On Saving Versus Primitivizing, Or Both

The LA Times ran this story a few weeks ago on a local college professor’s work in Nepal to fight human trafficking. I’ve been mulling over the story for a while, so I didn’t blog about it right away. I wasn’t even sure why I was bothered, but then I read about After the Wedding last week, and I felt as though I had a moment of clarity. It’s funny how a fictitious story can sometimes help you better understand your own reality.

Anyway, back to the article. Six years ago, California State University professor Jeffrey Kottler visited a village in rural Nepal to study maternal mortality. During his visit, he discovered that sex traffickers were taking young girls from the village — sometimes through kidnapping, sometimes with their parents’ consent — and forcing them into prostitution in India. Kottler, who was very disturbed by the scenario, decided to buy a Nepali girl’s freedom. He paid the village school principal fifty dollars to ensure that the girl stayed in school and out of prostitution for at least one year. Within six years, through fundraising and having two Nepalis monitor the uses of the funds, Kottler bought the freedom of 42 girls, preventing them from ever being sold into sexual slavery.

So why exactly would this article bother me, you might ask? Let me be very clear: I applaud Jeffrey Kottler. I fully support what he is doing, and I wish there were more people in this world like him. He’s done more with his life than anyone I know. And believe you me, most of my friends work or have worked tirelessly in the public sector, organizing immigrant workers or opening a health clinic for the homeless or helping abused mothers find employment. Yet despite our collective efforts, I don’t think any of us can honestly say that we’ve been able to prevent anyone from entering a lifetime of servitude and forced prostitution.

So it’s not Kottler who bothers me, or the idea of non-browns helping browns. It’s the undertones of this article and others like it that I do have a problem with. Those of you who follow my posts and my personal blog know that I generally cringe when it comes to stories of westerners “saving” the primitives from themselves. I cringe largely because these stories tend to reek of condescension, and they overlook the work that the “natives” have also done in the same field.

Likewise, the writer of this article uses interesting anecdotes to highlight just how “backward” the Nepalis are. The villagers are so poor that the typical house has “an animal to be tethered to the back wall.” “It’s a place where a father can be killed by a tiger.” There are blatant strokes of sensationalism here, much of which has nothing to do with anything. What exactly is the writer trying to do by evoking so much animal imagery? Then he states that the natives are so devoid of education that they “didn’t know where America was.” Oooh, shocking. Never mind that most Americans I know wouldn’t even be able to point out Nepal, much less India, on a map either. It’s not just the condescending tone, it’s the fact that Kottler is the sole hero of this story, while the Nepalis who co-founded his organization, who have monitored the girls and their educational progress over the years, are not given nearly as much credit. One of the co-founders isn’t even mentioned by name. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it takes as much if not more effort to monitor funds and evaluate programs than it does to raise money. In fact, no Nepalis were even interviewed for this story — it’s told entirely thorough Kottler’s perspective. You would also think from reading this article that Kottler is the first and only person to ever fight human trafficking in Nepal, that the Nepalis themselves never once considered taking on this problem, or that they’re simply unable to. In fact, there are Nepali NGOs that have taken on this issue. Yes, maybe they haven’t eradicated the problem quite yet, but they shouldn’t be overlooked entirely, either. Their efforts deserve coverage and attention, just as Kottler’s efforts do.

It’s not just this article, it’s a trend that I’ve seen elsewhere in coverage on women in developing countries. Anyone reading this Chandra Prasad article who isn’t already familiar with Indian society would think that arranged marriage is a primitive institution that no Indian has ever questioned, and that it’s up to Prasad — and Prasad only — to help these people understand the folly of their ways. When Nicholas Kristof covered the Mukhtar Mai case in the New York Times back in 2004, it wasn’t the fact that a white man brought the story to global attention that bothered me. No, it was his lazy observation on Pakistani culture — one that “chews up women and spits them out” — that I found unsettling. Instead of researching the social, economic, and political conditions that would lead something like this to happen in rural Pakistan, it’s much easier to primitivize an entire country. Statements such as these make me question the motivations of the writer: are they really trying to help others and rally their readers to care about those who are less well-off? Or are they more interested in asserting their racial, cultural, and economic superiority?

This is not to say that I think that American newspapers should never cover the plight of women and girls in South Asia. Far from it. Chandra Prasad was fair to question the practice of arranged marriage, Nicholas Kristof was right to cover Mukhtar Mai’s case, and the LA Times should congratulate Jeffrey Kottler. But the baggage in these articles, the pervasive assumptions and heavy-handed generalizations on desi culture and society, should also be a point of discussion for readers, bloggers, and writers alike. Being critical of these undertones does not make me an apologist for misogyny, for fundamentalism, for desi culture, or for my retrograde ancestors. It means that I’m simply asking for coverage that’s objective, comprehensive, and constructive, with less “West Knows Best” and finger-wagging attached.

39 thoughts on “On Saving Versus Primitivizing, Or Both

  1. Not that this makes it right, but my guess is the reason the article focuses on this guy is because he is local in someway? And the Nepali NGOs are based in Nepal, not in America?

    But for what it’s worth, I feel the thrust of your concern. There is a problem in American media, I feel, to focus as white people as “one of us” but people from other races as “other,” disregarding their birthright, etc. A fellow journalist in Oregon is having an issue with editors asking reporters about the immigrant status of every single hispanic name that shows up in the paper, even if the story has nothing to do with immigration. I mean, seriously!

    It’s one of the reasons organizations such as AAJA, SAJA, NABJ, and others are working towards increasing diversity in the upper management ranks of American media.

  2. You are an awesome blogger. This was a perfect post.

    At the end of the day, articles are written to be sold to the masses. Our media has proven, a hundred times over, that it is not the place to turn for thoughtful analysis of world issues.

    The goal should be to get more diversity in positions that disseminate influence so that we can shape how these stories are told.

    … which is SM is so great.

  3. Naina, GREAT observation. Completely agree with your analysis. I had a bit of an outburst commenting about a similar situation. Somewhat similar is the whole deal with Mother Teresa. Due to her being born a western everyone looks at her social service while completely ignoring the service done by the likes of Ramkrishna Mission.

  4. Naina, I really appreciated this. I have nothing substantive to add, just wanted to say, “TRUE!” :)

  5. Due to her being born a western everyone looks at her social service while completely ignoring the service done by the likes of Ramkrishna Mission.

    a pedantic note, but i think the issue wasn’t that she was born western, but that she was a member of the western christian church (she was albanian, and albania is probably not really part of the west since it is mostly muslim when it comes to the religious, though with large catholic and orthodox minorities).

    naina’s point is good. i generally normalize to the length of the story. you can only capture the basic central tendency if you are given a few hundred words, but other parameters of the distribution (variance, multi-modalities) should be present in a larger feature story. though much of this can be rooted in conventional racism and cultural prejudices, i would add that a secondary component is probably multiculturalism since generalizing about cultures by their nature essentializes them.

  6. To Razib: Your point about about racism and such is clearly spot on. As far as rationalizing the trend: do you need to capture a culture’s ‘basic central tendency’ if the topic is trafficking? Do you need to talk about animals to get across why trafficking is bad? The suggestion almost suggests that both are equal parts of the culture… no? I don’t know if the word-limit justification works…

  7. generally normalize to the length of the story. you can only capture the basic central tendency if you are given a few hundred words, but other parameters of the distribution (variance, multi-modalities) should be present in a larger feature story

    IMO, shorter articles do not emphasize the central tendency so much as the points of maximum difference. This is necessary in a way, so that the reader does not assume that the assumptions that hold in his/her milieu also hold in the one being discussed. But there’s generally another, cruder reason, the need to create a ‘hook’, to keep the reader interested.

  8. The villagers are so poor that the typical house has “an animal to be tethered to the back wall.�

    Had to laugh at that. Because when I was growing up, when there was snow on the ground we would bring in our (overly frisky, mildly destructive) dog so he wouldn’t freeze. To keep him from eating our couches while we slept, we would tether him… to our back wall.

  9. Excellent post! Sometimes the attitude is so ingrained that people don’t even realize that they are being condescending by defining ‘others’ and ‘us’ so easily.

  10. That is a great observation Naina. Reminded me of all of those similar examples in Orientalism by Edward Said. I think that it is interesting how many qualifiers you had to set up before you made your observation. Such as how much you support Jeffrey Kottler. There is such obliviousness to this kind of subtle racism and condescension in the general public that you have to emphasize that you are not an ungrateful and cynical writer. I wonder if you feel similarly about Born into Brothels? I can remember trying to articulate a similar point about Born into Brothels without appearing jaded and cynical.

    I was in Tanzania working few months ago and read Kitabkhana and although he comes off as incredibly bitter, he is so dead on, its sad. So white person I ran into over there head a book entitled “Africa, the forgotten, helpless continent” or “How to save Africa in 30 days” or something. When finally I ended up at the world social forum and there were Tanzanians and Kenyans talking in a huge room in swahili about how to move their countries forward, it was so refreshing. Not that I don’t think there were amazing and sincere white folks doing awesome stuff but the whole structure seemed infused with racist undertones(there is my own qualifier.)
    Sri

  11. What bothers me is that are actually contributing to the situtation by ‘buying’ these girls. They are working within the existing system, effectively paying money for the girls and women. How does this challenge the existing, dare I use the word, root cause of the problem? It’s just coopted the practice…

  12. …please excuse the missing words above. The post should read:

    What bothers me is that they are actually contributing to the situtation by ‘buying’ these girls. They are working within the existing system, effectively paying money for the girls and women. How does this challenge the existing practices, and dare I use the words, “root causes” of the problem? It’s just coopted the practice…

  13. But the baggage in these articles, the pervasive assumptions and heavy-handed generalizations on desi culture and society, should also be a point of discussion for readers, bloggers, and writers alike.

    It is.

  14. I’m reminded of http://www.rontravel.com/

    I met the author of this book in a mall in Tennessee.

    We discussed his travels, particularly India, since that was one place that we had in common.

    Later he gifted me his book and I really liked reading the first 4 chapters or so, where it was more of a travelogue. Later in the book he got a bit of a “know it all” attitude – meaning, he thought his solutions were enough to solve the multifaceted problems of entire countries and cultures even though he had only been in them for like a max of a few weeks.

    He asked me if “caste” was still a pressing issue in India – he sincerely had no idea about it either way.

    But in the book he talked about caste as if it were a deeply entrenched reality for every breathing being from the snows of Mount Kailash to the tropical breezes of Kanya Kumari. And he pompously wrote that he did in one minute what Gandhi failed to do in several years — simply by organizing a straight line of ticket buyers at an Indian train station. His assumption was that the people taking cuts were “upper caste” members who resented having to wait in line beyond “low castes”. Weird. I think he was writing something about which he had no clue, but wrote about it as if he did to engage the readers’ imaginations. I guess that’s literary license?

    Anyway, I feel bad even offering this much of a critique of his book because it was afterall a very engaging read. And he was a genuinely nice and humble man in person — the type of person who would go out of his way NOT to offend, thus I think alot of what comes across in the written word as “offensive” or “orientalist” or “culturally arrogant” is not intended that way at all, but somehow comes off that way on paper.

  15. Naina, why do you hate white people?

    KIDDING :) I love your posts!

    The LA Times piece was egregiously bad. I think the problem with these kinds of stories (and there is certainly an “archetype” this writer is subscribing to, whether he knows it or not) is that while the actual facts may be true, it is what the story is meant to EVOKE, as well as what the writer or editor DOESN’T SAY, which is problematic. For example, a sentence like this:

    “…it was common for an animal to be tethered to the back wall.” Well, that could very well be the south of France, the Australian outback, or a Nebraska farm. But I would argue that the writer would most likely use different language and linguistic structure to describe those places. Because it’s not just about what the author says, but how he says it. Dramatic, clipped language. Singular sentence paragraphs. Collectively these statements are used to evoke a certain image and feeling in the reader. I’m sure some of the writers and journalists on the board can attest to this.

    And sometimes the facts are just plain wrong. For example, one journalist friend of mine told me that some writers would use adjectives like “dusty” and “sleepy” to describe towns in developing nations which were in fact neither! Or how nowadays people often refer to Africa as if it is a monolithic nation (“Save Africa,” etc.), not a diverse, multi-state continent.

    And it goes both ways, of course. My cousin in Kerala told me that she was surprised when she came to America to see that there weren’t armed gunmen and guards in front of each store. I was like, “Whaaaa…?” and she explained that she had read an article in a local newspaper about the gang problem in south LA. Apparently the article had made it seem as if LA is in a constant state of warfare. Hence the article was both accurate inaccurate at the same time, much like the other pieces Naina discusses.

    Also, Razib makes a great point by saying:

    A secondary component is probably multiculturalism since generalizing about cultures by their nature essentializes them.

    Multiculturalism definitely has its limits as a policy agenda, but that’s for another discussion. But I agree – the author’s writing style does seem to be steeped in that 1990′s multi-culti movement which often seemed to reward superficial interactions with other cultures rather than real engagement. It’s the “appearance” that counts.

  16. newbiebrown from australia:

    Women and girls are so undervalued in India, all of it– north,south, east, west and (I’m extrapolating here) in the rest of South Asia–Nepal, Pakistan etc. that just the message that someone values them enough to pay $50 (x 45 ;) ) will go a long way in improving their status. One changes attitudes slowly one step at a time. Once in a while, something big happens. Like Kalpana Chawla in space. And then the next day, 50 girls whose daddies did not let them out of the house have joined the astronaut academy. But its lots of small actions that result in a sea-change.

  17. I’d be interested in reading an objective description of a Nepali village that’s comprehensive and constructive. Personally, I don’t think such a thing exists because all writing is going to involve at a minimum an interplay between the author, subject, and reader. Your post seems to be looking for that oft-debated, ever elusive “authenticity” element.

    We, as readers, have the beautiful luxury of participation in the act of interpretation. IMHO, the LA Times piece was pretty poorly written in terms of style and structure. But I felt less (or none) of the condescension that others appear to feel. Perhaps because the truth of a statement like the typical house has “an animal to be tethered to the back wall,” is more relevant to me as a description than as a suspect commentary on Nepalis. Or perhaps because from my point of view, trafficking of women and children does exist in horrifyingly large numbers in Nepal, and that’s the issue that matters for me in reading about it. I can’t control what other readers do or do not know. Yes, many Americans are ignorant about Nepal. Many Nepalis are ignorant about America. And on and on.

    You cringe at the undertones of stories of westerners “saving” the primitives from themselves. Just like I cringe at the mangoes, spices, English-local street dialect combinations that infect such a large portion of S. Asian literature in representations of S. Asians to the world. I’m more confident about the increase in and ability of differing points of view and forms of representation that I see every day to be a counterweight to such stories. So why not write this post (like some of the great other posts you have written) about the problems of TIP, or about Nepali NGOs, or those other heroes you would like to see?

  18. naina, thanks for this great post. and articulating so well what i have felt fora long time about representation by the media on those sorts of issues.

  19. naina, excellent piece. i’m thankful for spaces like these, where people can express their thoughts eloquently, and not worry about an editor mucking it up in order to appeal to the masses.

  20. This is a very thoughtful and informative piece, Naina. Thank you.

    I totally agree with the points you’ve made, but I just wanted to make a few observations

    First, there is always a tendency to sensationalize that which is unfamiliar. Rudyard Kipling did it and it still happens on a regular basis. It also cuts both ways. If you follow many foreign media outlets we Americans are all ignorant and have no idea what’s going on in the world at large. Though we might be in the minority, I would not say that of myself or most of the people with whom I interact.

    I am most offended by the fact that the LA Times did not give any credit to those working on the ground. Raising money is the easy part as is developing policies and all the other stuff bureaucrats and technocrats do. Implementing a program is far more difficult, in my experience (which is why I’ve followed the technocratic path in my own career).

    What bothers me is that they are actually contributing to the situtation by ‘buying’ these girls.

    I had a similar reaction, but then I realized that in the short term this is a very good strategy. It won’t fix the ultimate problem, but at the end of the day would you rather have these girls sold into slavery or have their “freedom” purchased?

  21. I think Nicholas Kristof has done far more damage in this regard (reporting on poor people as kitsch)than anybody else.

  22. Spot on commentary.

    Sadly the US media does not do any better within its own culture. I grew up in the Southern US, but have lived in the North most of my life. I still cringe when a reviewer books, movies, etc. in a northern paper says something is “authentic” in its portrayal of Southern life – according to the reviewer who has never been there.

    And I see the exact same sort of commentary on non-US works (and the world) by Western critics who know even less.

    Over the years I’ve just learned to accept a new meaning of “authentic” in that context: “it reinforces my existing stereotypes.” sigh

    The same logic works with news stories. Reporters and editors as a whole will see what they already believe to be true and will filter whatever they hear in those terms.

  23. Excellent post, Naina! Thanks very much.

    I’m reminded of a very irritating movie made by a do-gooder video firm called WITNESS with a pesky voiceover by Winona Ryder, which put me off her for good. It was about the trade in little Nepali girls indentured into becoming sex workers, and one of the most irritating aspects of Ms. Ryder’s work on that video was her accusatory intonation while saying that Mumbai was formerly known as Bombay, as if the the entire city was trying to cover up — never mind Ms. Ryder was shortly to go on trial for shoplifting! Now I see Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have joined in– which puts an end to my respect for them.

    But what can we do to address this nonsense?

  24. I think Nicholas Kristof has done far more damage in this regard (reporting on poor people as kitsch)than anybody else.

    Agreed. Mahmood Mamdani has choice words about ‘primitivizing’ journalism, Kristof and others regarding Darfur in a recent LRB issue. The critique is similar to Naina’s point of “asserting their racial, cultural, and economic superiority”:

    Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (‘race’) and, if not that, certainly in ‘culture’. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer. Journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators face a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because both are outside history and context. Even when newspapers highlight violence as a social phenomenon, they fail to understand the forces that shape the agency of the perpetrator. Instead, they look for a clear and uncomplicated moral that describes the victim as untainted and the perpetrator as simply evil. Where yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators, where victims have turned perpetrators, this attempt to find an African replay of the Holocaust not only does not work but also has perverse consequences. Whatever its analytical weaknesses, the depoliticisation of violence has given its proponents distinct political advantages.[link]
  25. PS: I notice they changed the soundtrack here and there.”formerly known as Mumbai” is now deadpan…but “prized for their fair skin,” “the world’s largest demarcated red light district”, “the world’s richest chics” who apparently also believe sex with children will cure AIDS, “labyrinth of lanes and alleyways”(sounding evil), “inhumane crime” (humane crimes, anybody?) all remain… The only part I find touching is the speech of the Nepali girls, which is one of my childhood languages which obviously Ms. Ryder doesn’t understand.

  26. Thanks for the lrb link. By the way you’ve just got to check this out. Its about a free trip with Kristof……

  27. Naina: As a long time reader and admirer of Nicolas Kristof, I strongly dissent especially to this part of your observation:

    Statements such as these make me question the motivations of the writer: are they really trying to help others and rally their readers to care about those who are less well-off? Or are they more interested in asserting their racial, cultural, and economic superiority?

    Nicolas Kristof is probably one of the most pragmatic and honest op-ed writers that I have come across. From his writings on ‘sweat shop factories’ in Pakistan and Cambodia to his commentary on ‘Israel’, Kristof is only motivated by a sense of justice and practical fairness.

  28. Al-Mujahid, as a long time reader and hater of Kristoff, I disgree with you.

    I consider him the posterboy for the kind of bad journalism Naina addresses in her excellent post.

  29. Regarding the Prasad article, shortly after it was published, the Indian cousin happily married a college friend and moved to New Delhi:)

  30. I may be wrong but AMD might be kidding (why are ‘Israel’ and ‘sweat-shop factories’ in quotes for instance? ‘Sweat-shop factories’ I can understand, since the term might have been coined by the great Mr. Kristof Himself, but Israel?).

  31. Oh doh!

    I thought something was odd.

    Sorry, Al-Mujahid. I shouldn’t comment after only one coffee.

  32. But what can we do to address this nonsense?

    We can start by bringing these disgusting episodes out into the open ourselves instead of being forced to by “foreign” reporters. I don’t agree with characterizations and generalizations, but when these reporters go over there, and use terms that sound derogatory, they are simply reporting that world as they see it (and probably in a way many other white Americans, their target audience, would see it).

    You aren’t going to change people’s attitudes over there by making excuses and hiding dirty laundry. Why can one white guy with $50 effect more change than the hard working NGOs? Because shame is a powerful motivator.

    The warlords in Waziristan aren’t going to stop honor killings because Nick Kristoff or anyone else writes about them, but neither did “moderate” president Pervez do anything until he was forced to deal with it due to exposure and embarrasment. Honor killings won’t end until more Pakistanis demand an end to them. Many do, but not enough.

  33. Interesting and thought provoking post Naina.

    As I reading I was reminded about an article I read recently about modern day sex slavery in Britain. Girls from the poorest countries in eastern Europe, mostly Romania and Albania, are lured by organised gangs to England on the promise of a job as a maid or au pair. When they get here, because those countries are not in the European Union, they are effectively illegals, and the mafia pimps beat them up and force them to work as prostitutes servicing up to 30 men a day on the same damp mattress, kept locked away and not allowed to even go for a walk unnacompanied. This is modern (non primitive) Britain — interesting to see how these stories are contextualised differently. Effectively they are raped many times a day, beaten to an inch of their life if they rebel, are threatened with deportation by their pimps, told that if they rebel their families back in Romania will be informed and shamed by what their daughter is doing in London or Birmingham.

    The tragic thing is that this trade and sexual enslavement happens everywhere — wherever there is money and a route between that money and desperate and poor women, there will always be wicked people to facilitate the meeting of men wanting to buy sex and those desperate and poor women. The demand from men is insatiable, and there is a complete failure by the men to see the woman whom they pay to degrade as anything other than a piece of meat.

  34. Just to think in multiple directions, I wondered if the author of the original article was somehow trying to say the complicity of the Indians is absolved due to poverty, isolation and lack of decent education.

    Red Snapper’s comment reminded me that if this took place somewhere in Europe or America, it would be reported in a clinical fashion, but more importantly, as being outside the norm.

  35. Red Snapper’s comment reminded me that if this took place somewhere in Europe or America, it would be reported in a clinical fashion, but more importantly, as being outside the norm.

    It would be (and was) reported as something horrific and bad — but it would not be reported as proving an essential primitive darkness at the heart of British civilisation, or as being the normative behaviour of British men.

  36. Over the years I’ve just learned to accept a new meaning of “authentic” in that context: “it reinforces my existing stereotypes.” *sigh*

    I agree!

    But this is fairly common isn’t it? Journalists run in pretty specific, circumscribed circles, so it’s pretty obvious that an American (particularly a white American who lives in a major, Northern city) can get profiled for doing something interesting with his money, while it takes a Nobel Prize to get coverage for homegrown South Asian activists to get even a column inch. It’s not just India that gets marginalized, it’s the whole “bridge and tunnel” world.

  37. I can’t believe you can pick up a Nepalese girl for $100. I’m returning my totally-overpriced Indian girl immediately.

    Thank god I kept the receipt!

    Good post, Naina. Keep up the good work!