Violence and the ways we write it

‘What are the ethics of storytelling?’ asks James Dawes (2013: xiii) in his book Evil Men, where he seeks to increase our understanding of evil based on interviews with aging Japanese war criminals. This question has simultaneously guided and haunted me, both as a scholar and humanitarian, working on thematics that have violent profusions at its core. I have asked myself and colleagues in both sectors: at what point do descriptions of harm and the consequences of violence turn into sensationalism rather than necessary re-presentations of violent experiences? The question can be equally formulated from the other end of the continuum as: How comfortable a read can research that has mass violence at its core become, before the distance created by language becomes an ethical – and analytical – challenge in its own right?

In a new article published in Qualitative Research, I explore and reflect on these ethical dilemmas of re-presentation, following the traction of my own research on conflict-related sexual violence and international criminal justice. I argue that we risk producing violent re-presentations either by sensationalizing people through descriptions of what is meant to be sensational violence, or by silencing experience through euphemizing harm in conceptual categories. In my PhD-project in particular, I had growing concerns over the cementing of subjectivities that criminal justice processes produced on the one hand, and the concurrent paradoxical and lofty claims of its advocates, holding its existence and delivery to be a premise for healing, reconciliation, prevention, and peace, on the other. The two sizes – one categorically static and deterministic, the other transformative at its core – were strikingly at odds. Alas, the problematic consequences of the former were ever more visible than the promised positive effects of the latter.

Against this background, the article offers a personal and unsettled, yet academic reflection on the ethics of re-presenting harm and violence in our research, publications and teachings. I hold, with Krystalli (2021: 127), that ‘research methods and ethics are inseparable from each other’ and that the re-presentation work of our end texts (Mantzoukas, 2004) are an important part of both. I hope to encourage active engagement with a research ethics that goes beyond ‘procedural ethics’ (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004), to address what Baaz and Stern (2013: 32) labels our ‘impoverished framework for seeing, hearing, making sense of, writing about and empathizing with subjects of sexual violence’ in this particular empirical and theoretical field of research. That is, to expand and feed the discussion on researchers’ responsibilities for the stories we ask for, hear, read, analyze, and re-tell by addressing the ethics of re-presenting stories and the people they involve in our teaching and publications on mass violence and war crimes (see Boesten and Henry, 2018).  

I hope to stir some self-reflexive engagement, and that you will find it worthwhile to read.