Wednesday, June 23, 2010

love believes all things and is never deceived

I'd forgotten - a little - what it means to advocate for survivors of sexual assault.
To be an advocate for a rape survivor, one must believe everything s/he says no matter what.
To be an advocate, one must direct all of one's energy toward being on her/his side, in spite of anything
To be an advocate, one must set aside any tendencies to evaluate the survivor and and take care of her instead.
To be an advocate, one must trust the survivor, even when trust is difficult.
Advocates must trust survivors.

Although I understand the reasons for the methods used to train advocates, I would appreciate a conversation about what this means ethically and epistemologically. I suppose that conversation doesn't have to take place during training.

But what does it mean to produce the effects of love without the love? What does it mean to put someone else's needs above everything else; to drop everything to take care of someone simply because she needs it; to trust what she says simply because she said it; to refuse even to let oneself consider whether anything she has said might be false - what does it mean to do all this as an outsider, as someone who can and will leave, as someone for whom this is not a crisis, as someone who manufactures, on the spot, compassion and authority for several hours at a time?

Kierkegaard claims that love believes all things and is never deceived. The one who loves does so regardless of the risk of being considered gullible or foolish. The one who loves commits to believing the beloved against reasons for disbelief. Of course, for Kierkegaard, the one who loves is following Jesus' command to love one's neighbor, albeit in a radical, self-altering way that even secular folks can understand.

Why do advocates believe survivors? Advocates do not believe survivors out of love (though some may indeed be moved by love to work with rape survivors). Advocates are trained with certain political and pragmatic goals in mind: advocates believe survivors because it is expedient to do so. Advocates believe survivors because it works. This makes it easier - particularly for volunteer advocates - to separate their advocacy work with the rest of their lives; advocacy training and work need not move volunteers to experience any deep ethical or epistemological crisis: volunteers need not import the practice of believing all things into any other part of their lives, nor need they consider the implications of such belief for their advocacy work or their "real lives".

How deep - and of what kind - is the impact of advocacy training and work outside of the settings in which it is needed?

I admit that one could not conduct a training session about loving survivors. That could be a panel presentation, perhaps, at a conference attended by seasoned advocates. If Jesus had had PowerPoint and ran a seminar, his commandment wouldn't have been nearly so effective. Kierkegaard's book is so convicting because he describes in such detail what it means to love. Love believes all things and is never deceived. Love hopes all things and is never put to shame. Love builds up. Love hides a multitude of sins. Love abides. These things would be terribly unhelpful - and inappropriate - at an advocacy training.

And yet. Why do we believe survivors? That's not a question one can ask in training. This is not a place for hypothetical and theoretical conversation. Believing survivors is a political choice that works to help survivors to get the best care possible. But I wonder if being already motivated by love (an ethical commitment not easily at home in a secular world) might help advocates to find or create something like joy even in the emergency room, even while watching a homeless woman's fingertip being sewn back onto her finger. Expediency doesn't seem to help combat advocate burnout. Love might.


omphaloskeptic said...

I like this post a lot, and there's a lot here to think about.

While I'm ruminating, what I have to say isn't so much about love (about which I'm totally confused), or about advocate burnout (with which I have little experience) but about believing. I'm reminded of something that DM said in class which is that sometimes survivors aren't best served (loved?) by believing them if indeed they are deluded/confused/mistaken/consciously dishonest about what happened to them.

I don't know how I feel about that. I think there may be some truth to it. But the cases where a narrator of trauma might be best served by not being believed seem rare enough, the damage and danger of not believing intense enough, the sheer difficulty of identifying such cases with any kind of certainty palpable enough, that it seems at least a strange (wrong?) place to start. But then how does one incorporate this possibility into caring for survivors? I don't know.

But that isn't exactly what your post is about, I don't think?

I'm not sure what it means to believe all and never be deceived. But is part of why we believe survivors because there is always something true in/behind their words, some real trauma, whether they find/choose all the right words to point to it, whether they remember or record all the details accurately, or even if (and it's hard enough for me to allow this if) they willfully lie about?

But even to say that survivors' narratives may be sometimes allegorically or metaphorically and not literally true seems like a betrayal.

I think that yes, the political act of believing survivors creates epistemological problems. But this political act seems so necessary that I want to find a way to say that survivor advocacy reveals epistemological problems that already exist rather than the other way around.

philosophotarian said...

ok. I didn't get into what I mean by epistemological considerations. I don't think it's a problem, that's the thing. I think it's a really important part of knowing/what it means to know and that that isn't well explored/considered at all: advocates can't privilege "knowing" in certain ways and I think that that is absolutely ok.

The comment in class is just what I'm afraid of - even for myself - in advocacy work: there is something difficult about sitting in training as a philosopher. It's uncomfortable. You're right - and it is emphasized in every training - that the number of false reports is extremely low. But what is not said - not explicitly at least - is this: "It's not your job to determine or evaluate or consider. It's your job to believe and to act based on that belief." I don't disagree with that part at all, but I wonder what it does to so separate that attitude from "the rest of one's life" - shouldn't working with injustice and violence and trauma make one rethink everything? But it doesn't (or not for everyone). It just gives folks a set of tools to use in a special situation. But violence and trauma and injustice aren't "special situations", they color peoples whole lives.

Now I'm rambling. !

omphaloskeptic said...

Ah, ok yeah, I didn't see myself as necessarily arguing against you, just throwing out some thoughts.

I don't know how to deal at all with these questions (truth value of survivor narratives and how this kind of believing affects/carries over into the rest of one's life), but I'm really interested in them! When a question along these lines came up when I gave my paper at the FC, I was just like, yeah I totally have not figured out how to deal with that yet.

i haven't tried to read much survivor stuff in awhile but in the past, essays about the truth value of survivor narrative tended to be pretty triggery for me. I might be in a better place to deal with them now?

philosophotarian said...

Yeah, I didn't think we were at odds with each other - I know I indicated more than I explained in my posting and then I got back into soapbox mode in my last comment!

I suppose part of what's motivating this for me right now (apart from attending training on Tuesday) is the fact that the training program is not well-equipped to address the kinds of questions and concerns that I have, and I wish there was a place for those kinds of questions.

[unrelatedly, I was so proud of myself for figuring out how to use the html tags in my first comment!]