What We Say Matters – Propaganda, Integrity, Honor and Value in Humanitarian Communications

Yesterday I had an experience that I am still a little stunned by and quite honestly enraged by. After a long discussion with close friends I feel that I am now at a place where I can process it and share my thoughts on the issue. 

While on facebook yesterday I came across a video produced by an organization with a loud voice in the anti-trafficking industry. I use the word industry for a reason and have borrowed this term from my good friend Craig Greenfield. You can read his thoughts on the matter here.

Below is a transcript of the audio from the video. The speaker is a well known founder of an anti-trafficking organization. As you read through the words below, without adding any context of what you know about Cambodia or the facts, what feelings and emotions do these words bring to your mind regarding Cambodia men.

Gang Rapes in Cambodia – Transcript

(Begin quote)

Research shows that 60 to 80 percent of Cambodian men frequent brothels

All said they knew there were children in the brothels that they went to, and many had sex with children.

But the most disturbing fact was that gang rape has become prevalent here. They asked those sex buyers in the research how many had participated in gang rape. and a little over 50% of them said that they had participated and do participate in gang rapes. So the averages would be that 75% of the overall male population are frequenting brothels.

And of that 75 percent 40 percent of the total population are involved in gang rapes. 

Almost all the men that were interviewed said that they were reenacting what they had seen in pornography, and actually pornography produced in the United States… (end quote)

Having read the transcript, how do you currently feel about Cambodian men? Do you feel they have value, do you feel they are worthy of investing in. Do you think or feel that they are loved by God. Are you inspired to help them change their attitudes, and actions toward women? Are you inspired to love them as Jesus loved them? Do you want to live next to them in Heaven? Do you feel any hope that Cambodian men can become anything more than gang raping pedofiles?

Chances are that your answer to all the above questions is NO! Chances are if I offered you a cape, cowl and the bat mobile you would be more than ready to go over there, kick ass and deliver justice.

This is all just based on the words – now watch the visuals that are paired with the words on the video –

Before you watch this video I want to be very clear that I strongly condemn the type exaggerated, sensationalist, exploitative, unethical media that you are about to watch.  This is Garbage.  It is an offensive, prejudice laden insult to the people of Cambodia.  the image below that is the thumbnail for the video, is entirely manipulative and exploitative of these innocent people who were filmed on the street without there permission and unaware they would end up in an image like this with the phrase “Gang Rape in Cambodia  next to their faces.

UPDATE: The Publishers of the video have removed the video from their channels in response to intense pressure from a small group of ethics advocates. So I cannot show you the video. But I did save the thumbnail image from youtube and it should give you a good idea of what the Video looked like. 

Screen shot from the Video “Gang Rapes in Cambodia”

Now that you have heard the message and seen the visuals, do you feel less angry, hateful and vengeful toward those unsuspecting men, filmed on the street without their consent and thrown under the bus on an international stage? If anything the images in the video and the order in which they are presented just add fuel to the emotional fire. It’s pretty hard to value them right now isn’t it? It’s pretty hard to see them as a child of God in need of his love and mercy. When you see the clips of young girls looking vulnerable and innocent and it switches to the men with faces blurred your mind automatically wonders how long it will be before they attack those helpless girls… After all, “they’re all gang rapists….”

Now that I’ve got you all worked up and ready to go dole out justice, I have another question…. what if those facts aren’t true?

What if the amount of Cambodia men who visit Brothels is closer to 18% that 80%?

What if the amount of men who had participated in a Gang rape was 5% rather than to 40%

Here is data from a UN study on this topic in Cambodia.

“Men were asked if they had ever had transactional and/or commercial sex. The operational definitions of these are presented in Box 7.1. Approximately half (51 percent) of men reported having had some type of transactional sex with a woman. There was equal distribution across the different types of transactional possibilities described in Box 7.1. Commercial sex, or sex with a sex worker, was less prevalent than transactional sex but still common. A total of 18 percent of men reported having ever had sex with any type of sex worker.

Gang rape statistics from the UN Women Study in Cambodia

While the real numbers paint a vastly different picture all on their own.. there was more reason for hope in the report. Like this paragraph in the executive summary:

“Men’s attitudes towards women are becoming more equitable over time and men can learn positive models from their fathers. Men aged 18-24 years had more equitable attitudes towards women than older men, indicating values and norms related to gender roles and women’s position in society are changing in a positive way. Men with secondary education or more, those who had a higher income and those who were not formally taught Chbab Srey/Chbab Proh, the traditional Cambodian codes for male and female behaviour, also had more gender equitable attitudes. Men who grew up in a household with equal decision-making between their parents were more likely to have higher levels of equality in decision-making in their own relationship. This indicates that men can learn positive and equitable practices through observation when growing up. However, the majority of housework and childcare is still done by women and less than 10 percent of men had highly gender-equitable attitudes, indicating that ongoing work is needed in promoting equality in these areas.”

Quotes above from UN Women study on Violence against Women published June of 2015.

To be clear brothels are bad, and gang rape is horrible. I am not saying that any amount of this is acceptable or tolerable.

My point with all of this is that words matter.

Words and imagery used together matter even more.

The words you read and the film you watched are not facts, they are not documentary in nature. They are PROPAGANDA.

Wikipedia defines propaganda as follows:

“Propaganda is information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is presented.”

Does that sound familiar in relation to the text and video above? Did it provoke an emotional response toward the men of Cambodia. Were “facts” used selectively to influence the audience and alter your perception?

Hopefully some of you were able to see past the manipulation and reject the assertions about the collective evil of Cambodian men, for the rest of you hopefully the manipulation of your perception becomes clear and begins to offend you.

Why is our perception of Cambodian men being manipulated? A simple explanation is that in short calculated bursts, outrage fuels donations, it provides income. It is a method, a means to an end.

The problem is that while shock and outrage temporarily fuel donations, over the long term manipulating people to the point of outrage that inspires action takes more and more work. Donors begin to see the perpetrators of evil acts like gang rape as unsaveable and the problem as unsolvable. They also become desensitized to the problem and require more and more graphic anecdotes to compel them to action.

These words and images have an effect on our perception of Cambodian men whether we like it or not. Just the act of reading these words and watching this simple 1 minute film alters our perception of an entire population of people.  In the back of our minds we will always wonder if it is true on some level. There is a level of distrust, even if it is subconscious, created by words and images like this. As much as we know it is not true, a piece of it will always be there.

Words and images like this from an organization with size and influence also have an impact on how other humanitarian organizations are able to work and operate in the country. If an organization publishes information that says 40% of men in a country are actively involved in gang rape that will have an impact on their working relationship with the host government and how they do their work. It will also have an effect on how the government views, trusts and works with other non governmental organizations in the country. Publishing messages like the one above may make an organization out to be the hero, but if the message is seen by the government and other people with influence in the country, it can easily turn heroes into villains. Not just the publisher of the message but anyone associated with the sender is affected. They become potential future villains in the minds of government leaders, resulting from a genuine fear that those organizations will be the next to shame the government, it’s leaders and the people of their country.

Having said all of the above, I would like to see humanitarian and nonprofit marketing move to a higher level, where propaganda is shunned and hope is cultivated though the presentation of solutions and the impact they are having. That is the future of humanitarian marketing and we need to hold each other and the organizations we support to a higher standard.

Ultimately the good deeds done, women rescued, children saved from slavery do not justify the means, even if those means are something “insignificant” like communication.

What we say, how we say it, and how we do the work matters. Otherwise we are no better than those we struggling against.

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