also by the knowledge that, so far, such suffering has meant little.
Aylan Kurdi's death seemed to open up the doors of Europe to refugees fleeing violence in MENA, but how quickly his death was forgotten as a journalist kicked a refugee and as refugee shelters were set on fire. Now, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are once again framing refugees as, at times, less than human and certainly as not deserving of our compassion.
The image of 5-year-old Omran sitting caked in dirt and dust is not something I'll soon forget. He, like Aylan, are our Ghosts of Conflicts Present -- carrying condemnation and judgement in their little bodies.
How many more? How many more until we go completely numb and the action we choose is to simply avert our eyes and refuse to see?
That's my fear. That our compassion will turn into indifference.
In February there were reports that casualties in the Syrian Civil War, the conflict which produced both Aylan and Omran, had reached 470,000. So many of them children. So many of them unseen.
How many more?
I feel anger over the sight of little Omran sitting alone in the back of an ambulance. But I feel anger, as well, over the fact that his suffering, and the suffering of so many others, has meant so little.
Elie Wiesel famously said, 'The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.'
Birgitta Höijer suggested the opposite of global compassion is also indifference.
I often find myself paralyzed as I try to figure out how to leverage the one in order to avoid the other.
And, then, what next? How many more victims, how many more Aylans or Omrans before we finally turn our compassion into action? How many more before someone who changes an avatar decides to give to a relief organization? How many more before someone using a hashtag decides to vote? How many more before our collective paralysis is finally overcome?
My fear is that it will be far, far too many.
Each time I see another image, another photo of a dead or suffering child, I think of the painting 'Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind.' I ask myself if tiny Aylan Kurdi's body didn't shame us, if Omran Daqneesh's vacant dust covered stare doesn't shame us into not just feeling but finally doing something with our compassion and with our empathy, then what will?