Awkward! Rebuttal to Critique of Kristof

In the interest of sparking class discussion on the interplay between narrative and human rights, my Professor posted a piece that decries Nicholas Kristof’s coverage of human rights atrocities as an “anti-political” “spectacle of violence,” failing to lead readers to address the roots of the violence.

As a primary mechanism of breaking down Kristof’s formula, Prass-Freeman examines one piece in particular. Much to my surprise (and later that of my professor), the Kristof piece he chose is about me. Awkward.

I wrote this response at the invitation of my professor, for class discussion.

Full disclosure: Nicholas Kristof has written a couple of pieces about me, I have published several pieces on his On the Ground blog, and we appeared on Oprah together in a show focused on his book Half the Sky.

Despite my blatant bias, I feel the need to respond to this piece because I was present for the interviews the author critiques, Generose a dear friend, and I have put quite a bit of thought into telling stories like hers. Especially hers.

Generose was one of the first women sponsored through the project I founded, Run for Congo Women. I met her in 2007, on my first trip to Congo. She missed our scheduled meeting because she was in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening infection in her leg, around the amputation. I paid for the surgery, we built her a house, played with her kids, visited often.

But I did not know what to do with her horrific story. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but in quick summary, in an attack, the FDLR killed her husband, cut off her leg, and commanded her children eat their mother’s leg. Her son refused, so he was killed.

It’s a story about forced cannibalism. How do you tell it in a way that doesn’t reinforce old world stereotypes about Africa? When we talk about Congo, it’s a constant battle between taste and truth, steering away from framing it as savage or tribal,  which often allows people to flip off their empathy switch.

And yet, hers is not close to the only story like it I have heard in Congo. She tells it openly and willingly.  And it’s the truth.

When I returned to the US, I told her story twice in public. When a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum staff covered his ears, I thought: too much.  I didn’t tell the story again for a year and a half. It bothered me intensely that we had discussed little about her past life or the people she lost. When I returned in 2008, I asked her different questions, like what she missed most about her husband. She responded, “When my belly was really heavy with a baby, he would wash my body. It was very intimate.”

Prass-Freeman takes exception to graphic depiction of what he terms “terrible things,” instead of his favored approach of  “glossing these details.” To him, in Generose’s story “the horror is too great to be responded to politically; politics is callous, insensitive, inadequate, somehow just not enough against this evil.”

Except it’s not. Behavioral studies have repeatedly shown nothing is more powerful in moving people to action than one identifiable victim’s story. In Generose’s case, the “vividness effect” also applies, meaning people think of something as a bigger issue the more vivid the story. That’s not theory, it’s science. Love it or hate it, it is how we are wired.

My thinking about her story has changed radically since that first visit. Today, I tell her story, in all its graphic detail, as often as I can. Why? Because people don’t forget that story. I have met countless women who couldn’t get Generose’s story out of their minds…so they decided to act. Fundraise, lobby, protest. Her story had been one of the foundations of the Congo movement.

A quote from Philip Goreovitch’s, author of the Rwandan genocide classic We Wish to Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, has informed my thinking on generalities as our culture’s cop-out of choice:

“There are three words that most motivate the political reporting I’ve done in the aftermath of violence: they are unthinkable, unimaginable, unspeakable. Those things are almost invariably described in order to give voice to their magnitude, without actually addressing it. They are the words by which the press gives you permission to forget about and ignore things. They are the words by which we let ourselves off the hook. They are supposed to be grand. If I say in a deep ponderous voice ‘unspeakable’, you all shutter, and we feel that we’ve had a shared experience of confronting something, when in fact all we’ve really done is shrugged it off together. What are writers here to do except to imagine, think, and speak?”

The thesis of Prass-Freeman’s piece is that Kristof’s coverage of human rights abuses moves people away from action, while allowing people like me to serve as a surrogate. Prass-Freeman asks “But what is to be done with this knowledge? What kind of awareness has he really raised?”

Great question.

Prass-Freeman acknowledges Kristof’s pivotal role in catalyzing the Darfur movement. Kristof’s book Half the Sky serves as a go-to guide for those jumping into the international women’s movement. Additionally, I can offer a few first-hand examples of Kristof’s impact on Congo. Our joint appearance on Oprah raised six million dollars in a week. Those are rolling donations that are now approximately 15 million, translating to about 90,000 Congolese women and kids directly aided. But the new sponsors also exchange letters with victims, cementing a personal relationship that often drives further action. They feel they have a friend living through the conflict, so they are more apt to get involved in systemic change.

I concur that coverage of the roots of these problems is essential. But then, Kristof has published lots pieces that do just that. One piece outlined basic policy measures that most in the movement agree are the keys to stabilizing the country. He wrote another full piece on conflict minerals, Death by Gadget, at precisely the moment tech companies were trying to gut conflict minerals legislation. It proved a tipping point. The same day, in reaction to the piece, Steve Jobs publicly acknowledged Apple’s problem with conflict minerals, and within a few weeks committed Apple to work on it. The legislation passed.

Another piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, DIY Foreign Aid, covered my move from strictly fundraising to taking on systemic drivers of the conflict, with a focus on my grassroots protests and involvement in passage of conflict minerals legislation.

Actor Ben Affleck is obsessed with Nicholas Kristof. That’s how he learned about Congo. Typically, I am not a huge fan of mega-movie stars photo-ops to advance a movement. But Affleck forwent this approach, founding a well respected Congo policy think-tank called Eastern Congo Initiative. They work on nothing but supporting local Congolese leaders while driving US policy toward long term, systemic change.

Prass-Freeman and I obviously have different approaches and play different roles in human rights. But something does haunt me about his essay. His superimposed moral and academic lens quickly loses track of his target. His criticism Kristof’s writing slips into abstract commentary on the facts of Generose’s life, as though speaking them is in and of itself an offense.

Prass-Freeman disowns his own projections by couching them as his imagined Kristof followers’ “Orientalist, classist, and racist fantasies.” This, he apparently feels, gives him license to spiral into an astounding web of his own baseless projections onto real life facts.

Militiamen carried out her attack. To say so, makes them “bestial others.

Generose lost her leg. To say so, Prass-Freeman argues, is to make her “less than her body.”

Generose’s quote makes her appear an unsophisticated “savage who cannot understand the way one should communicate.”

Generose’s planned to run next to me, “hobbling on one leg.”  Saying so makes her an animal.

In so doing, Prass-Freeman frames Generose in a manner I have never heard from any other present day scholar, activist, Congolese person, or writer. They cut her leg off. Her son was murdered for refusing to eat her leg. These are the facts of her experience. Yet, the author drones on as though she and her child were characters in 18th century literature:

“The body creates more symbolic capital by virtue of becoming less than itself. Because somehow this is not enough, the young boy stands up in the face of evil to be shot down, made the sacrificial lamb who will need to be resurrected and redeemed.”

It is Pass-Freeman who relates to Generose as an object, her life theorized into oblivion.

Prass-Freeman’s solution? To not speak.  He concludes by holding Occupy Wallstreet up as a new ideal. “Occupy Wall Street may (perhaps inadvertently) provide us with a particularly sophisticated example of how to ‘speak’ the open secret: By not speaking—by resisting attempts that would coerce it into making legible claims—OWS performs demands on others to think and act politically.”

Not speaking. Not making legible claims- how did that go? The fate of Occupy Wallstreet is not one I would wish on any human rights campaign.

These are extremely important questions all human rights activist should grapple with. What motivates people? What makes them shut down? How do you share the truth while maintiaing the dignity of the subject. I have gotten that so, so wrong many times. But if you are in the fire, you learn, stumble, grow, and mature.

Does awareness lead to action? For most people, no. But then nothing can or would lead most people to action. The real question is does it stir some people, enough people, to step up, and can those people form a movement that addresses the roots of these horrors. But if we actually care about other people living through atrocities, then what must matter most is their security and well-being. What approach achieves maximum impact?

The proof is in the results.

As for Generose, I’m not at all comfortable with anyone presuming to know better than her what she should or should not say in public. My rule these days is simple: Her life, her story, her terms.

The day of our run in Congo, Generose showed up in a red suit and pink pearls. She gave a speech in front of the mayor and members of parliament. Did she hobble? Well, her crutches were mismatched. Her shoe was slippery, so we ran barefoot together. But that didn’t make her “like an animal.” Not how she sees it. I asked why she would do the run, and she said, “Because if I can run on only one leg, everyone will know they can do something to help.”


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One Response to “Awkward! Rebuttal to Critique of Kristof”

  1. Ann says:

    There’s a lot I would love to say about this, much of which I’m reading in other comments on facebook. I do want to say, without a doubt, this is my favorite thing you’ve ever written.

    I’m stunned by the critique that is so personal against Generose. I’m also stunned that any educated person holds up OWS as successful. I’m dumbfounded at the notion that *not* speaking, *not* making legible claims, would be a motivator that would actually change anything. The logic (or lack thereof) is mind-boggling to me.

    Thanks for sharing. This truly must have been intensely awkward. :)

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