Complicity, Elitism and Storytelling: Exploring Moral Ambiguity in Times of Injustice

In her second post for this blog, GJA Communications Intern, Jee-Young Song, reflects on the recent GJA GREYZONE Summer School keynote session on ‘Conceptual Perspectives’.

The Summer School kick-started on Monday the 25 June, the theme this year being ‘Navigating the Grey Zone: Complicity, Resistance and Solidarity’.The following is from the ‘Conceptual Perspectives’ talks, where expert speakers from the fields of human rights, philosophy, and political theory (Ruth Kelly, Charlotte Knowles and Lukas Slothuus, pictured above) each gave their unique insight on the key issues.

Storytelling as a way to reinforce human rights

First to speak was Ruth Kelly, who focused on the potential for narrative to help communities articulate approaches to the development of human rights. To give an example of such artistic intervention, she showed footage taken at a poetry workshop in Uganda, where a woman recites a poem about struggling to choose between action and complicity, entitled ‘Should I stay? Should I go?’.

In a way, Ruth was portraying the development of human rights as something almost intrinsically linked to art. In particular, the art of storytelling. Listening to her, I realised that whether we know it or not, we rely on people’s stories of the atrocities committed against them to learn of human rights violations – case and point, a witness being asked to testify against the perpetrators in a criminal court.

However, Ruth highlighted the problematic standard that we hold to these stories. It was a standard of truthfulness. The story is perceived as either true or false, never in-between. She argued this is an unrealistic standard: humans are inherently inconsistent with the stories they tell. Hence there would inevitably be accusations of fabrication, or the stories would be seen as a part of a political strategy – creating further ambiguity in the process of transitional justice.

Ruth then considered evaluating the stories based on the real effects they have in the development of human rights; such as, if certain stories of rights violations end up contributing to the institutionalisation of human rights (a tribunal, for example). However, again there was a problem here. Ruth pointed out how we are more naturally drawn towards stories which rotate around Western, secular values: stories of equality, stories which draw our empathy, or stories where the ‘hero’ comes out victorious. This, she argued, could potentially limit agents from giving the full account of the story, or discourage other accounts of the violation from emerging.

Ruth concluded her talk by arguing that human rights stories must not be held up to the standard of truthfulness, nor viewed in line with Western standards. Instead, it should be understood in a multicultural way from different angles. Moreover, she emphasised that these stories are not something to be studied, but something that we can participate in.  We can tell the stories and advocate for future development of rights, instead of staying complicit. This, she hoped, would eventually create further space for resistance against injustice, and a sense of solidarity.

What about intellectuals?

Lukas Slothuus was the next to speak. His research focuses on conceptualising the role intellectuals play in social movements. He explained how historically, intellectuals have played an important role in revolutionary movements – the most prominent examples being Marx and Lenin – and how, generally, these figures are held in high regard. However, Lukas raised the point that there are potential pitfalls to this over-reliance on intellectuals.

To illustrate this he directed the audience to the debate between Reverend Eugene Rivers and a series of African-American intellectuals during the 1990s. He read out an extract from the scathing public letter that Rivers had written, accusing the intellectuals of being complicit and elitist towards African-American communities who were struggling through a cocaine epidemic at the time. He explained how, drawing on the philosopher Chomsky’s view that intellectuals have a “responsibility to speak the truth and expose lies”, that there should be a closer connection between the theories that intellectuals present, and what they actually practice. In doing so, this accused African-American intellectuals of being too complicit in times of injustice, having never gone out to the impoverished communities themselves. To rely on a theory made by someone who had never experienced the real hardship would be unfair.

To simplify this point to the audience, Lukas pointed out how Rivers was essentially wanting intellectuals to play the role of a ‘vanguard’ (a term coined by Lenin, describing a politically advanced member of society who leads the working class towards revolutionary politics) as opposed to a spectator. To us, it does sound like the idealistic role an intellectual should have in times of hardship.

Lukas did, however, point out the issue of misrepresentation. Where are the intellectuals from, and what are they actually speaking for? It wouldn’t be right for, say, a white, upper-class intellectual to represent on behalf of an impoverished African-American community. As such, Lukas concluded with his view that although it is undeniably important that intellectuals should use their social capital (such as reputation and skill) to bring legitimacy to social struggles, they should be careful in initiating on behalf of others, especially if it is for a social group they don’t necessarily represent.

Gender and Complicity

Last to speak was Charlotte Knowles, who delivered the talk, ‘The Problem of Gendered Complicity: a Phenomenological Approach’. Being from the field of social philosophy, she expressed quite a philosophical approach to the question of why women in particular may openly accept oppression and discrimination. To do so, Charlotte referred to two key philosophers to help explain this phenomenon: Simone de Beauvoir, and Martin Heidegger.

In particular, reference was made to Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex, where it is argued by Beauvoir that women have learnt to openly accept themselves as the ‘other’, inessential sex as a result of historical insignificance. In other words, a woman’s values are heavily dependant on her social context. Charlotte highlighted how this view was analogous with Heidegger’s theory of Dasein (being) falling into Das man (the social world– simply put, people’s tendencies to follow the crowd and adhere to societal norms, as opposed to standing out. She explained that following this ideology, it could be explained how we often define ourselves by our generic social roles, notably gender. This illuminated Beauvoir’s account, explained above: essentially, the societal norms we have created over time, and the human tendency to follow the norm, have pressured women to actively choose complicity over pursuing their own freedom.

Although no definitive conclusion was drawn on how to overcome this acceptance of complicity, the impression left was that we perhaps need to look at this issue in a multi-faceted way. Not only must we attend to the unfree agent’s social situation, but we must also change the way in which we perceive themselves in order to create a more equal environment.