For the love of knowledge

Friday, 5 July 2013

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” –Audre Lorde

I had many doubts after publishing this post, especially after the responses I received via email. Some of these responses were constructive, others were abusive. But when you’re feeling sensitive, you tend to clump together the constructive and the abusive as one big negative. This is unfair of me. But I’ve come to understand that the post I originally wrote is not unfair, whether people agree with me or not.

Timing really is everything. Not long after I wrote this post about the Holocaust, I stumbled upon some of the most offensive and ignorant comments on the subject on a popular website, xoJane. And then I also stumbled upon this quote by Lorde on Facebook. There is always the risk that the things I care deeply about and write about here on this blog will be bruised and misunderstood. That’s a very harmless risk though, and wallowing in my self-doubt is perhaps immature and indulgent. So I’m going to use the fact that I do care to talk once again about the Holocaust, and about more than the Holocaust, and about everything it represents and highlights when it is obscured, diminished and misunderstood itself.

But first, some context. The offensive comments I’m referring to on xoJane began with this comment. It was made by a writer from the website (called ‘India-Jewel’). Please continue reading her comments throughout this thread. Once you finish, come back and read the rest of this post.

Despite the fact that many, many readers tried to point out to her why her comments were ignorant, she continued to defend them. I’m not sure if she truly lacks knowledge about the Holocaust and how blond hair dye and changing your religion couldn’t even remotely ‘save’ you from the Nazis if you were Jewish, or whether she was being disingenuous and deliberately controversial. Either way, I don’t care. I don’t care about her opinion, it is essentially meaningless because it is totally uninformed and lacking in the kind of depth required to write (and think) about such topics. We’re not talking about beauty products here, and you don’t compare slavery and the Holocaust like a competition between two brands of hand-creams or lipsticks. What I do care about is why writers like her are even given a platform to discuss complex issues such as racism, slavery, war and genocide.

In an article titled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion”, Patrick Stokes writes:

“The problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

I agree. There is a reason why some people study certain topics for years, and why this renders them better informed, and in some cases, experts, in their topics of study. There is a reason why their knowledge comes before someone’s ill-informed opinion. Having a personal opinion is not the same thing as having knowledge. Your opinion does not trump knowledge. And yes, my years of studying and researching the Holocaust, my years of interviewing survivors, renders my knowledge superior to a casual writer’s opinion. I don’t care whether this sounds arrogant. What I’m defending when I make this statement is not my ego; what I’m defending is the historical knowledge that needs to be preserved.

I find myself constantly baffled by the online writers chosen to discuss topics that do require a hell of a lot of knowledge in order to be discussed properly. The Holocaust is one of them. Slavery and racism is another. To be fair to xoJane’s editorial team, I did email them expressing these concerns, and they responded. And I think they actually listened to what I had to say rather than getting defensive. This doesn’t often happen with big websites. They also publicly apologised. However, I have no way of knowing whether they will use this writer again and whether they will choose better-informed people to write on complex topics in the future. I can only hope.

But I don’t want to end on a flimsy note of ‘I hope they will be better in the future’. I want to end by saying very clearly what concerns me about the comments that were made. It is obvious to anyone with just a small knowledge of what occurred in the Holocaust that you couldn’t just ‘save yourself’ with hair dye, or by converting. It seems insulting to even have to explain why. But if people really do need a refresher course on what the Holocaust actually was, let me introduce you to the Yad Vashem website and its many educational tools. As I’ve said, the Holocaust is both about the Holocaust and about so much more. And the ‘more’ here with regard to the offensive comments that were made is about victim-blaming.

When I read India-Jewel’s comments, I couldn’t help but think of the comments you often hear with regard to victims of rape: that maybe they could have done something to stop the rape; maybe different shoes, different clothes, different makeup. All those ‘maybes’ that essentially place the blame and responsibility at the victim’s feet. Any writer who is commissioned to write about topics that involve trauma such as rape, war, genocide, slavery, or racism, should know that implying the victim ‘could have done something’ is absolutely unacceptable. It is victim-blaming 101. So in case it’s not clear, let’s all say this together:

No, Jews couldn’t have theoretically or practically have ‘saved themselves’ by dying their hair blond. I have family members who were killed in the Holocaust who were blond.

No, converting didn’t help either. Read your history.

No, it’s never ok to ever suggest a line of thought where responsibility lies with the victims.

No, it’s not ok to compare the Holocaust and slavery. We’re talking about people’s lives here, not sport. All murder is murder, all oppression is oppression, all trauma is trauma. You cannot compare them, you should not compare them.

No, you are not entitled to your opinion without knowledge.

3 comments:

Gracia said...

Yes. "All murder is murder, all oppression is oppression, all trauma is trauma."

I remain hopeful that this sinks in. Your words make me hopeful.

I am glad you posted this. Thank-you.

(I have grown tired, in all fields, of the quick-response-move-on way we talk or don't talk about things. The lack of knowledge and awareness. A disregard for where words can land and how they are felt. From the "but it was just a meant as a joke" to the "well, it's just my opinion". So, yes, read your history. And read deeply as well as broadly.)

Danielle P. said...

Gracia put it beautifully in her last sentence. Peering just below the surface, where most seem content to remain, is not enough.

It's appalling to encounter victim-blaming of any kind, but it's especially heinous when it's used in a context such as the Holocaust. And how this person can hold such simplistic views about the world completely baffles me.

Thank you for writing about this topic, Hila. Please continue to do so, and ignore the abusive comments or emails - they're from people who are unable or unwilling to examine themselves, and therefore not worth your time. Thank you also for the link to the article by Patrick Stokes.

Hila said...

Gracia: "I have grown tired, in all fields, of the quick-response-move-on way we talk or don't talk about things. The lack of knowledge and awareness. A disregard for where words can land and how they are felt. From the 'but it was just a meant as a joke' to the 'well, it's just my opinion'." Yes, me too, so tired. I'm grateful for people like you, who understand.

Danielle: I'm just so baffled too Danielle, I was completely disgusted by the comments I read. And these comments came from a 'writer'. Surely there must be better writers out there to write content for these sites - why big sites consistently pick the most superficial writers?

I will try to ignore the abusive emails; however, I will also try to keep an open mind when I do actually receive constructive criticism - both are difficult tasks!