A few weeks ago, a friend and I were approached on a street in D.C. by a young man whose opening line was “Excuse me, did you know that women are forced to have sex for water?”
I presume he got what he was looking for because I stopped, shocked. “What?” I asked, not sure I had heard correctly. He started to talk to me about exploited women in camps somewhere who were starved and abused, until he finally made it clear that he was discussing the Syrian refugee crisis and was about to ask me for money.
He was from an organization that “did work on the ground in Syria,” although the type of work and its effectiveness were both unclear. He told us more tragic tales of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and dying as they tried to escape war. When I informed him that I was half Syrian and was familiar with the situation, he told me that was all the more reason for me to give money.
Putting the question of the legitimacy and helpfulness of charity organizations aside, I was left still confused about the way in which he relayed a narrative that was not his own, and especially about his choice of opening line.
Increasingly, it often feels like shock value is the only way to make a story heard. Viewers are so frequently bombarded with tragic images and news of disasters that they become overwhelmed and numb. Shock value can be useful. However, its use can easily be counter-productive to original intentions, which often come from a good place and recognize the need to spread awareness and create change. Lines such as the one used by this canvasser can quickly betray their positive intent and become extremely dehumanizing.
When he pulled me in with his shocking statement, he did not tell me who these women were, where they were or about the situations in which they lived. He was not trying to tell me a story nor teach me about the situation, but merely trying to illicit a response of disgust and empathy that would last long enough for me to give him some money. The line reduced a horrific situation and example of suffering to a shock value tactic designed to attract strangers on the street. However, the women he was speaking about are not abstract pawns in a quest to raise funds. They are real people with lives and stories and struggles, in a situation that he could not fully explain or understand.
Apart from being dehumanizing, it is questionable whether the idea of generating empathy through shock is even that effective. When the image of drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi appeared on the Internet a year ago, it generated a huge worldwide frenzy about the refugee crisis. Yet, a year on, the refugee crisis is worse than ever and many more are still drowning the same way, still with nowhere to go. A moment of horror and empathy, even if coupled with a donation, is unlikely to sustain change.
It is important to treat the lives and stories of those experiencing tragedy with respect. People should not be dehumanized and used as plot devices in a sad story. Stories of hopelessness and despair often discount the agency of those involved and reduce them to abstract figures worthy of pity.
Representations of tragedy often remove the agency of people who make difficult choices to get through trying times. More often than not, those people are women. Women are often plastered as the face of humanitarian disasters to get pity because they are seen as helpless, and their strength is rarely recognized. Women are not given the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings, let alone for the sacrifices they make to help their families and communities.
A better story and opening line would have focused on what refugees and women are doing: the initiatives they have started, the work they are doing for their own families and communities and the need to bolster and support them. A better narrative would not lump all refugee women together as an abstract class soliciting pity and in need of saving. It would use their names, show their faces and tell their stories. It would talk about survivors, whether they are women like Yusra Mardini, the Syrian refugee who competed in the Olympics after pushing a sinking boat to safety, or women making every day sacrifices to feed their families and finding the hope to get through another day.
Katy Habr is a junior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Margin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.