Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Enrique’s Journey: A trip into an ethical dilemma

Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey is an intriguing tale. Nazario is an effective writer, clear and readable. More importantly, she is an outstanding storyteller. Enrique’s Journey is the common book for Henderson State University this year, and I must say that it is far superior to the last two, although both of those received at least as much (if not more) national and international press. Nazario is a Pulitzer Prize winner and perhaps quite deserving.

I had the privilege of listening to Nazario speak recently. She spoke briefly about the book and some of the difficulties that presented themselves both in the research and the writing. I would be the first to stand up and say that she is one of the braver people I have ever met. Further, she raises to national and international consciousness several issues surrounding the amazingly inconsistent policies and often cruel realities of illegal immigration. I won’t address those here – rather, I commend to you the book itself. I will say that Nazario presents a much more balanced assessment of public policy than I would and a much more centrist view of the problems of illegal immigration and illegal immigrants than I hold. Again and again, I found myself left of the author’s view.

However, one issue that I must address here (to a much more limited audience than Nazario has and had). The issue is one that has faced many in the media. One of the most poignant and powerful cases was that of a photographer in Vietnam and his picture of the girl running toward him, burning with napalm. He received many angry comments asking why he took a picture rather than helping. His response, it seems to me, was right – he saw her coming, took the picture in an instant (almost an autonomic response), dropped the camera and helped her. But, the phenomenon gets to the point. What is the role of an observer?

Here is Nazario’s view as presented to us. In one case, she was doing a story on drug use and abuse and was profiling and interviewing a crack-addicted mother of a nine-month old girl. On a couple of occasions (at least), she witnessed the mother leave the little girl alone in her dilapidated home to go out and score more crack and then, having gotten it, get high and pass out. No other adults or older children were in the home. She didn’t call Human Services or the police because it would have changed the story that she was witnessing and then she wouldn’t have been able to write it.

With Enrique, there were times when she didn’t involve herself in what was happening – for example, he needed to make a phone call and couldn’t come up with the 50 cents for a calling card. Meanwhile she had her cell phone in her pocket. She didn’t offer it to him because she would have involved herself in the story and thus been unable to write it.

One of the students asked a very good question. He said, now that the book is out, have you gone back and helped some of those people you would have liked to have helped but didn’t because of involvement in the story? She said that she hadn’t really, but that when HBO approached her for the rights to the story and when Lifetime had offered to pay her to be a consultant, she had said that some of the money should go to Enrique and his mother. However, while she is in regular contact with them, she hasn’t aided them with money or the like because she may want to write another book.

Here’s my dilemma. I hear this sort of thing from news people a lot. But, let’s misuse the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (or properly use the Observational Interference Principle [yes, there are Prime Directive concerns here too, for my Star Trek fans]). The fact of observation changes that which is observed. This is true in the physical sciences, oddly enough. It is inescapably true in the social sciences. The very fact that Nazario was present changed Enrique’s story. So, it seems to me that the claim that helping out (maybe not with the calling card, but definitely with the nine-month old) would alter the story is spurious because the mere fact of observing altered the story. Further, it’s not that the people being observed didn’t know they were being observed. They did. Hence, the “non-interference” was causal of even more issues. Here, the cell phone issue becomes problematic. Enrique, knowing that she has the cell phone, also knows that she refuses to help. This cannot help but affect the relationship and the interviews and the like. So, I suppose what I’m going on about here is that the notion of non-interference is a figleaf that ultimately fails rather miserably.

Do my colleagues and friends have justifications for “non-interference” that I’m missing?