The Personalist Project

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Accessed on October 17, 2017 - 12:16:34

Don’t Use People As Props

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Sep 27, 2017

Marie Tillman wants people to stop using her dead husband. 

Yesterday morning, the US President retweeted a post that used former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman's name and image to oppose the peaceful NFL protests that became ubiquitous this past week. 

"Pat's service, along with that of every man and woman's service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that," Marie Tillman replied in a statement released to CNN. 

As a writer and a personalist, I struggle often with the question of whether I have the right to tell a particular story or invoke a particular situation. It's very human to want to draw on communal myths and icons when making an argument or appealing to an audience. But when does that story-telling, that invoking of images, shade over into objectifying use of a human person? 

Some examples are, or should be, fairly clear. If we find the rhetorical use of the dead without consent disturbing, we should have no difficulty seeing the problems with using the actual bodies of the dead as literal props. I've also argued in the past against using images of victims of violence in exploitative ways, making a distinction between documentation and propaganda.

But other situations seem less clear. Can I retell a personal story that was told to me? What if I read it in a Facebook group? What if I don't use names? Does it make a difference whether I heard it somewhere public or private? Do I have a responsibility to make sure personal stories I hear second or third-hand have been shared by permission? Does it matter whether the story I'm using to support my argument is about someone living or dead? A private person or a public personality? Does it matter why I tell it? Is it OK if my argument is in support of something really important? What if telling someone else's story might touch a heart or save a life?

I don't have answers to all of these questions yet, but as they come up, I'm working out some principles to help me navigate them.

Some things are more obvious than others. It isn't "use" to tell the story of another person with their permission, without hidden or ulterior ends. Stories of individuals help us to understand the subjectivity of persons in a potent and ennobling way. (Thus the particular appeal of Humans of New York). If told with the intention of drawing attention to the humanity and dignity of overlooked or marginalized people, this kind of story-telling can represent a beautifully personalist approach to advocacy.

As we see in Marie Tillman's response above, using a person's name or story is problematic even when that person is deceased and cannot be directly harmed by your use. There's a violation that occurs when you misrepresent someone in a way contrary to the values they lived by. This is true, I think, even when the misrepresentation is the result of presumption and lack of basic research rather than intentional deception. (So remember to do a quick check before sharing that "gotcha" quote you saw on Facebook). 

Sometimes repeating a story comes across as exploitative even without many identifying details because of how and why it is told. Think of anecdotes told to support bigoted attitudes, or those that attribute hidden motivations or moral weakness to others. Rather than emphasize the subjectivity and dignity of persons, these stories simplify and flatten people to make them fit into the speaker's understanding of the world.

It's wrong to use people as means to an end. Insofar as we see in another person an opportunity or a point to win an argument, we fail to see the depth and breadth of their subjectivity.

We are called to love one another, and use is not compatible with love. Insofar as we use one another, we are failing to love one another. 

I want to be oriented toward love. 

Image by Juste de Juste [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons