White Privilege And The 'Gay Girl In Damascus'
NEAL CONAN, Host:
The Arab Spring is a story of the courage of crowds, but also of compelling individuals, catalysts of change - most famously, Tarek Bouazizi in Tunisia who set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his unlicensed fruit and vegetable stand.
BBC: the arrest of a young half-American, half-Syrian woman who attracted a fervent following for a blog titled "Gay Girl in Damascus." Syrian activists came out of hiding to look for her. The BBC and the Associated Press, among others, covered the story, except it was a lie. The author proved to be Tom MacMaster, an American man studying in Scotland. Then Paula Brooks, who republished Amina Arraf's posts on her lesbian news site, also turned out to be a fake - this time, a man named Bill Graber. Both apologized and said they meant no harm.
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On Monday, Brian Spears, poetry editor and Saturday editor of therumpus.net wrote a note to his fellow white males who might be tempted to channel the voice of an half-Arab lesbian: Don't do it. Brian Spears joins us now from his home in Fort Lauderdale, and nice to have you with us today.
BRIAN SPEARS: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
CONAN: And you wrote the fact that you'll get caught is beside the point. You'll get caught, believe me, but that's not the big reason you shouldn't do it. So what's the big reason you shouldn't do it?
SPEARS: Well, the big reason I think you shouldn't do it, especially in this kind of case, is because you're taking on the voice of somebody whose voice is usually marginalized anyway. As a white male - and, I mean, I'm certainly one of those myself - I have an incredible amount of privilege. It's not difficult, if you look at any sort of media group, to find white males being cast as experts in almost any and every situation. People who are minorities - women, the lesbian and gay community, people who are not white - often find themselves having a hard time getting their voices heard. When a white male takes that over, it's just sort of taking over the - or recapitulating the colonization problem from the last several hundred years.
CONAN: Clearly, there was dishonestly involved, but both these writers said they meant no harm. Bill Graber, who ran the Lez Get Real website, said, well nobody would take me seriously if I was a white man.
SPEARS: But I find that a little - well, it's a little arrogant, actually. Of course people take you seriously if you're a white man. We see it every single day. I mean, you can watch any news - you know, any news show on TV. You can listen on the radio.
For - just for - for instance, here I am. I'm a white man who's sort of being looked at as an expert in this situation. I'm not. That sort of irony is not being really lost on me here, especially given the large number of lesbians and gays, especially in the online community, who speak for themselves and do so very eloquently. I mean, there's no reason that I as a straight man - straight white man - can't be involved in that conversation. I have been online for a number of years, involved in conversations with those people. And they have taken my arguments seriously when they needed to be seriously taken and have dismissed them as foolish when they needed to be.
CONAN: The first man, the one who impersonated the Gay Girl in Damascus, said, I invented her. First, she was just a name, Amina Arraf. She commented on blogs and talkbacks on news sites. Eventually, I set up an email for her. She joined the same list I was already on and posted responses in her name. Almost immediately, friendly and solicitous comments appeared. It was intriguing. That likely would have been the end of it. I just keep her as a nearly anonymous handle for commenting on issues that mattered to me. But Amina came alive. I could hear her voice, and that voice and personality were clear and strong.
And it's interesting some people said the reason it became important that - Amina's life - was because she did have a strong voice, a clear voice. People came to care about her.
Yeah. I can understand that. I mean, I'm a writer myself, although I write poetry. And you can be wrapped up in the idea, especially if you've been, say, struggling with your work a little bit and then you have some success. It can be easy to be kind of carried away with this. You start getting some validations and good responses some people that you've haven't gotten before, and you take it and run with that. And in the world of creative work, especially in fiction and in poetry, creating these voices is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a long tradition of doing these things.
SPEARS: The problem comes in when you're casting yourself as a real person. And there's, again, like I said, a little arrogance to that, the idea that you can tell these people's stories better than they can themselves. Yes, it means a lot to you, but there are people out there that can tell their own stories. And it's very arrogant to suggest that because of who you are, like, your position on this should be taken more seriously than theirs.
CONAN: And we'd like to hear from those of you who may have adopted identities on the Web that may not have been your own and ask if there were consequences. And in this case, particularly in the first case, there were consequences. Real people based some actions on what they thought was the situation of an entirely fictional person.
SPEARS: Yes. There was a piece in the Guardian this morning by Daniel Nassar called "The Real World of Gay Girls in Damascus," where he outlined some of the very real dangers that the lesbian community in Damascus faces. One part in particular involved a blog post that suggested that Amina's father had stopped the secret police from taking her in for questioning, and that's something that Nassar says just doesn't happen. If anything, he says, the fictional speech of the father might have ended in the disappearance of both him and his daughter.
If you're just making stuff up and you're from - you're not even there on the ground, you're potentially putting people who were there and having to deal with the day-to-day problems in actual danger. And I think, of all of the things that have happened in this situation, that's the most indefensible.
CONAN: You raised an interesting word, fiction. This is fiction and the first writer said, in fact, he started this as a creative writing project at least in part but posing as real. Bloggers are not held necessarily to the same standards as journalists, but should they be?
SPEARS: I think it depends because that is a very common comment that - that some of the comments that I received in response to my work is that this was a blog and you shouldn't take it seriously. But there is some real journalism going on in the blogging world. And if you put yourself out there as a writer, you put yourself out there and you make claims of truth and you are convincing, then you, I think, have a responsibility to your audience, to let them know upfront whether or not this is fiction or whether or not - or this is nonfiction.
And you might notice I'm staying away from the word truth here because truth is something that's a little bit more - it's a little more shaky. You find truth in fiction. We find truth in poetry. But when you're claiming to write something that is nonfiction, you're making a claim about fact. And your readers have a right then to - if you're claiming that you're a nonfiction writer, your readers have I think a right to accept that what you are saying is fact, and they have a right to feel betrayed if it turns out that you're not.
CONAN: We were trying to draw analogies between people who might - their muscles might ripple in their avatar in second life or they may take on a separate identity in chat rooms and play around with that. Is the better analogy, though, somebody like James Frey, who made up a memoir in "A Million Little Pieces?"
SPEARS: He's a good - I would say he's a good analog, except with James Frey's example, he only had himself at stake. So he was making up stories about himself. When it turned out that those stories were exaggerated, he ends up paying the price for it. In this case, I think a better example, actually, is the story of Margaret Jones Seltzer, who was the - the memoirs who had claimed to be half Native American, who had been - who had grown up in a black household in South Central, Los Angeles, been raised with gangbangers, and then it turned out that she was a middle-class white writer and made all of this stuff up.
She had appropriated a name and a position that was not her own and then had made up stories in order to make that - in order to make herself look better, I would say, or to get some sort of acceptance.
CONAN: And does it come down to vanity, people who were just trying to get attention?
SPEARS: Sometimes, and I don't want to cast a blanket condemnation here. It can kind of get out of hand sometimes. There are many cases where somebody starts off with a good intent and then it just ends up going bad, and then there are those who are just looking to get famous, so yes and no. I don't really have a solid answer for that one.
CONAN: It's interesting. The instance that prompted a lot of investigation of Amina Arraf, "Gay Girl in Damascus," was her now fictional arrest, that people really got worried about her. In fact, the writer was saying this was a way - he'd gotten as far as he could. He couldn't figure a way out so he had to get rid of her some way, the equivalent of saying, and then she got run over by a bus.
SPEARS: Yeah. And that often happens if you're writing a novel or you're writing a series of short stories or something like that. Then that's a way to sort of get your character off the stage to end the story. It becomes a problem, though, if you're creating this character online and people think that they're real. I have to say he did a good job of making her real because there were people who were actually concerned and were willing to put their necks out, but that then becomes the moral and ethical problem, is you have real people who were facing potential danger.
And also, I would say another part of this is that I believe that the Syrian government is now using this as an example to sort of push back against reforms and to argue that this is a sort of false flag operation by the United States to make Syrians look bad.
CONAN: We're talking with Brian Spears, poetry editor and Saturday editor of therumpus.net. And he's joining us from his home in Fort Lauderdale. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Giles(ph) on the line. Giles is calling us from Denver.
GILES: Hi. I do some writing for a local newspaper and a lot of my writing focuses on creating space for individuals living on the margins to have the ability to communicate their experiences. And I want to know what you think the difference is between creating space through journalism and fictional accounts through blogging, because I feel both could shed light on a situation. But what's the greatest difference?
SPEARS: Well, again, for me, I would say the biggest difference is, if you're in a position of privilege like, for instance, I am as a white male and as the editor, poetry editor of a magazine, an online magazine, instead of taking on someone else's persona, you make room for them. You go out and find people who actually are of these marginalized communities, and you give them space to tell their stories, and you promote them and - in the process. If you're doing it yourself, at the very least I would say, if you're going to write this fictional things, then make sure that it's clear from the beginning that this is fiction that you're writing and you're exploring these areas. And that's great.
I would just say the real problem comes in when if you're a member of the majority, you take that voice over and make the truth claims or make the factual claims that it is your — that your voice is actually theirs.
CONAN: To claim to speak for these people as opposed to letting them speak.
GILES: How does it change the information that's communicated though? How do you feel that it would - the context changes the information that's shared with the readers?
CONAN: In terms of whether it's fiction or journalism?
GILES: Yeah, in terms of if it's a fictional account versus opening up venues for individuals in minority circumstances to share their stories.
SPEARS: You know, I would say this is perhaps one of those key differences between journalism and non-fiction or journalism and fiction is that if you're looking for information, then where we traditionally turn to is journalism and first-person accounts and people telling their own stories and then, to a larger sense, to analysis. And I don't - I think the two worlds can certainly co-exist. But I think it's important that if you are a person of the majority - and this is why I addressed it - my comments to white males in general, if you're a member of the majority, you already have an incredible amount of privilege and access to an audience. There's no need to go in and take the audience that - other groups that doesn't have that access.
CONAN: Giles, thanks very much for the call.
GILES: Great. Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get Marlena(ph) in. Marlena is with us from Wenatchee in Washington.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
MARLENA: Thank you. I have a comment. I think, as a woman, I do attend a lot of women-only activities. A lot of them are women circles and they fall - a lot of them fall on the full moon, et cetera. And it's been my personal experience that the men involved almost always - not all the men, but there are always a percentage of men involved in these situations - who want to include themselves. And they know it's a woman-only activity. I feel that these men passing themselves off as lesbian is just absolutely reprehensible.
And I feel there's some kind of, perhaps, hidden or not-so-hidden misogyny involved where, you know, they just can't bear to think that they can't be there and they can't dominate or they can't participate. Well, get an idea. People have a right to be unto themselves and not have men of any color involved.
CONAN: Well, Marlena, it's interesting, the editor of the lesbian news blog, Lez Get Real, some of the contributors who were actual women and lesbians said they felt like they've been conned for three years, that this was, I think exactly to your point, some sort of a theft in a way.
MARLENA: Well, I can understand that feeling. I'm not gay myself, but I can really understand that feeling because, you know, people have a right. Women have a right. People of color have a right. You know, for instance, Hispanic women, they have a right to just gather and not have their men there. It's just a right, a basic right that we have. And I cannot help but feel that there has to be some sort of hidden misogyny involved...
MARLENA: ...for these men to want to come and take over.
CONAN: Well, Marlena, we're - you got the last word. Thanks very much for the phone call. And, Brian Spears, thanks very much for your time today.
SPEARS: Thanks very much for having me.
CONAN: Brian Spears, poetry editor and Saturday editor of therumpus.net. Tomorrow you don't have to leave home to experience the world. We'll crack the cover of many novels. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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