While talking about the ethics of representation with a professor of mine, he asked me, “Look, let’s say you get drunk and then decide to drive home. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but you do, and on the way, you fall asleep behind the wheel and crash into a tree.
“You’ll get out of the tree, say, ‘Oh my God, thank goodness it’s just a tree,’ and feel relieved. You’ll have to pay a fine, maybe get a DUI, and you’ll have to pay for repairs, but in ten years, it will probably be a funny story you tell in ten years.
“But let’s say instead of hitting a tree, you hit a person. Suddenly, you feel a whole lot worse and you won’t be telling it as a funny story.
“So the question is, what are you basing your reaction on? The ethics of the action or the ethics of the consequence? Because in both cases, you did the same thing — you got drunk and lost control of your body while driving. But the consequences are very different and out of your control.”
This made me pause. In our culture, we like to think we judge people on the ethics of the action, regardless of consequences. You should not avoid stealing because you might get caught, but because the action of stealing itself is unethical. However, in the two cases of hypothetical drunk driving, our reactions are drastically different (either as the actor or the viewer) because of the consequences, despite the initial action being identical.
Anthropology is obsessed with ethics, mostly because what we do (learning about and then representing people) can have widespread and powerful effects. Anthropology has helped bring awareness to the plight of those who are brutally oppressed by powerful structures and figures, but also used to justify those same powerful structures and figures (such as European colonialism or racism). Therefore, we take our ethics very seriously. We try to do as little harm and as much good as possible.
But, as my professor noted, the consequences of our actions are usually completely out of our control. I may take painstaking action to act as ethically as possible while performing fieldwork and writing an ethnography, which someone may then use for less-than-ethical, even maliciously diabolical purposes. What can I do? Was the decision I made to write that ethnography unethical because of the consequences? Or am I absolved of fault because my own action was motivated and carried out with ethical precision (if that’s even possible)?
Of course, ethics is much messier than this, which is why I seem to be grappling with a constant headache these days. Since I’ve especially decided to start pushing myself, challenging my traditional, pre-conceived notions of what a “proper” ethnography is supposed to look like, my advisors and mentors just shrug and say, “We can’t tell you how to do anything anymore. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.” But, by the way, what you do or not do can have widespread, powerful effects for good or for evil on the people you study, or maybe even some other group you didn’t even think about. No pressure. Don’t inadvertently start a genocide. It’ll make our school look bad and funding might be harder to come by in the future.
In the end, you do what you can, and you try the best you can. Nobody imagined, especially J.D. Salinger himself, that Mark David Chapman would use The Catcher in the Rye as his “statement” after killing John Lennon. And surely, we won’t hold J.D. Salinger culpable or complicit in the tragedy. But at the same time, how do you grapple with it? If Roland Barthes is right, every time you write something, a little part of your commits suicide. No wonder so many writers decide to eventually finish the job their writing started. Ethics, writing, and representation is a dirty, messy business.