The Right Stuff at Theatre Lane Hotel on Friday afternoon was a really reflective and honest session. Hosted by Erin Handley, with Anna Krien, Ben Mylius and Ellen van Neerven, the panellists discussed some of the most ethically fraught encounters in their writing.
In his work, Ben considers questions of authority, gender and race critiques, and the problems of one person speaking for another, including in ecology with humans speaking for the environment. Anna’s writing sees her wading into battles of uncertainty to mediate popular, unexamined certainties. She finds that often the core of issues aren’t investigated in mainstream media, that emotional issues often get in the way of asking the big, more complex questions.
Ellen found that authenticity, boundaries and issues of ownership of language occur in her writing. She has wondered about using politically incorrect words in a historical context, about which side is promoted in doing this, as well as the necessity of sensitivity around sacred information, and what is insider or outsider information.
When working with interview subjects, Anna said she can become immersed or tangled in the story, that people would trust her, and that she wants them to, but she isn’t sure that she is the right person for them to trust. Her responsibility, she says, is to the story not the people, and she will always honour the story’s truth. It’s true that everyone thinks their story is the right one, the truthful one, but a journalist has to cover all possible sides of the story.
Anna doesn’t think there can be complete objectivity, but that it is something we have to strive for. She says that once you declare your subjectivity you’ve outed yourself, that it is the most honest thing you can do. In her experience her publishers have been happy with these muddied states of uncertainty, but the people in the book were not. She is careful to note that even if you are sympathetic to a person’s plight it doesn’t mean you are on their side. Anna makes sure to show the journey to discovering what is wrong or right when writing, that you can’t take a side at the start. She suggests that you ask yourself if you are a writer or an advocate. Advocates leave certain things out, whereas journalists are forced to ask themselves uncomfortable questions in order to find the true story. The writer must be aware of false battlegrounds, and Anna believes that you will only find the real battleground through uncomfortable investigating. She says that advocates can’t do this because they don’t talk to everyone, like the people they disagree with. Most importantly, Anna is always doubting.
Ellen discussed fiction as tool to teach empathy, which Anna agreed is the purpose of reading and writing. This panel raised many complicated issues around ethics, authority, responsibility, respect and duty—none of which can be navigated without a lot self-awareness and care.