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Today survivor testimony is almost exclusively video testimony. Even if this change seems like a minor one (in sync with that from radio to TV and Internet), what matters is the act of witnessing in the communicative context of the electronic media: The visibility bestowed by video ensures the formal “audiencing” of the survivors and consolidates a larger move by them into the public consciousness. Yet testimony at this point also makes us more aware of the interviewer. By 1980 the survivor interviews are no longer standard debriefings, as in the immediate postwar years. They now serve principally both present and past: the present, by assisting the witnesses to retrieve and deal with memories that still burden, consciously or unconsciously, family life; the past, in that guarantees are needed, as the eyewitness generation passes from the scene, that what they endured will not be forgotten. “The mission that has devolved to testimony,” according to Annette Wieviorka (a major French historian who coordinated Yale’s taping in France ), “is no longer to bear witness to inadequately known events but rather to keep them before our eyes. Testimony is to be a means of transmission to future generations.”

This does not mean, of course, that this mission/transmission is without problems. Much has been written about secondary trauma: that is, how some of the effects of trauma suffered by the parents in the Holocaust were involuntarily transferred to the children of their new, post-Holocaust families. (To try and ignore this psychoanalytic issue is a bit like ignoring climate change.) But to give a more common and poignant example of what Wieviorka means by keeping the events, now mainly (if still not quite adequately) known, before our eyes, let me instance an episode from one of the earliest of the Yale tapes in which a survivor describes an incident in Poland during a deportation. When the survivor’s grandmother, an old woman with a broken leg not quite healed, tries to climb into a cart but is too weak to do it by herself, asks in Polish for help, a German soldier nearby says, “Yes, I’ll help you,” takes a gun from his holster, and kills her.

Her grandson, describing this episode, breaks down. He cries, or rather tries not to, contorting his face in a painful, gnawing motion that forces out the words “I’ve seen it.” When he is calm again, one of the interviewers asks him, very hesitantly, whether he could tell what moved him most (or what made him cry at this point in the interview) and whether he had also cried at the time it happened.

The two conjoined questions, though they seem intrusive at first, are, important. The answer to the second question is that he did not cry then, because he was “petrified.” The answer to the first is also simple but strikes me as wonderfully strong, because it comes so close to the agony that preceded it. He cried now because of “the inhumanity: someone asks for help, and that help is expressed as a killing action.”

I’m currently editing a report that addresses in part the issue of vicarious or secondary trauma for those watching graphic footage in order to establish its veracity. I’m struggling to find many absolutely pertinent sources on the specific nature of the trauma engendered by watching abuses or traumatic footage on screen (maybe that’s my own poor research), but then I came across this article, which, once I began it, I had to finish in its entirety.

The article explores the concept of “witness” by looking at the history and tradition of giving testimony in three contexts, legal history, religion, and literary narrative, with the goal of situating lawyers within these traditions. The author’s interest in the topic was prompted by years of frustration with the circumscribed role of lawyers in the judicial system’s truth-telling enterprise and, more profoundly, by concerns with lawyers’ restrained capacity to shape truth in the larger, social-cultural sense. The question asked, therefore, is whether lawyers, who are positioned to witness (as in “behold”) so much about society, and have the social authority to witness (as in “attest”) to what they have seen, have an obligation, or at least a right, to speak. If so, what are the parameters of this role, what are its roots, and what is the nature of the discursive practice?

A more carefully argued version of what journalists feel would be that, when done well, institutionally produced news has distinctive, socially advantageous qualities. It can pull together large groups of people with diverse perspectives and interests into a shared public conversation. Jürgen Habermas has presented the rise of the press as having been essential to the creation of the public sphere, and newspapers are also central to Benedict Anderson’s idea of nations as “imagined communities”. Journalism can provide verified, impartial information about public affairs, rather than offering up a cacophony of opinion and conflicting claims as the internet often does. Reporters can surface and present to the public important material that otherwise would not be available, for example about the misdeeds of the powerful.

One reason this view of journalism isn’t more widely accepted is that, as Brock says, it represents only a small, time-limited part of the overall history of the press. Brock’s account begins in the late sixteenth century. As he usefully reminds us, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a commercially supported, politically independent, fully staffed, mass-produced press came into being. Before that, the press was a medium for the printed dissemination of free speech and for making public basic information about government and business. The term “journalist”, denoting a full-time livelihood, wasn’t used in Britain until around 1830. Interviewing, a socially impertinent American invention, became a standard British journalistic technique only in the 1880s. Newspaper journalism as we know it also required the invention of fast rotary printing presses and the growth of cities, and the editorial content that made news into a successful business had a generous complement of crime, sports, human interest and entertainment, along with more elevated material. In the early twentieth century, the elite newspapers, at least, began to depend economically on advertising and long-term subscriptions rather than on street sales, and this dovetailed with a stated editorial creed of sober, dispassionate objectivity. But successful newspapers were never completely high-minded. As Brock puts it, “there has never been a mass audience for serious news”. The economically viable material paid for the socially valuable material.

In the Liberty you provided answers to those who hate free speech. Your main explanation was bracingly utilitarian, as befitted the son of James Mill. We value free speech, you wrote, because human beings are fallible and forgetful. Our ideas must be tested by argument: wrong opinion must be exposed and truth forced to defend itself, lest it “be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” (Your consequentialist followers said a flourishing marketplace of ideas was a precondition of participatory democracy and even of an innovative economy.)

Free Speech in the Era of Its Technological Amplification | MIT Technology Review

Jason Pontin writes a letter to John Stuart Mill on the current challenges of free speech in the context of Google, Facebook and Twitter.

In the Liberty you provided answers to those who hate free speech. Your main explanation was bracingly utilitarian, as befitted the son of James Mill. We value free speech, you wrote, because human beings are fallible and forgetful. Our ideas must be tested by argument: wrong opinion must be exposed and truth forced to defend itself, lest it “be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” (Your consequentialist followers said a flourishing marketplace of ideas was a precondition of participatory democracy and even of an innovative economy.)

Free Speech in the Era of Its Technological Amplification | MIT Technology Review

Jason Pontin writes a letter to John Stuart Mill on the current challenges of free speech in the context of Google, Facebook and Twitter.