New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has invited his readers to weigh in whether he should have named a nine-year-old Congolese rape victim who was also featured in a video. The ensuing Facebook debate is surprisingly thoughtful.
Whatever you think of some of his work, Kristof's use of the internet is a model for someone with a platform as big as his: He uses it both to both be more transparent and to engage his readers in action.
Kristof has been writing a series of columns reported from the Congo, citing a statistic that it is the deadliest conflict since World War II but is almost entirely overlooked. For a documenting the horrific crimes against women in the Congo, he featured the stories of a 34-year-old woman and her nine year old niece. He obtained both of their consents to use their first and last names. Here are the issues, as Kristof lays them out:
it's the policy of the Times not to name rape victims and that making exceptions requires consultation with a senior editor. That's a policy that makes sense to me; I didn't consult but should have (and will in the future).
That policy seems to have been intended to protect the privacy of victims within range of Times readership. But what about thousands of miles away, in a place where an Internet connection is more than remote? "It seems to me that there's zero chance that the column or video is going to reach these communities in which these women live or haunt them in any way. (They realized that, and it's one reason why they were so forthcoming)," Kristof wrote.
Kristof has often spoken and written about how people don't absorb atrocities unless they're told through individual stories. "So one challenge [in leaving out names] is that if we leave out names and faces, then there's no outrage, and the rapes go on and on," he writes. "We've seen that in Darfur and elsewhere." He describes it as a tension between protecting an individual and possibly preventing future harm by raising awareness of the problem.
Can these women consent to having their identity revealed, particularly in the age of Internet immortality, without full awareness of the scope of what they're agreeing to? Does it perpetuate the stigma against rape victims to shroud their names in heavy silence? Kristof put it to his readers, adding that he particularly welcomed comments from "aid workers, assault survivors and journalists."
Perhaps owing to the lack of anonymity, the Facebook comments were of an unusually high caliber. Below, a sampling.
Maybe all it takes to have a thoughtful, reasonable debate is naming the commenters.