Dr. Demelza Marlin is a lecturer in sociology at UNSW. She recently invited me (Jordan) to give a short guest lecture to her second year sociology students, so we invited her to tell us about what they’re exploring in class:
How does witnessing connect us to the suffering of others?
I teach an undergraduate course on Human Rights and Culture. One of the key themes of the course is witnessing: how we bear witness to injustice, and what responsibilities this entails. Academics writing in this field describe our public spaces as theatres for the production and consumption of testimonies of suffering. Our nightly news, current affairs, political commentary, our documentaries and even our artistic culture are full of the testimonies of survivors and witnessing to atrocities, often taking place in places (conceptually and experientially, if not) geographically distant from us. [Examples]
For many of us bearing witness may be the only form of political engagement we take. But exposure to stories of suffering doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehension, compassion or even sustained engagement. Last week I asked my students to think about the forms of listening, watching and engaging that allow us to recognise the validity of someone’s claim to be heard. To help us understand this question, I asked Jordan Bryon to come in and speak to us about the ethical issues involved in the type of witnessing her work does: producing documentary films about socially marginalised and vulnerable people.
First some background. The theorists we were studying this week argued that recognising your connection with, and responsibility for, others, requires both distance and proximity: both a sense of your shared humanity, however basic that sense may be, and also, an acknowledgment that the other person is genuinely different from you. They have had experiences you cannot cognitively or even imaginatively understand. Professional witnesses (documentary filmmakers, campaigners, advocates) are often tempted to translate extreme circumstances of suffering it into more familiar terms; to make the experiences of victims comprehensible to us. This seems to be the logic behind fundraising campaigns like the 40 hour famine, or the Winter Sleep Out.
They do this because they believe that empathy requires understanding, familiarity, a sense of ‘yes, I know what you are going through’. While this can provide the basis for a connection, it will not be a connection to what really sets the other apart: the circumstances that make their suffering so different from your own experiences. In other words, we don’t see the person for who they are, or the situation for what it is, but, instead, understand their story in terms of familiar coordinates and preconceived ideas that are cognitively easier to manage (and control).
My students were interested, but not entirely convinced, by this conception of empathy and response. However, something that Jordan said about the way she chooses her projects brought the point home. Jordan had shown us parts of a film about inmates at the Junee Correction Centre, and another, about people living with schizophrenia. The students were amazed at how candid the participants in Jordan’s films were about their lives, experiences, dreams and fears. I guess they were surprised to see the humanity – vulnerable, sometimes broken, sometimes courageous – of people they had only experienced through well-worn stereotypes.
One of my students asked Jordan how she made her participants comfortable enough to open up to her, and how she decided what kinds of projects to explore. They wanted to know if her relationship to the people she filmed was based on empathy. Jordan’s response stuck with me. She said that while she did form intense and empathetic relationships with her participants, this relationship wasn’t based on knowledge or understanding. As a filmmaker she is often talking to people whose circumstances are beyond her understanding. But this lack of shared experience doesn’t prevent her from connecting, rather, it draws her into the relationship, makes her want to ask questions. And because she doesn’t presume to already know the answers to her questions, she is able to really listen to what her participants have to say, to let them reveal themselves to her.
Jordan’s approach reminded me of the dictionary definition of witnessing. A witness is someone whose existence testifies to something. Simply being present to someone’s story, listening without judgment, without getting distracted by your desire to ‘fix’ the problem, can be one of the most profound ways we bear witness to others because it gives people the space to be themselves.
We were able to see this in practice when Jordan showed us Reality Check. What surprised the students was that the film didn’t present schizophrenia as a merely disease, but also as a unique way of facing and experiencing the world; a way of being that can be positive as well as agonising. And because the film presented us with first-hand accounts from people living with schizophrenia, without first giving us any background information – stats, context, the usual sorts of information we use to map out and pin down unfamiliar territory – we were forced to simply listen, without judgment and evaluation. It is a very powerful way to allow an audience to access the humanity of another; revealing both the things that we share and the experiences we have no way of fully understanding.
Some excerpts from the lecture.
Dr. Demelza Marlin