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Dignity through writing

September 25, 2009

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There’s a lot more behind the words you read here than you might think. Of course there are the personal styles, unique experiences and cultural diversity of the more than 70 writers who’ve contributed to this blog, but there’s something bigger that unites us as storytellers: respect.

Before a keystroke is made, we consider how each word will portray those we’re writing about. We question how those we represent and serve would feel if they were to read what we’d written.

One word in particular illustrates the commitment we’ve made to humanitarian storytelling: survivor. Almost five years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, a few of us sat down for a vigorous and earnest debate on how to chronicle the most unimaginable disaster of our time. The media and many of our colleague organizations were using the word “victim” to describe those who’d lost everything but their lives to the waves.

But, really, who wants to be portrayed as a victim? Would you?

“Victim” is a label that might elicit sympathy for a moment, but at what cost? It connotes someone who’s stayed down rather than gotten back up. It imparts hopelessness rather than determination. It erodes dignity.

Words do matter, and so we chose to use a term that portrayed strength and possibility – because that’s what we see every day in the tough, isolated and sometimes-brutal places where we work.

Just recently, one of our bloggers from Indonesia — Octavia Mariance — carefully chose her words when writing a story about meeting mothers who’d been affected by a major earthquake. She titled her piece “Meeting the survivors.” Octavia made the story more about rising to the challenge than remaining in the rubble.

Words can either keep people in desperation or help lift them to a more hopeful day. At Mercy Corps, we’ve chosen to eschew the shock value of “poverty porn” in favor of inspiring our readers with real-life stories of people who succeed against nearly impossible odds.

In every word we write, we have to make a choice. Here we choose dignity. We choose hope.