On 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.