I recently listened to a CBC Radio interview about Rosewater, a movie about a journalist who is detained and brutally interrogated in an Iranian prison for more than 100 days. The film, based on a true story, is John Stewart’s directorial debut, requiring him to take a 3 month leave from The Daily Show to make it happen. During the interview, Stewart highlighted something interesting that we don’t usually associate with detainment:
“I think there is a tendency to view torture in a very narrow light. I think we’re accustomed more to that American cinematic version…’Tell me what you know’ and the guy’s in a dank dungeon and [gets kicked] in the face…But the truth of the matter is, deprivation is torture. And solitary is torture. And what Maziar went through is a far more common and ubiquitous form of torture that we no longer recognize.
We’ve become desensitized to the more mundane aspects of someone losing their freedom.”
The things we do in our day-to-day life – our routines, habits, and relationships – are an intrinsic part of being human. Like drinking coffee in the morning, going to work, hanging out with friends, doing laundry, sleeping in a bed, reading a book, listening to music, eating good food, buying a home, raising children. Torture is not limited to being physically battered and verbally threatened. Torture often takes the form of simply losing one’s freedom to do the mundane – yet meaningful – things that make us who we are.
The bit got me thinking about a conversation I’ve had with several front-line workers who deal with victims of trafficking and abuse. There is a temptation for many of us in anti-trafficking circles to tell the worst stories, to shock the audience with horrific details, and in some cases, to exaggerate stories to the point where they are no longer true. But while focusing on “the worst stories” may illicit temporary support and funding for important projects, in many cases it undermines sustainable compassion - the kind of compassion that cares about the nuances of people’s situations and doesn’t require sensationalism to keep it going.
It’s true – some victims of exploitation are locked in a room and have to service dozens of men daily. But there are other victims that are stuck in prostitution because of invisible chains, like being in love with their pimp or trying to provide for their kids. There are some who were kidnapped off the street and sold into prostitution, and there are others who knew they would enter prostitution but had no idea how hard it would be to get out. Some are beaten every day and deprived of food and medical attention, while others are permitted to move around and even have their own home as long as the money keeps filling the pimp’s pockets. And then there are those who are not being sexually abused at all, but are forced to work in a field or a factory for little or no pay.
Our response and our compassion should extend to all these situations, because while some are more extreme than others, they are all missing elements of freedom.
As cliche as it sounds, picture yourself in another’s shoes and allow yourself to feel their fear, their discomfort, their frustration. Let’s strive to care about injustice in all its forms, and wean ourselves from the addiction of sensationalism.