A gay girl in Damascus turns out to be a 40-year-old white male from Georgia. Do hoaxes like these harm authentic bloggers with something real to say?
As a blogger who aims for integrity, and views blogging as part of his spiritual practice, I have found myself drawn to the discussion around the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Obviously, things have gotten pretty awful over in Syria, and there’s no way to know if it will take a turn for the better anytime soon. “A Gay Girl in Damascus” became an overnight sensation, gaining a large following, as well as positive coverage in the mainstream,”Western” media. In fact, when the blogger was reported kidnapped a few weeks ago, thousands of GLBTQ folks and their allies hit Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, creating petitions and writing impassioned pleas in hopes that it might lead to the woman’s safe return.
As the protests and Syrian government crackdown advanced, the blog seemingly offered a window, from the point of view of someone whose very existence is considered immoral by many in her society. There was only one problem. Last week, the Washington Post revealed that the blog was a fake, and that it’s author was a 40-year-old white male from Virginia.
The man, Thomas MacMaster, wrote an apology on his blog which included the following: “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground,” he wrote. “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”
When I first heard this, I thought, yeah, right buddy. Then I thought, but maybe he did open a space for dialogue on some of the issues brought up in the blog. And then I started reading some other reactions to the whole thing, as well as seeing more of what the guy has said about his blog, and all I have left now is a sick feeling in my stomach.
Consider this, from an article on the webjournal Colorlines:
Yesterday Salamishah Tillet, the anti-rape activist, Africana Studies professor and a friend whom I can say I’ve seen in person, texted me about how the MacMaster and Graber hoaxes remind her of the 1838 James Williams Slave Narrative most likely penned by a white abolitionist. “Like in the controversial and fake 1838 ‘Narrative of James Williams,’ these [modern] white men posing as oppressed people makes it even harder for people to take ‘real’ concerns, demands and freedom writing seriously,” she wrote. (Seriously, she texts this way!) “Now, actual Arab lesbian bloggers will have to go to greater lengths to prove that they are in fact Arab and lesbian, and they’ll have to prove why their radical to liberal politics should be taken seriously. Aaargh.”
Or this, from the magazine Just Out:
Nothing about the progression MacMaster describes in his apology letter seems accidental. While misrepresenting himself in online discussion forums may have begun as a relatively benign experiment, no one forced MacMaster to contribute columns to Lez Get Real as Arraf, to create a blog to support the false identity or to accept interview requests with major media outlets like CNN and The Guardian.
McMaster, who admitted he “enjoyed ‘puppeting’ this woman who never was,” even went so far as to establish involved online relationships with Sandra Baragria, a Canadian woman sometimes identified as Arraf’s girlfriend, and Israeli blogger Elizabeth Tsurkov.
The whole thing reeks, absolutely reeks of privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. Class privilege. And straight privilege.
Beyond that, however, it is incidents like this that make it even more difficult for a blogger who might have something vitally important to say to be taken seriously. For all the inroads bloggers have made in recent years, blogging is still commonly considered to be solely the stuff of vanity writers and nerdy hobbyists.
My own experiences have turned me from a curious dabbler into a spiritually-motivated blogger. Readers and fellow bloggers have reminded me in various ways of the value that patience, fact checking, and compassion have in creating material that supports the kind of world I wish to live in. Even though this blog is a fairly small pea in the huge pod of the blogosphere, I feel a compelling responsibility as a Zen practitioner, yogi, and writer to offer a blog with integrity, to avoid misrepresenting who I am, and to respond to comments with respect and honesty, even if the same hasn’t been given to me. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I flop a bit, but that’s all part of the process as I see it.
Perhaps MacMaster’s blog can be used as a tool for speaking up about the value of blogging with integrity, and as a demonstration of what can happen when integrity is tossed aside.
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