Type
Polemic
Category
Culture

Speaking rights, hoaxes and straight white men

amina arraf - free aminaOn Sunday morning, it was revealed that ‘Amina’, a Syrian-American lesbian blogger whose name and face shot around the internet last week after apparently being arrested by authorities, did not exist. She was an elaborately constructed hoax by a married American man named Tom MacMaster. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that one of the people instrumental in uncovering ‘the man behind the curtain’, a lesbian woman named ‘Paula Brooks’, was also a hoax. ‘She’ was in fact 58-year-old Bill Graber, ‘retired Ohio military man and construction worker’ who used his wife’s ID to edit online lesbian news site Lez Get Real.

MacMaster pilfered pictures, created online dating profiles, and forged friendships and romantic relationships over the internet to support his persona. He stated later, after the hoax had been uncovered, that all he had tried to do was ‘illuminate’ events in Syria for a Western audience, and had created ‘an important voice’ for issues that he felt ‘strongly’ about. Graber, on the other hand, argued that his motivation had been the discrimination he’d seen his lesbian friends fall victim to, and wanted to do something about it. Except: ‘I thought people wouldn’t take [the site] seriously, me being a straight man,’ he said.

There are reasons for this.

Graber’s comments speak directly to the issues of identity politics, one of the chief concerns of which is to draw attention to how privilege informs (or alters) perspective. This is a reaction by oppressed groups of people to what are often long histories of demonisation and misrepresentation at the hands of those with power and privilege. MacMaster, too, found his own voice met with disdain and scepticism because as a white American male he is speaking from one of the most privileged positions in contemporary global culture, with cultural clout that far outweighs that of a gay, Syrian-American woman living in Damascus. If people reacted with scepticism to his voice on those matters it’s because they were aware that privilege and distance creates blind spots. In acknowledging those blind spots and attempting to open them up, a lot of progress can be made.

Part of that process is acknowledging that a history of oppression exists – that such oppression comes with an inability to speak for oneself or represent oneself, and a failure for attempts to do so to be taken seriously. People identify as members of minority groups partly because society has constructed those categories for them, and partly as a reaction to the marginalisation that those categories are used to justify. That sense of unity between people who are similarly oppressed is the first step towards overthrowing that oppression. But it’s also problematic, because one of the inherent difficulties of the concept of racial/social/cultural authenticity is its tendency towards homogeneity. Necessarily premised on generalisations, calls for ‘authentic’ representation of marginalised minority groups in public discourse often denies individuals who identify as part of those categories the right to an owned sense of self, to the complexities and idiosyncrasies that come from plurality.

However, a married American man based in Scotland is not a Syrian-American lesbian living in Damascus. A straight married man is not a deaf lesbian woman. These personalities were created to speak for those marginalised groups because the men who created them thought that their own voices – white, male, straight, American – weren’t carrying enough weight in the debate. They acknowledged that their own sociocultural positioning impacted on how people received their views and opinions, but not how that positioning helped to form those opinions in the first place. And by creating hoaxes, they acted on a very real failure to acknowledge why it might be problematic to attempt to speak for the Other – in this case, the Others being right at the intersection between race, sexuality and gender. It doesn’t matter how good their intentions were – impersonation directly undermines the project of self-determination, and through their failure to acknowledge this, these writers effectively reinscribed the cultural status quo. Indeed, as one commentator put it, ‘It’s hard to imagine a more Orientalist project than a married, male, American writer masquerading as a Syrian lesbian’.

Yesterday MacMaster issued a lengthy, actual apology that acknowledged widespread hurt and a betrayal of trust, and the fact that his hoax had become a distraction from the ‘real issues’. Some of those ‘real issues’ included huge amounts of time and energy spent by aid organisations and activists in searching for the supposedly missing blogger in a highly volatile political situation that would have been much more fruitfully employed elsewhere, as well as the betrayal of individuals who had emotionally invested in the wellbeing of this non-existent person. Another ‘real issue’ is that this is precisely the kind of scandal that prevents people from attempting to engage with oppressed or marginalised groups in constructive ways. In Australia for example, conservative polemics and right-wing agitators use previous local hoaxes (and instances which were arguably not hoaxes, but where people caught between cultural and racial monoliths sought some sense of belonging and were persecuted for it) as support for outright racist political agendas.

It is worth noting that MacMaster explains himself by saying he’d always wanted to write fiction, and that ‘Amina’ grew out of attempts to teach himself to write different characters and from different perspectives. This is a sticky thing to say, and fiction has always been a convenient place to start a messy argument about truth and representation, precisely because it is, by definition, an exercise of the imagination. I argue that fiction is both a legitimate – and crucial – avenue for engaging with alternative perspectives and experiences, including crossing boundaries between gender, race, culture, etc. and it can be a highly effective political tool for doing so. But the first very important part of this is the implied contract that writers of fiction make with their audience through the classification of their work as imaginative. It’s not just an instruction on where to shelve a book but also a guide as to how the content is to be read. The second – which can be seen as both a burden and an opportunity – is awareness that fiction isn’t isolated from the context in which it is written or read. It can and does have very real social and political consequences for many people, both things MacMaster apparently failed to take into account.

Perhaps it’s cause for minor celebration that a straight white man is no longer automatically considered by everyone to be authority on matters of concern to lesbian women, nationality notwithstanding. But it seems to me this double-hoax does little more than illuminate yet again that politically, our culture is mired in a kind of confused, stagnant, speaking-rights-and-authenticity-based swamp, and we’re struggling to climb out of it.

Stephanie Convery is a writer and arts worker in Melbourne. She writes fiction, non-fiction, criticism, commentary and review. She is a regular contributor to Overland online and keeps her own blog at http://gingerandhoney.com. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Comments

  1. Well and elegantly put: The last sentence is an absolute corker. Whatever the issues involved it seems that with any hoax the psychology of the hoaxer is always much more impenetrable and murky than the dust it raises, and virtually never really uncovered.

  2. The most angrifying thing about this is that MacMaster could have written the blog/character/fiction as a white man, but he didn’t, because as you say, it’s about ‘authority’, but it’s also about ‘attention’ (and he would’ve gotten less of it, given how his voice lacked ‘authenticity’). So he did what white men have a long history of doing: he took it/the authority/a voice.

    Or how about the fact that ‘Amina’s’ story was privileged above all the other Syrian bloggers and gay activists, that this American-Syrian was the one the media fell in love with, as if every story must be filtered through an American lens?

    The letters written by the two Syrian activists illustrate why this incident was such a betrayal: ‘I say shame on you! What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism.’

    Because we’re really talking about a hoax that could’ve gotten people killed – who knows, it possibly did, because these activists live in an oppressive regime that’s at breaking point. And the worst part is that it was just for another version of blackface: painting oneself in an Other identity for recognition (whatever that recognition might mean).

    • The whole incident is bizarre and infuriating. It doesn’t surprise me that ‘Amina’s story was privileged above other Syrian GLBT bloggers because of her supposed American connection. I’d argue that it’s the familiarity hook – similar is therefore safe and ‘good’ – that encouraged the West to ‘fall in love’ with her. You know, that whole “she’s just enough like us to be one of us and just enough ‘other’ to be exotic” (and therefore eroticised for it).

      IMO, similar things happen here with Indigenous people. Broadly speaking, the public is comfortable with the ‘good’ Indigenous person who presents familiar Western images and patterns, and is fearful of (and doesn’t understand) ‘traditional’, non-conformist, plural, non-Western representations of Indigeneity. Those latter representations are acceptable as decoration (art, ceremony, tourism, etc.) but not as a space for actual, meaningful engagement.

      The flipside obviously is that for many Indigenous people here, the ‘similarity’ and ‘familiarity’ hook is turned on its head by certain right-wing polemics and their ilk, and used as a justification for destabilising rather than enabling speaking rights and self-determination. Not different enough, therefore not ‘authentic’ enough. Wow, does that argument make my blood boil.

  3. Another really weird aspect about the whole affair was that he apparently forged an online relationship with a real woman, never telling her anything about his RL persona. And then there’s this:

    T]he editor of the lesbian news site Lez Get Real, with the tag­line “A Gay Girl’s View on the World,” acknowledged that he is also a man. “Paula Brooks,” editor of Lez Get Real since its founding in 2008, is actually Bill Graber, 58, a retired Ohio military man and construction worker who said he had adopted his wife’s identity online. …

    In the guise of Paula Brooks, Graber corresponded online with Tom MacMaster, thinking he was writing to Amina Arraf. Amina often flirted with Brooks, neither of the men realizing the other was pretending to be a lesbian.

    • Yeah. One suspects that there were some psychological issues at play, too.

      Also serves as one of those recurring reminders I suppose that what one says and does online is potentially accessible by the entire world. It’s not just your own little fun corner of the internet any more when CNN comes knocking.

  4. Thanks for the intelligent, illuminating analysis.

    I find myself with some sympathy for MacMaster. In saying so, I feel some trepidation. (Be gentle with me :-). And before I proceed let me say that I always use my real name online, and feel no need, for either rhetorical or defensive purposes, to do otherwise.

    1. What MacMaster did is not Orientialism. Said defined Orientialism as such: “The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.”

    That’s not what’s going on here. If a Syrian lesbian represents herself as a straight American male, that does not make her writing ipso fact sexist, racist, or colonialist, nor antisexist, antiracist, or anticolonialist. It all depends on the institutional setting, and the content. TOnce you know what Orientalism looks like, you can spot it immediately. And no one, man or woman, gay or straight, seemed to spot MacMaster.

    Orientalism is a kind of caricature. And it appears that no-one saw this blog as a caricature.

    2. MacMaster had pro-Syrian, pro-gay sympathies. Perhaps he chose this tactic for personal reasons–I’m not his psychotherapist. But I don’t think that we should indulge in ad hominem (or ad feminem) attacks. We need to look at results. I think that he has had one positive result: he did (until exposed) do much to raise the issue of both sexual and political oppression in Syria. In fact, that destructive aspects of what he did seem to come mainly from the unmasking, plus the diversion from the real issues that this whole circus has become.

    But he didn’t create, and arguably couldn’t have foreseen, the diversion. The press, and we Netizens ourselves have co-created that diversion.

    3. There is an argument that gay bloggers in Syria are now more at risk. Maybe so, but it is not MacMaster’s deceit that caused it. If Amina had been real, then the danger would still have existed. Any (real) gay blogger could have brought the attention upon themselves. The danger has to be sheeted home to the regime, and only the regime.

    4. “In Australia for example, conservative polemics and right-wing agitators use previous local hoaxes (and instances which were arguably not hoaxes, but where people caught between cultural and racial monoliths sought some sense of belonging and were persecuted for it) as support for outright racist political agendas.”

    If you try and avoid giving ammunition to right wing raving loonies, you’ll find yourself doing nothing, because they will use anything as ammunition. The fact that the Aboriginal people involved in the case filed suit is being used as ammunition. Should they not have defended themselves, on the grounds that their defence would be used as ammunition?

    5. “Our culture is mired in a kind of confused, stagnant, speaking-rights-and-authenticity-based swamp, and we’re struggling to climb out of it.”

    I agree. And while I recognise the legitimate hurt felt by certain groups described in the beginning of your article, I don’t think that the solution is divvying up “voice” and apportioning it to those groups is any kind of solution. What’s needed is full access to all the other rights: water, health, education, dignity, respect, inclusion, non-discrimination, economic participation.

    Getting exclusive ownership of a “voice” to tell people that you are still being denied these seems poor (and cheap) recompense.

    6. I went to talk the other day. The speaker works with Australian Indigenous communities. He talked about a friend of his who — whenever he sees Noel Pearson presented on TV as “an Aboriginal spokesperson” — mutters in anger: “He’s not my spokesman: I never appointed him.”

    Anyone who speaks other than personally (i.e. speaks politically) can’t avoid speaking for others. And the idea that only black people can speak for other black people (or men for men, women for women, gays for gays, Syrians for Syrians) carries with it the notion that these categories are homogenous, and legitimate. But the very existence of these categories (or rather, that they are accorded great import) is at the root of the problem.

    I’m white. Maybe you’re black. That’s a fact. But the idea that this fact circumscribes what each of us may and may not do: that’s not a fact. It’s the problem.

    • Jacinda linked to this today on Twitter, which addresses some your points re: lesbian women in Syria not being harmed by MacMaster’s fraud. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/15/gay-girl-damascus-syrian-lesbians

      See also the 19th Brumaire piece that Jeff linked to below for a discussion of Amina and Orientalism.

      It’s important to note that while MacMaster might have raised general issues in the West for a cause he cared about, the way he raised them a) put the people he supposedly cared about in danger, something he has also now acknowledged himself and b) took their legs out from under them when it comes to representing the realities of their own lives. I’ll repeat: “It doesn’t matter how good their intentions were – impersonation directly undermines the project of self-determination, and through their failure to acknowledge this, these writers effectively reinscribed the cultural status quo.”

      You write: “I don’t think that the solution is divvying up “voice” and apportioning it to those groups is any kind of solution.”

      But understanding why the ownership of voice and identity matters to people is vitally important, and finding as many ways as possible to allow people to speak for themselves is _crucial_ to overcoming prejudice and making the “right” choices when it comes to questions of education, dignity, respect, etc. that you mention.

      Yes, the concept of ‘owning’ the voice of a group is incredibly fraught, as I’ve said, because the only voice that anyone can ever really own is their own. However, when people are caught in a system of categories that have been used to discriminate against them and silence them, people begin to use those categories to return fire. Those differences becomes weapons, and in speaking for themselves they can take control over their own identities. As homogenous as those categories are, group self-determination has the double project of creating a sense of unity (important in a collective fight) and simultaneously breaking down that externally imposed homogeneity.

      The other important point is this: “These personalities were created to speak for those marginalised groups because the men who created them thought that their own voices – white, male, straight, American – weren’t carrying enough weight in the debate. They acknowledged that their own sociocultural positioning impacted on how people received their views and opinions, but *not* how that positioning helped to form those opinions in the first place. And by creating hoaxes, they acted on a very real failure to acknowledge why it might be problematic to attempt to speak for the Other.”

      Speaking for the other – for ANY other, but particularly marginalised group ‘Others’ – comes with a political context. Like we’ve just seen with these men, your own cause can be undercut simply by not acknowledging what the political implications of “speaking for” might be. We see this time and time again when it comes to Indigenous issues in Australia, and unfortunately in Australia at the moment, it’s also cutting both ways. On the Left, people become afraid to speak because they realise they don’t know enough and don’t want to make the mistake of presumption, and on the Right we see a rejection of the idea that “speaking for” comes with any baggage whatsoever. Cue quagmire.

  5. Pingback: Amina versus Tom Macmasters | Colonial Inscriptions

  6. whoops! the ABC show ‘Hungry Beast’ ran one or two items about ‘Amina’, the last being about two weeks ago(in their “Death”-themed episode) when she apparently went missing.

    seems she died a different kind of death.

  7. There’s an interesting post at 19th Brumaire on the subject

    MacMaster’s ‘Amina’ is an avatar of what Slavoj Zizek refers to as the ‘ cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism.’ Far from overturning ‘orientalist assumptions’ as he seems to have believed he was doing, MacMaster’s creation of Amina confirms them. Amina is a woman: this innoculates against the assumed misogyny of the Arab male, potentially unleashed if the dictatorships fall. Amina’s support for the revolutions therefore functions to legitimate them against this danger, and in the process legitimating the original assumption. Arabs and Muslims are assumed to be homophobic: let’s make Amina gay (without regard to the actual experiences or voices of gay people in the cultures in question) to perform the same function. The avatar Amina congratulates its own creator by legitimating the revolutions through an unimpeachable interlocutor.

  8. Stephanie, thanks for this. It’s really stimulating.

    I wonder if there’s some space or call for a genealogical approach to hoaxes. Helen Demidenko, Wanda Koolmatrie, Ern Malley, (ahem) Rosa Corrigan, Sharon Gould, Sokal etc etc. Each hoax has elements of the ‘sooky’ waddaboutme position but each one’s parameters are slightly different.

    I’d put my hand up but Jeff would think I was hoaxing him!

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