Whose truth is it anyway?

This post is written by an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger.

Post-truth. Fake news. Alternative facts. As I look back at my diary from early 2016, it’s striking how much my landscape has changed; pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, I could describe the world around me, I knew what I was advocating for and my words worked. There were some touchstone certainties, however painful some of them were, and a trust, and shared understanding, in the words that described them. I was writing an alternative world into being, a different vision, but I was starting from somewhere else.

‘Elite’ evidently no longer means resourced, connected, networked, privileged, advantaged. From its use in recent months, it seems ‘elite’ now means has ideas, shares ideas, thinks about things, values creativity and art. By this definition, most of the women I have worked with in humanitarian crises are elite, though the opportunities they have to act on any of their thoughts and ideas are so constrained they barely exist, and saying those thoughts out loud could easily get them killed. Events are reported as having happened, though they may not have done; the reported, official version of an event bears little relation to the experiences of those who were there, narratives are overtly contested, re-defined, re-written.

The lines between truth and lies are blurry; the end-game of the post-modern project where nothing matters except the text, and the power struggle over whose version is the ‘truth’ is ever more visible. Truth is written as a 140-character tweet, though it is hard to know whether these are actual thoughts or misdirection while the sleight of hand happens elsewhere. The noise is deafening; explosions of statement, counter-statement, analysis of statement and counter-statement, counter-analysis of statement and counter-statement, angles, commentary, emphatic CAPITALS and point-scoring exclamations! Endless games of Top Trumps with facts, other facts, alternative facts, made-up facts, facts that should be true because we want them to be, disputes over what a fact, in fact, is.

For a while there, I lost my balance. I couldn’t put fingers to keyboard or construct a sentence. Between Brexit and the US election, my world had tilted on its axis and my internal map no longer made sense. Every attempt to find meaning led me into a semantic labyrinth; disorientating, hedging, qualifying, uncertain.

My key to this labyrinth came, as they so often do, out of the air; I was sitting on my back doorstep, tea in hand, watching the birds do their collective sweep across the late afternoon sky, making psychedelic glories as they formed and reformed swirling worlds, back and forth. Not for the first time, I wished I could play with gravity, rather than having my feet prosaically on the ground.

I know how to do this. I know how to hold steady in the face of sanitised, smoothed-out, reality-redefining language. I have worked with violence against women for twenty years, in practice, in advocacy, as a researcher, as an activist. And I have held steady in the face of language that intends to make it obscure, simultaneously over-complicated and invisible. I have found the words to cut through the language that, like a magic trick, misdirects until we are no longer talking about the bodies and lives of women, but are somehow in an abstracted world of oblique references.

I have never been certain why the language shifts as quickly as it does; sometimes I think it’s a way to walk up to the edge of what we can bear to think about and then look away, while pretending to ourselves we are still looking. Other times, I think it’s a mechanism of denial, a way of keeping hidden the routine and everyday damage to the minds, bodies and spirits of women and girls so that we don’t have to really take it seriously. On still other days, I believe it’s a way to look like we mean it, to appear to be deeply concerned about something so widespread, so routine and so banal, without actually needing to do anything about it.

Mostly, I think it’s all of the above.

I have lost count of the times I have crossed out ‘transactional sex’ in track changes and replaced it with ‘sexual exploitation’. Or ‘early marriage’, and replaced it with ‘sexual exploitation’. Or ‘survival sex’, and replaced it with ‘sexual exploitation’. All those carefully neutral, unexamined terms that make invisible the reality of men’s abuse of women and girls.

I have lost count of the times I have replaced ‘people’ with ‘men’; ‘people’ don’t rape girls in school, men do. ‘People’ don’t have ‘protection issues’; women and girls are under specific threat from the men around them. I have spent whole days unpicking the assumptions that men rape and abuse women and girls because they are ‘unaware’, because they need ‘sensitisation’, because they need ‘education’. These assumptions, couched in language that appears to be sensitive, thoughtful and considered are so dangerous; immediately, the damage wrought on women’s lives is disappeared. They serve to help us look away from the reality that men do this intentionally and deliberately, and that it serves a purpose for them.

I have spent so much time documenting the damage to women’s bodies and souls, for case notes, for court evidence, for women’s credibility, even as it’s being downplayed and smoothed out. I have learned how to use the language of women’s hurt without flinching and without fear; it has been essential to be able to speak the words of graphic, embodied truth, without looking away.

I have done this in the context of public discourses that tell me, loudly, that it’s not that bad, that women lie, that women exaggerate, that there is equality, that it’s getting better, that it’s cultural and so I don’t understand, that it’s not a priority, that it’s not as important as every other thing that anyone can think of, that it’s worse for men, that women don’t know their own experience, that women like it, that it’s ‘natural’, that it’s women’s fault.

I, and others like me, have spent our lives knowing that there is a reality that is not reflected in the words and conversations around us, generating the language to describe it, and bringing ourselves, and the women we work with and for, back to the centrality of those experiences, to what we know to be true.

We have joined the dots, documented the evidence, generated the narratives, believed what we see and hear in front of us.

We have, in the face of massive and continuing determination to make this invisible, called out the fake news, challenged the alternative facts, refused to participate in the post-truth, studiedly-neutral gender story.

It turns out, we’re ready for this new world; we have been living it since forever. We have been honing the skills, learning how to navigate, how to strategise, what to trust, and how to validate. We’re ready.

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