April 7, 2004 - AlterNet: Togo RPCV George Packer employs the gift of empathy in his reporting

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Togo: Peace Corps Togo : The Peace Corps in Togo: April 7, 2004 - AlterNet: Togo RPCV George Packer employs the gift of empathy in his reporting

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Togo RPCV George Packer employs the gift of empathy in his reporting

Togo RPCV George Packer employs the gift of empathy in his reporting

Togo RPCV George Packer employs the gift of empathy in his reporting

Employing the Gift of Empathy

Daily reporters must deal with the tyranny of the deadline, but George Packer, who spent five weeks in Iraq for The New Yorker and produced a stunning 20,000-word examination of the postwar situation, had the luxury of time. He says, "I found I needed two or three hours, if not two or three visits, to understand all the factors that went into Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation." The profiles of Iraqis in his piece – among others, a Shiite sheikh, a young student, a psychiatrist – are profiles of people who are complex and, in many ways, conflicted.

But even with time, Packer says, the Iraqi psychology, shaped by more than thirty years of totalitarian Ba’athist rule, made reporting on Iraqis feel more like a job for Freud than for a magazine writer. Perhaps "what was truer of Iraqis than most people was how much talking they needed to do in order to express the fullness of their thinking," says Packer. "It was a bit like therapy. You are peeling back layers and layers of dogma and rumor."

But Packer found that Iraqis do love to talk. Their garrulousness surprised him, although he thought that this, too, could have a certain pathological quality. "There were many interviews where I would be sitting with some guy in his living room, after the three-hour lunch we would always have, and I would just start getting angry at my translator because what he was telling me just didn’t make sense," Packer says. "The conversation just kept on leaping around without any rational back and forth. And he would say to me, ‘George, I’m giving you a word-for-word translation.’" Many of the Iraqis he talked to had a hard time developing clear arguments, explaining themselves fully, and, as Packer put it, "understanding their own situation." Packer thinks this might be related to the fact that the Iraqis were isolated and denied free will for so long. A psychiatrist whom Packer quoted in the article explained that Iraqis lack "the power to experience freedom."

Empathy, Packer believes, can help reporters bridge this divide. Journalists need to "make the little imaginative effort to get into the skin of Iraqis," Packer says. "Then they won’t need hours and hours, and they will be a little bit immune to the tidy sound bite they often end up with."

In the eighties, Packer spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African village. That experience colors the reporting he has done and, he says, has helped him develop an ability to understand other people. Living in such a foreign environment where he was the helpless outsider, he "had to learn how [the local people] saw the world just in order to be able to function." Packer has also written two novels, and he thinks this, too, helped his journalism in Iraq. "The effort to get inside a character is an act of empathy – it just happens to be with someone nonexistent," he says. "The things you have to notice about people as a fiction writer are not just what they say, but more how they say things. Or, even, what they don’t say."

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Story Source: AlterNet

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Togo; Journalism



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