The myth of equality in an unequal world

2015-01-12 15:00

One of the first things I learnt in journalism school, at the age of 17, was that objectivity is a myth – that it is impossible to be “objective” when the way you see and understand the world, as well as the words you write (and don’t write), colour your manner of story-gathering and storytelling, whether you like it or not.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot write accurately and thoroughly, and this bias manifests even when we don’t intend for it to – as seen in the recent headline “Juju’s wife shuns traditional wedding dress”, which was written by someone for whom the white Judeo-Christian wedding dress, originating in Britain, is the norm, so they othered the traditional outfit chosen by the bride.

Although not inaccurate, the story was unintentionally problematic. The consequence of the myth of objectivity is the idea that if we as media practitioners and commentators treat the world equally, then we have done our duty.

And this week the fact that Charlie Hebdo offended “everyone equally” has been repeatedly mentioned as though this were a good thing. On the surface, yes it is. They went after everyone.

There were “no holy cows”. But if you consider that the world we live in is characterised by dizzying inequality and unequal structures, that becomes problematic.

This colour-blindness that sees no race, no hierarchies and structures is great for making ourselves good, but who is that rose-coloured glass for?

It is almost inaccurate to tell the story of the world through the lens of equality when equality is so rare. The tool of satire itself is not objective.

How we mock and ridicule people’s vices comes from the place we occupy in the world and the privileges we have.

What we think is stupid or what we think is correct comes from somewhere.

It’s how Charlie Hebdo chose to publish a cartoon depicting black French MP Christiane Taubira as a monkey, a centuries-old racist trope, as satire.

And depicting another white politician in the same way is not “equal” because the experience of that image is very different for a white person.

So while we might use equality as a way to order the world, the world does not fit neatly into our categories. Treating an unequal world equally is not equality, it’s merely recreating the status quo.

We can continue in our newsrooms to deal with everyone “equally”, but be very honest about whose reality this really is, and whether we should be applauding ourselves.

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