Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Controversy as a Form of Awareness

James Cornelison

Filmmaker Parvez Sharma introduced the world to a culture that only the most dedicated Muslims would have known otherwise. In his new documentary, Sharma chronicled his pilgrimage, a holy tradition where Muslims visit the ancient city of Mecca to participate in prayer. Being a filmmaker is less than revered in this culture, but even more defiant than that, Sharma is a homosexual. Any act that reveals his orientation carries punishments between flogging and death in the Kingdom. Despite the danger, Sharma marched on, determined to expose a sentiment that has affected him so pungently.

Some will say that Sharma is needlessly risky or provocative. When he identified himself to a single fellow traveler in the documentary, the man replied by asking why he wanted to be part of a religion that wanted nothing to do with him. Why not just move on to a more tolerant one? Why continue to fight? Sharma's attachment to the Muslim religion is seen as irrational and self-destructive.

Others more say that Sharma is being unfair. "Of course he disagrees with the treatment of homosexuals in Saudi Arabia. He can't be a credible source on the topic because he is inherently self-interested." Every one is a warrior for their own cause, but when advocacy spreads beyond those immediately involved, the issue tends to reach a new level of public awareness. After all, we have to avoid biased journalism, right?

Well, I actually believe Sharma is the most appropriate voice of any to carry this particular flag into battle. Yes, he'll have bias about it as we all will. But as demonstrated by psychology, biases are going to exist about even topics we are not personally invested in. Being biased is otherwise known as being human. So rather than wage a campaign against the human condition, we should combine it with the appropriate amount of passion.

Nobel Prize-winner Milton Friedman once said "Nobody has the same dedication to achieving somebody else’s objectives that he displays when he pursues his own." To automatically relegate the reporting of topics to those not interested is to ensure that they won't be done with the veracity, care, and scrutiny that they deserve to in the eyes of those who are. Sharma sees past the imperfections of an ideology that is important to him. And he aims to make it more perfect, while simultaneously preserving the aspects that keep him so dedicated to it in the first place. 

If we are to ensure that this truth gets out, if we're to uphold the principles of the industry of journalism, if we're to present the entire story in a way that allows the viewing public to form their own opinions about it, then we shouldn't - as some have - criticize Sharma for his actions. He is contributing more to the conversation of this issue just out of personal drive. And his biases, if acknowledged, are another illustration of the effect this issue has, and should be given fair exposure as other aspects of the story. At that point, we can retort with our competing information and biases, until one light shines decisively brighter than the others. And I think that's a better policy than to keep it in the dark, as the government of Saudi Arabia demonstrates they would like.  

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