“Just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it’s yours.”: the political misappropriation of personal pain


Regular readers may have noticed that I have a tendency to start serieses that I don’t finish. Well, I’ve finally got a second installment in 52 Acts of Political Correctness. The original 52something meme is here – do feel free to join in!


The Ethics of Personal Stories

Today’s thesis: just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it’s yours.

With the swell in personal blogging, a whole lot of people are sharing a whole lot of stories. Many of these stories are readable by anyone with a modem and time on their hands. And there are a whole lot of people out there who think that if they can read it, it’s “public domain”. They think that it’s perfectly reasonable for them, as a member of a dominant group, to use a personal story of a dilemma, of pain, of grief, for their political ends – even when their use is exploitative, mean-spirited, mocking, and contrary to the original purpose of the story.

“But it’s perfectly legal!” goes the usual defensive bluster. “Don’t you constrain my frea speach! You gave up all your rights to your story when you put it out there!”

My take: when your political ends are completely antithetical to the story’s intent, and you know this, and you are a member of that author’s oppressor group: back off.

It’s not about whose rights it is, or who has the legal power to enforce limits on speech. We all know that even if these misuses of stories were illegal (and it’s usually not), there would be no realistic way of enforcing it.

I’m talking about a more collective ethics, an ethic of care, á la Carol Gilligan’s feminist ethics. An ethics based on respect for others’ personal boundaries, however fuzzy, and where they are situated in power structures both online and offline. We’re forming new sets of ethics here on the internet, in the blogging communities. And it would be nice if it were based on unalloyed glibertarianism, on something more than the person with the loudest voice shouting, “Shut up, I can take advantage of whatever and whomever I like. Can’t stop me. Ner.”

Three examples coalesced while I was making notes for this story: one offline, two online. Australian readers have probably guessed the first: Brendan Nelson twisting Faye Lynam’s story of being one of the Stolen Generations. The second example involved forced-birther blogger Dawn Eden and her misuse of a blogger’s personal abortion narrative. Thirdly, Oz Conservative’s mocking exploitation of one of the best series in the femiblogosphere last year, Blue Milk’s Feminist Motherhood series.

Note that the contested stories are all the stories of women.

They are all the stories of women struggling in challenging situations, all the stories of women in positions neither rewarded or respected by the dominant white-male-Christianist-coloniser group. All are stories of deeply personal struggle and pain, many involving self-doubt or self-examination. All of these women have been supremely courageous to put their stories out there so that other people, particularly women and/or Indigenous people, might read them and connect with them, might know that they are not alone.

Their personal stories have all been appropriated and misinterpreted for patriarchal purposes. Their narratives have been colonised, their oppression has been dismissed, denied, and even mocked. They have been used as pawns for ends they would vehemently disagree with – and their exploiters know this, and do not care. Not only do they try to take control of and ill-treat our bodies and our labour; they try to take our stories as well.

Brendan Nelson

Brendan “Decimal” Nelson, leader of the Opposition (conservative) party in Australia, gave a churlish, mannerless, and inappropriate speech [video here] in response to PM Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generation. Included in his speech was an misappropriation of Faye Lynam’s story, from the Many Voices oral history at the National Library of Australia. This is what he said:

No one should bring a sense of moral superiority to this debate in seeking to diminish the view that good was being sought to be done.

This is a complex issue. Faye Lyman’s life is one of the Many Voices oral history at the National Library of Australia. Faye left her father when she was eight; “Personally I don’t want people to say, ‘I’m sorry Faye’ – I just want them to understand.

“It was very hurtful to leave Dad. Oh it broke my heart. Dad said to me, It’s hard for daddy and the authorities won’t let you stay with me in a tent on the riverbank. You’re a little girl and you need someone to look after you. I remember him telling us that, and I cried. I said, ‘No, but Dad, you look after us.’ But they kept telling us it wasn’t the right thing.

“I don’t want people to say sorry. I just want them to understand the hurt, what happened when we were initially separated, and just understand the society, what they’ve done. You don’t belong in either world. I can’t explain it. It hurts so much.”

There is no compensation fund, nor should there be. How can any sum of money replace a life deprived of knowing your family? Separation was then, and remains today, a painful but necessary part of public policy in the protection of children.

news.com.au reported the effect that this had on Lynam:

“How dare he use my words, the bloody bastard,” Mrs Lynam told the newspaper, after reading the text of Dr Nelson’s speech. “He doesn’t realise how much that has hurt, it was a toxic speech.”

She also said the speech had changed her greatly. ‘‘He’s turned my world upside down,” she said. “Why would he use that in such a horrible way? It makes me so angry.” […]

“He took my story… out of context,” she said. “And now I feel like I’m stolen all over again… my dignity… I was ashamed to hear that he had done this to me. He used… my story for his political career, and he told me he read (these quotes) three years ago, so he had plenty of time to get a hold of me.”

The Milton-Ulladulla Times has more:

Dr Nelson quoted part of Ms Lynam’s account of being taken from her father when she was six, which is included in the Many Voices oral history document.

“He should have read it all,” Ms Lynam said. “Then he would have realised, because they promised Dad he could come and visit me, see me, said they’re not taking me away. As soon as they got out of sight of my father, when he came to visit me, to the house, they said I wasn’t there, they moved me.”

Ms Lynam said her dad kept searching for her, but every time he got close, she was moved again, eventually being shifted from eastern Victoria’s Gippsland region to Melbourne.


Ms Lynam said the years she spent with white families were “hell” and that she had been sexually abused many times.

“The hurt of going from my dad and then going to this place and be sexually abused and ridiculed day in day out, put a little black girl on show,” she said. “I used to just keep very quiet somewhere. They’d bring me down because they always lived on the pub premises and when the men got a few beers into them, there were so many sexual abuses, yeah it was horrific. It was horrific to go through. If I was with my dad, it would have never happened to me. My dad would have protected me.”

After Dr Nelson quoted her as saying she didn’t want people to say sorry, Ms Lynam said she wanted to set the record straight.

“It wasn’t meant in the text that I didn’t want people to feel sorry,” she said.

“I didn’t want to say ‘poor little Faye’, and all this .. I wanted them to understand the real story, why I was taken and what we went through. It wasn’t a better life. They put us in hell.”

This. This is the story that a white man manipulated to claim that good was being sought by the kidnappers, by the abusers. This is the story that Nelson claims is the story of a girl who “left her father”. Not the Stolen Generation, not even the “Separated Generation” (repulsive euphemism), but an attempt to cast her in the eyes of the nation as a member of the “Generation That Left Of Their Own Free Will For A Better Life”.

Dawn Eden

You can’t be in the pro-reproductive-justice blogosphere and not know of egregiously-nasty forced-birther Dawn Eden. Jill at Feministe recently picked up on an episode of particular nastiness from her foul corner of the web: “Do Professional “Pro-Lifers” Care About Women?”

Pro-choice blogger in media res wrote her own medical abortion story, for women to share. It was a story of pain and difficulty and loss, but not a story of regret. The followups are here.

And Dawn Eden and her regulars, misogynists extraordinaire, appropriated it, and mangled it, and disingeuously claimed they were just doing it to ask her readers to “pray for the woman in question”. As Jill says:

Her feelings, and her experiences, are valid. And she is not the first feminist I’ve spoken with who feels loss or pain after abortion. Unfortunately, there are huge disincentives for women to be honest about their abortion experiences. Women who don’t grieve, or who simply feel relief and not pain, are accused of being selfish, heartless, or deluding themselves, assumed to be putting off the real pain that’s bound to come. Women who say “I had an abortion” without mentioning guilt or pain are accused of “bragging.” Any woman who isn’t apologetic is at the very least an irresponsible whore. Women who do admit some ambiguity in their emotions are inundated with religious anti-choice rhetoric about how they’re surely grieving about killing their baby, and they should join this or that “pro-life” or “post-abortive” ministry. Whenever pro-choicers try to create a space for women to speak about abortion, it’s infiltrated and abused by shameless anti-choicers with an agenda.

And that’s exactly what Dawn is doing here. The blogger at In medias res has asked that her story not be used as anti-choice political fodder. And despite Dawn’s supposed concern for the blogger’s mental health and well-being, she puts up a post that the blogger in question has made clear is doing her emotional harm.

The writer has said that while the experience was painful, she learned from it and she feels she’s stronger for it. She has written about feeling better. Despite her words being twisted around to support an ideology she vehemently opposes, she still has the courage to write honestly.

Oz Conservative

Oz Conservative is pretty much what his blog title claims: a traditionalist Australian conservative man, Mark Richardson. You know the deal: gold-digging women gotta be reminded of their sacred baby-making duties, white Australian fertility crisis, homophobia, evpsych-worship, etc. He says shit like “femininity can only flourish when men are moved to create a protected space for it.”, and “Worse, Gillard separates a woman’s achievements and character from her femininity.”, freaks out at critical whiteness studies and “attacks on traditional family values”. You know the guy, or at least his type.

So when Bluemilk started her Feminist Motherhood series, he wallowed with joy. Women sharing their stories! Feminists talking critically about sacrifice, about motherhood, about the challenges they faced and the dilemmas they resolved! Instead of seeing this as it was – a group of women sharing their real, complex, ambiguous personal stories – he leapt on it it as a chink in the feminist armour, as an opportunity for attack.

“When feminists become mothers”, he snarked, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. He gotcha’d Theresa for valuing her family as well as her autonomy. He claimed Marjorie possessed only a “residual feminism” (as though her feminism were pesky cancer cells, only nearly eradicated) because she chose to be a stay-at-home mother. He excoriated Rose and blamed her family difficulties on her feminist parenting. And he revelled scornfully and triumphantly in the ways in which all of the women talked about the need to balance their individualism with their family’s needs. “You submit, I win”, was the overall, crowing impression.

Bluemilk responded thus:

Thanks Mark for your interest in the feminist motherhood series. While I disagree with most of your conclusions I think we both found these posts fascinating.

Please remember that the women participating in this are real people who bravely put their thoughts and personal experiences out there for others (particularly other mothers) to read and reflect upon, and that most of them are not academics and aren’t used to seeing their words selectively quoted for the purposes of counter-argument. Their stories should always be treated with respect.

It is also worth remembering that these women are the experts on their own lives, not you or I (we’re seeing a tiny snippet of these complex lives – even tinier when selectively quoted by you – that they’ve been generous enough to share with us) and describing their actions and decisions as “mistakes” is arrogant.

The second last question I posed to feminist mothers was – “Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how?”. I wanted to look at the much cherished right-wing notion that feminists are anti-mothers and see whether there was in fact a burning resentment out there among feminist mothers towards feminism. It is interesting to see that you’ve chosen to quote from one of the very few mothers who perceived feminism as having failed her to some degree as a mother, rather than the many more who didn’t. All their responses are interesting, but why not also quote from the feminist mothers who expressed the opposite view? If you want to use these mothers’ responses to support your theories, acknowledge where they challenge them too.

Finally, a response to your own post’s conclusions – ALL mothers, feminist and non-feminist alike experience a change in “attitude to autonomy” after motherhood, and I’d guess that pretty much ALL involved fathers do too. This is not some great lesson to teach feminists to come to heel, this is a lesson in the sacrifice of parenthood. No-one can really be fully prepared for the exhaustion of parenting, it takes us all by surprise. I would argue that the ones who cope best with this surprise are the ones who are empowered, supported, valued, and able to share the domestic workload fairly.

I echoed her interpretation, and I added this layer:

Among enormous masses of other leaps of illogic and selective quoting, he appears to have pigeonholed “feminism”, as though it is a monolithic hivemind, into a neoliberal box valuing autonomy above all else.

This does not accord in any way with the feminisms with which I’m familiar – those which places a very high value on collectivism, connections between women, and (within the subgroup of feminist mothers) a much more thoughtful, compassionate approach to parenting than I’ve ever seen out of antifeminist conservative circles, which have given us the Pearls and BabyWise. The deep, warm, honest feminist-mothers series illustrated this point exquisitely.

But where would the neocons be without their haughty, materialistic strawfeminists?

In Conclusion

The information explosion and the rise of blogging are further blurring public/private boundaries. This is not a bad thing; this allows some people who have traditionally been denied any voice to share their stories, to collate their experiences.

Exploiters try to validate their exploitation in terms of these personal stories being “public domain”, part of the “historical record”. They justify their appropriation as “free speech”, and they consider anything they can access to be “fair game”. By using the term “game”, of course, they are perhaps giving themselves away: casting themselves in the role of predator, the writer in the role of prey.

Why do they hunt us? Women are sharing their stories of personal pain. Is this threatening to them? Yes, I think it is. The personal is political, and consciousness-raising groups are about sharing our personal stories and learning from them. We learn we are not alone. We learn that our oppression is not our fault.

if we can’t share our stories safely, we can’t find the patterns and meanings in them. We can’t postulate an underlying explanation, or begin collective action. Women’s stories are only a threat to those who oppress them. So the oppressors will try to silence us any way they can: by appropriation, by misinterpretation, by mockery, by hitting us where they think it will hurt – our most personal feelings and experiences, our reproductive choices, our quandaries, our pain.

The oppressor’s response to resistance to these attacks is the same as the oppressor’s response to our rape activism: “If you don’t like it, stay home. Protect yourself. Lock your doors. Don’t talk to strangers. If you put yourself out there, any abuse we visit on you is your own fault. You’ve only got yourself to blame.”

To them, the answer to “The world’s a dangerous place” is “If you don’t like it, stay out of it”. I’m arguing for a different response: “the world’s a dangerous place: let’s make it safer”.

I am not arguing for banning, extrinsic control, or legal action; but for respect for people who put their personal pain out there. Examine your privilege. If you’re not going to use a personal story in good faith, if you’re going to twist it into the polar opposite of everything that person holds dear, think twice.

just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it’s yours.

We’re involved in the the collective writing of a new ethics, not based in law or regulations, but based in a chosen care and respect for those less powerful. How is it going to work? I don’t know. But we’ll never know if we don’t try.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, indigenous, Meta, relationships, social justice

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10 replies

  1. Thanks for writing this. I’ve had to think about this matter fairly seriously myself, as someone who is mentally ill (chronic depression) and who admits as much in public and without shame. I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve never been institutionalised, I respond well to medication, and I was lucky enough to have a sympathetic and receptive medical practicioner to “come out” to. Over my term of blogging, first on LiveJournal and now on InsaneJournal, I’ve published a few pieces about what it actually feels like to be depressed, and what it’s like to live with a mental illness. I’ve received sympathetic comments back from friends and acquaintances as a result of these. But part of me can’t help but wonder whether someone else somewhere has been making negative use of them, using them as a way of saying “thou shalt not” to someone else, or of stereotyping all mentally ill persons.
    I write my occasional pieces on “this is what it’s like in here” because I want to help other people understand. I want them to be able to think of mental illness as something which isn’t scary; I want them to understand that even though I do occasionally have days where the first answer to any question in my mind is “why not kill yourself?” I’m still interested in living. I don’t write them so some nitwit can turn around and say “this is crazy talk, she should be locked up”. I don’t write them so people can turn around and tell someone who is in mental distress that they can’t be “properly” mentally ill because they don’t feel like I feel.
    I know semiotic theory says the intentions of the writer don’t override the constructions of the reader, but I do tend to believe that the intentions of the writer count for something. If the aim is to share information, then the information shared belongs to the people who are sharing it, and it’s only polite to ask their permission before appropriating it to suit your own purposes.
    Meg Thornton’s last blog post..Fic: Why

  2. Lauredhel, I read through my article again and wished only that I had made the political argument clearer. There is no mockery in it. There is no scorn. It is, in fact, more respectful of the women and their stories than you are of me.
    It’s not easy for a man to understand how you interpret this situation. I wrote a piece of analysis based on some stories by feminist mothers. You take this to be an attempt to silence you, to colonise you, to mock you, to take advantage of you.
    This is a highly personalised response to a political argument. Why not instead just say why you think my argument was wrong?
    Mark Richardson’s last blog post..Liberalism & power

  3. This is a highly personalised response to a political argument.

    Bullshit, Mark. Read my post again. This is a response to a very, very, very personal argument. You took the personal stories of a group of women and used it against them and all they hold dear.
    What it is not is a personal response to _you_. It says absolutely nothing about your personal life or your personal story. It is a response to your political posturing, the beliefs you attempt to foist onto others, and your exploitation of women’s experience to try to score points against them, and against feminism.

    It’s not easy for a man to understand how you interpret this situation.

    And yet, many feminist men seem to manage just fine – because they try, and because they listen to women, they believe them, and respect their beliefs.
    Don’t you dare for a second try to play the victim here. And for future reference, please read our comment guidelines and civility policy, and bear in mind that I will not host any sexist speech. By my definition, not yours.
    At least Nelson had the good sense to apologise when he was called on it.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..?Just because you can see it, doesn?t mean it?s yours.?: the political misappropriation of personal pain

  4. Meg, thanks for your comment. I think it is worth reading those aspects of semiotic theory with a deeply critical eye – it’s all too easy for some contemporary theorists push aside power, inequality, and conflicts in favour of a sort of abstract, jargon-riddled feelgoodism.
    I don’t think that people should never look at and discuss other people’s stories, at all – but I do think that they need to keep in mind the power dynamics, and consider intent and good faith.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..?Just because you can see it, doesn?t mean it?s yours.?: the political misappropriation of personal pain

  5. Re: semiotic theory– I think the whole reason that the “death of the author” doesn’t work in these situations is that people who misappropriate personal narratives are making assumptions about authorial intent anyway– they are trying to say that they recognise the intent of the author better than the author herself– so they aren’t killing the author, they’re kidnapping her, and trying to force her authorial voice to say something that she doesn’t want to say.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for writing about this, and for writing about it so well. This issue bothers me greatly, particularly as he is at it again (sigh) http://ozconservative.blogspot.com/2008/02/liberalism-power.html and because I know that women participating in my “10 questions” did so with much honesty and they, like me were picturing an audience made up of the kinds of respectful readers who comment on my site. I feel I’ve let them down in a way by not being able to protect them better.
    However, their responses to the 10 questions have been extremely popular in terms of hits on the posts and given that oz conservative’s negative response is the only one of its kind that I’m aware of I can feel some comfort knowing that a lot of other people out there must have found these women’s stories very helpful, as was intended.
    Also, I found it quite distressing to see Lyman’s personal account misused like that by Nelson, thinking of the deep embarrassment and exposure she must have experienced on what should have been such a positive day for her was awful.
    This is a very good topic to post on, thanks Lauredhel.
    blue milk’s last blog post..Mothers and daughters – a poetry, writing, photography competition

  7. Thanks for writing this. What Dawn did to me and does to other people is disgusting, and I agree that it is colonizing my experience. I’ve asked for her post to be taken down, or for there to be some sort of follow-up that would provide a more complete picture of my life in context. Ha…of course that hasn’t happened. She knew exactly what she was doing, and never once rebuked any of her followers for the horrible things they said. From comments there and elsewhere, it was pretty clear to me that a number of them hoped I would suffer, never recover, and ideally die a horrible and gross death so they’d have a good story. Like I said, she knew what she was doing.
    Anyway, thanks again. When I look at my WordPress stats, most of the incoming links are from hate sites. It’s kinda strange to be comforted by the ones that aren’t, but there it is. I am.
    In medias res’s last blog post..A primer on writing about abortion experiences

  8. Hi in media res.
    “Brave” seems such a trite word to use here, but you really are, and I dip my hat to you. Eden and her crowd are nasty, contemptible, evil people, and what they did to you was profoundly immoral.
    You’re among friends here.

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