Monday, March 26, 2012

Brother's Keeper (part 2 of 2)

I couldn't resist taking screen shots of the fascinating cast of characters interviewed for the film. First there were the people in town who rallied around Delbert Ward, raising thousands of dollar for his bail and to pay for a lawyer and each defending him with various reasons. Even though some believe he may have killed his brother, none want to see him go to jail for it. This support is given unhesitatingly despite mentions that the Ward brothers had been sort of outcasts previous to the allegations against Delbert. They humorously remark that before, if you happened to be at the local diner at the same time as the "Ward boys," you would be sure not to sit downwind of them due to their questionable hygiene. The townspeople see these brothers as somewhat childlike, certainly innocent and sweet, and this is the characterization that Delbert's lawyer and to some extent the filmmakers present as well.

Here is Delbert's lawyer. Wearing a 90s sweater and exhorting the town members to fill the courtroom every day. He certainly wasn't a flashy lawyer but he seemed to have both a pragmatic understanding of the case and also a similar empathy toward Delbert and his brothers that Berlinger and Sinofsky must have had.

This is just one of the criminal justice people interviewed. They all had a very particular style of speaking (very legal), all sat behind official desks like this and wore distinct costumes from the other interviewees. It's easy to see why they were mistrusted by the townspeople and seen as outsiders from a different culture, despite the shared background of country and state. They seemed to be very concerned with "the facts," with defending their decisions, and seemed to be looking down on the Ward brothers and even the townspeople as somewhat backwards, owing perhaps to their rural background and different lifestyle. The film didn't seem to cast a negative light on these interviewees on purpose, but their perspective was decidedly different from that of others interviewed, and it grated on me for some reason that I can't fully put into words. I think perhaps it was that they seemed to think they had the answers, or at least reliable methods for finding TRUTH, and this attitude always makes me uneasy. (I'm too aware that as I learn more I know less about everything, why don't they feel the same?)

I look at all those books behind him, evidence of his cultural values and cognitive framework. His hands belie a certain uneasiness and struggle that his words won't admit to. He talks about how the townspeople view the police as intruders and band against outside forces without caring whether or not Delbert is actually guilty. He has a point, but why wouldn't they see the situation this way? I began to question the validity of his (our) criminal justice system too, in the context of this case.

Another thought or two and I will let it rest, there's just so much to be said and this film is so good. Another thought-provoking effect of this film was that it helped me to confront some personal prejudices which I hesitate to admit to feeling. As I tried to decide which behaviours or habits of the Lyman brothers are cultural, family-specific, or more personal, I was thinking of their personal hygiene and "standard of living" as well as what seemed to be limited social and communicative skills. I tried to smother these thoughts but still the words "simple" and "primitive" murmured in the back of my oh-so-sophisticated mind.

Even my relating to these people and feeling empathy for them was tainted with condescending pity; it tore me up to see Lyman shaking on the stand during cross examination from nerves and I found Delbert endearing and a little slow. But are these thoughts humanizing them or just belittling them the way that I'm seeing it? I felt my voyeurism aroused by the shots of their household in disarray, I tried to tell myself it's a "different" lifestyle and not worse than mine, but I'm not taking myself seriously.

This underlying prejudice has been nagging at me for a while. Similarly, I think of my desire to appreciate the "complexity" of Kichwa last summer although its tiny vocabulary size in comparison to English sometimes made me wonder. I know that this difference arises from historical circumstances (language contact), cultural values (Western philosophy and search for one-to-one correspondence between Platonic ideals and words), and pragmatic functions (eg high context vs low context communication), but even knowing all this I can't shake the feeling that the search for truth and my impulse to describe the world with complex taxonomies and linguistic theories etc etc is fundamentally a desirable trait. And thus the paradox of my situation, as a researcher who's highly aware that my role represents cultural values as arbitrary as any others. I could also state lots of other strengths in Kichwa as compared to English (the marvellously poetic feel of ideophones, plus reasons why ambiguity and iconicity can be very desirable traits in many communication contexts) but I think that would distract from my point here. Maybe it's enough to be aware of this prejudice, not to worry too much about getting rid of it through linguistic logic (or faith) because it's better to know that I have it than to pretend that I don't. Because if I am still prejudiced (and I must at least be biased, perhaps a better word) but am blind to it my work will suffer much more than if I am self aware. This way I can practice this awareness in my interactions with others and in my interpretation of field experiences even when my cultural values persist. A perfect example of which is my nitpickiness over the difference between the words biased and prejudiced.

Anyway now that I made a point about how this question relates to my fieldwork, I want to articulate a thought which is probably very obvious and only a starting point for this explanation of some of my prejudice in the case of the Ward brothers. But it's all I have for now, since I haven't read much from other people admitting this type of prejudice or working through it. The "intelligence" I so highly value in myself, my critical thinking skills and analysis and all that is partially a product of my innate abilities and predisposition to want to cultivate the same, but largely a product of years of training and forming habits of thought. In other words, Nurture and not Nature. Literacy is an example of a skill exactly like this, despite the connotation it carries in our culture which makes Delbert feel so uncomfortable admitting his illiteracy. And I don't know how much innate intelligence these men have (or anyone really has), but at least I can be aware of this factor too when I am tempted to think that they lack intelligence. That this perceived lack may just as well be a function of circumstances other than genetics. So that lessens my prejudice and heightens my awareness slightly. Still working on it though.

Below are pictures of Delbert in his home, a view of the inside, Lyman, and an unshaven closeup of Delbert.

official citation since I didn't include it last time:

Brother's Keeper. Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Prod. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. By Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Perf. Delbert, Lyman and Roscoe Ward. A Hand-To-Mouth Production, 1992.

No comments:

Post a Comment