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October 10, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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All year, I’ve been reading Salient and loving it, but…

But at the same time something about it has been troubling me.

My complaint certainly doesn’t need to be said, but it feels as if it ought to be at least mentioned, and the final issue seems to be the place to do that.

Whenever I read Salient, I tend to encounter students musing upon their own experiences rather than recounting things that they’ve discovered or been told, as a traditional journalist might. It could be argued that this improves the articles: surely people would know better than anyone else things that they themselves have experienced? I know that it might seem like there nothing wrong with using personal experience as a substitute for fact-finding.

But I don’t think so, and I think it creates a problem. The narratives we create about our past, unknowingly and unavoidably, are the ones we then use to justify our actions. That means when I’m writing about myself or my experience, it takes a real effort to to accept that there could be a different interpretation of events, or see myself as being in the wrong. It’s probably—and here’s where things get complicated—equally difficult for whoever I think wronged me to think that they did something wrong. We’re unlikely to both be right, and we are unlikely to be able to overcome our differing perceptions.

In the real world, we’d take a dispute like that to court, where a neutral mediator would decide things. It wouldn’t work if the same person was judge and prosecutor in court; why would it work in a magazine?

It’s complicated to criticise Salient for doing this, partly because it might be justifiable. The magazine’s role is not only to report on things, but to try to change them for the better.
If the personal experiences of Salient’s writers inspire change in the way others behave, then they are indubitably justified. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that they do. First, they misunderstand the nature of identity, and then they preach about it to those already converted to their way of thought.

A good example is the many articles dealing with queer issues. This coverage presumably had two aims; to help the non-straight come to terms with their sexuality, and to help the straight come to terms with the sexuality of others. Both these approaches can be shown to have failed.

The fundamental problem is that identity is a personal construct, not something that can be inculcated by a magazine. I am bisexual, I was bisexual before Salient told me that it was acceptable, and I will still be bi even if Salient has the unspeakable temerity to tell me that it is not acceptable. Conversely, if Salient were to devote a future issue, a Gaylient equivalent, to murder, I would not start to believe that murder was acceptable. Even if it explained the complicating factors, the agonising provocations murdererers endured, the overt cruelty of their prisons and the invisible cruelty of an uncaring and discriminatory society, I would still not be persuaded that murderers ought to be released, or the crime legalised, and I would especially not be persuaded to dabble in murder myself.

I imagine that if I were a homophobe, I might feel the same way about homosexuality, and no matter how earnest the articles, they would not change that belief.

There is also the same problem with self-belief that I have already alluded to; no-one is likely to believe themselves to be discriminatory. Many of the incidents of discrimination that I have suffered were inflicted upon me by people who would have been terribly offended, had I told them they were homophobic. (I remember, for example, a girl who told me that she had nothing against gays, she merely found that they lied more often.) So no-one who reads such articles is likely to change their behaviour; they believe that there is nothing for them to change, only the actions of others to condemn.

So what can we do? To remove any hint of the personal from the magazine would be to reduce its interest; but if it does no good and is only one side of a story, does it deserve to stay?

Comment upon issues could be reserved to those not personally involved, but if personal experience still has a place perhaps it is best incorporated in a magazine broader than merely news and comments. Its essentially emotional rather than factual truth could be reflected in creative work, poetry or short fiction.

But I don’t know, and that’s why I have felt doubtful about this complaint. I have presented an issue that may not be an issue, and that certainly lacks a solution; and it’s not up to me to decide what happens next. That’s the job of the writers and of the editors; and of the other readers.

Your call.

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  1. Randi says:

    Thanks for that! It’s just the asnewr I needed.

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