The Holy Trinity

“The practice of a privileged person speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons,” Linda Alcoff warned, “actually results (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for.” [Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Cultural Critique, Winter, 1991-1992, No. 20, pp. 5-32].

The “concerned journalist,” or “humanitarian photographer,” veils her relations to institutions of imperial violence and privilege and adopts a “pathologising approach” that reduces complex social and cultural lives in “which the oppression singularly defines a community.” [Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review Vol. 79 No. 3 Fall 2009]. Such an approach silences the subjects, who are never the agents of solutions but merely actors in the journalist’s script. Like the Palestinians Ehrenreich writes about (see previous post), communities are trapped in their “wounds” and seen as entirely defined and contained by their suffering. There are other ways of working.

Eve Tuck calls for a “damaged-centred” reportage. She “invites oppressed peoples to speak but to “only speak from that space in the margin that is a sign of deprivation, a wound, an unfulfilled longing. ‘Only speak your pain.’” (hooks, 1990, p. 152).” [Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review Vol. 79 No. 3 Fall 2009]. Journalism’s habit of writing the world as “only damaged, as only broken” is connected to relations of power and domination, a relation repeatedly enforced in Western journalism where the Other cannot speak back, speak differently, speak real and speak critique. A “damaged-centered” approach begins with historical and social context, precisely what US journalists avoid. It begins by tracing the “uninhabitable, inhumane conditions in which people lived and continue to live” as a place to start.

The power of the narrative–to make it, to change it, and to disseminate it–resides entirely with the journalistic body, which values the ability to “construct the narrative, to hold mastery over its production and their particular positions within it.” [Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: De-humanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Duke University Press, 2018:114]. However, not all silences are equal, and some are more intentional than others.

Western journalists curate silences through three dominant frames:

  • Eurocentricity/Western Cultural Superiority
  • US imperialism/Exceptionalism
  • Capitalism/Globalisation

Objectivity” is the name given to that which takes these three frames as universal norms that need no justification, explanation, or questioning.

There is a deep historical, epistemic and intellectual relationship between capitalism, imperialism, and the West’s sense of cultural supremacy. The three frames feed off each other, sustain each other, and each is used to justify the other. The necessity of capitalist growth justifies the need for war, which in turn is justified by discourses of cultural relativism and mission civilisatrice/missão civilizadora/misión civilizadora/civilisational mission (pick your colonial language of choice), which in turn is justified by capitalist desires through colonial tropes like making the desert bloom which in turn explain the use of violence. And round and round we go.

The claim to “objectivity” relies on allegiance to these frames as normative and foundational. Once they are seen as the unquestioned “normal” and “commonsense,” journalism can be pursued with “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” [Joan Didion, “The Deferential Spirit,” The New York Review of Books, September 19, 1996].

Feminist scholars have been among the most creative and determined to undo the “objective” pretensions that informed much of social science and scientific research. Sandra Harding argued that”objectivity” was a strategy of dominant groups to describe and frame the world “without critically examining their own political and historical bases and commitments.” Donna Haraway labelled the ritual denial of political bases of so-called “objective” knowledge as “the God Trick,” where the social and political position of the powerful was assumed as “normative” and “neutral.”

Journalists perform precisely such a trick when they transform subjective, selective, curated and edited knowledge into a narrative that uses a neutral, third-person, and “God Trick” voice to separate itself from events and circumstances and poses beyond politics and bias. Journalists are “inside” the normative and dominant social order but refuse to acknowledge or reveal their allegiances to the order. Equally, they refuse to reflect on how this membership colours their idea of the world and how they represent it. However, those who are not inside this normative order are merely objects of analysis, scrutiny, observation, judgement, critique, and information extraction. They are never the story’s writers, the narratives’ defines, the makers of arguments. By carefully leaving them as mere data sources, their knowledge, equality, and justice claims are delegitimised and eventually ignored. They are silenced or marginalised as bit players in the narratives, interpretations, and analyses that the journalists produce.

The journalists have the authority and remain the “almighty voice-giver, whose position of authority in the production of meaning continues to go unchallenged, skillfully masked as it is by its righteous mission.” S/he is seen as “transparent, as value-free and as insentient as an instrument of reproduction ought to be. else, it is treated most conveniently.” [Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, Routledge, 1991:36].

S/he is “objective” when she is most embedded in the frames of Eurocentric privilege, the righteousness and innocence of the USA, and in capitalism as the only “end of history.” [Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 2006].

How does this work? Let’s take a closer look at how each of the three doctrines works to create acceptable narratives of Western media. I will elaborate on them further in these essays. Still, for now, a quick review will help us understand how these unexamined prejudices distort Western journalism and their representations of the world.