Authenticity and Testimony

Authenticity and Testimony

In Spring 2015, University of Arizona’s HNRS 217 (Human Rights Voices) class spent two weeks addressing the critical issues surrounding authenticity and testimony.  We looked at these questions through two major issues: the debates surrounding the authenticity of I, Rigoberta Menchu, the narrative of the Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the recent revelations that Shin Dong Nyuk, a famous political prisoner from North Korea who is featured in the film Camp 14: Total Control Zone had falsified parts of his testimony.  A copy of the assignment can be found here: http://www.williampaulsimmons.com/examples-of-pbl-without-borders.html


The class decided there were several key questions that needed to be addressed.  

  1. Is a testimony authentic if it is politically motivated and as a result altered?
  2. What is the relationship between truthfulness and authenticity?
  3. How do we define authenticity?
  4. How does trauma affect testimony?

Comments (5)

  • William Paul Simmons

    William Paul Simmons

    February 02, 2016 at 15:01 | #

    In Spring 2015, University of Arizona’s HNRS 217 (Human Rights Voices) class spent two weeks addressing the critical issues surrounding authenticity and testimony. We looked at these questions through two major issues: the debates surrounding the authenticity of I, Rigoberta Menchu, the narrative of the Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the recent revelations that Shin Dong Nyuk, a famous political prisoner from North Korea who is featured in the film Camp 14: Total Control Zone had falsified parts of his testimony. A copy of the assignment can be found here: http://www.williampaulsimmons.com/examples-of-pbl-without-borders.html

    The class decided there were several key questions that needed to be addressed. The questions and some initial responses are below:

    Topic: Is a testimony authentic if it is politically motivated and as a result altered?
    In the end, the testimony is altered in two ways (pain in Shin and political agenda with Menchu), but the product is the same. They are both altered. Should we forgive one over the other? If they didn’t lie, would the story still be as moving? Would people still talk about these testimonies? If it is based on truth, then there is more credibility behind it. For example, Menchu talked about events that were happening in the environment she lived in. This could be contrasted with the North Korea propaganda video that was clearly based on lies.
    Altering the testimony to create a more dramatic story could come from survivalist instincts based on money and hoping for a better life.


    Whats the relationship between truthfulness and authenticity?
    The Chronological order of events is not as important as the stories of the events themselves. If a testimony is given by a victim the chronological order has little effect on what happened and does not alter the authenticity of the story
    Insert Zacks 5th paragraph
    The raw emotion shown when a victim is giving their testimony can be the most authentic part of their story. There can be a lot to learn from the emotions shown by victims when they tell their story as well as by the parts that they withhold from telling. It helps give a look at the mental effects of their torture
    “The best teaching devices are those which are gently flawed, the ambiguities and nuances are great teaching tools”
    It is possible that when giving their testimonies victims believe that they are telling their truth even if they are not. Victims of horrible events may subconsciously suppress parts of their stories as well as forget them in order to protect their own mental health and survival
    Constantly accusing victims of lying and forcing them to validate their stories while they re-live their torture is just a bad as not allowing them to tell their stories at all.
    In terms of the online video conferences its is highly unlikely that the stories will be told with 100% truthfulness each time their are told. It is probable that when a victim is telling their story to the united nations they will tell it differently than when they are speaking to a professor, high school class, or even another victim.
    However there must be a line which limits how untruthful a story can be and still be authentic. For an extremely untruthful testimony my undermine the credibility of the website.

    How do we define authenticity?
    There cannot be one “true” authenticity because:
    Every person has their own ideas and thoughts affecting their story
    Our minds change and our ideas change
    Because of our own ideas, opinions, and ideas, our authenticity only matters or can be judged in our own eyes
    It is not right to say that one person’s story is more authentic than someone else’s, because people will can have their own perspectives on the same event or idea
    Regarding how films and books may promote or use changes to stories (such as Shin’s): “The only way the marketing strategy makes sense is to get peoples’ attention so you can make aware their minds, and not their pockets” -Noor’s essay
    Can someone who went through the same experience or event as the storyteller be a better judge of authenticity?
    Every person’s story will still be authentic in his or her own way, because each person may have a different interpretation, even if the experience itself is identical.
    Different backgrounds can affect the story. For ex., Shin’s story would be different than that of a man who had lived outside of the prison camps before, even if they were in the same camp, because they had different backgrounds and experiences
    Ex: Men and women in the camp would have different stories or interpretations, because even though they were in the same camp, they may have suffered different traumas
    How does trauma affect testimony?
    In a testimony that involves trauma I believe that one needs to skeptical of how accurate all the information is but they do not need to regard the testimony as non-authentic because of the inaccuracies.
    “When someone goes through profound trauma and I don’t hear a disjointed story, I am suspicious. Shin appears to have been exposed to prolonged and repeated torture. We can expect that this would have a major impact on every aspect of who he is, on his memory, his emotional regulation, his ability to relate to others, his willingness to trust, his sense of place in the world, and the way he gives his testimony.” - Dr. Stevan Weine (specialist on the impact of political violence)

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  • Eve Beauchemin

    Eve Beauchemin

    February 20, 2016 at 04:01 | #

    There is no way to avoid bias and inaccuracy in the re-tellings of victims. Trying to do so is a futile task, as no human being can describe their experiences without the influences of their culture, environment, memory, and how they have processed their life--past and present--throughout time. The challenge, then, comes with recognizing the potential causes for bias, and how those biases may manifest in the narratives of victims. This is probably best done by becoming familiar with the circumstances surrounding a certain storyteller: their environment, the time period they lived in, their place in their society, etc. The information gathered from research on these areas will enable listeners to not only hear what is being said, but engage in an active conversation with the person or people speaking.
    Furthermore, one’s own personal perceptions about a victim’s story can influence how one processes that victim’s account. Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable obstacle when receiving the testimonies of people who have grown up in a completely different environment than oneself. This is why it is important to share the narratives of victims--coming from the voice of the victims themselves--among people from varying backgrounds; people will interpret and understand things differently based on their personal lives. This can unearth more points of discussion than if only one person heard the victim’s account, summarized it in their own words, and then shared it publicly. Additionally, it is essential to have the input of various people when interviewing a victim, so that the interview is not completely focused on the few topics that one person may be interested in hearing. By being aware of all of these factors, and taking action to minimize bias on the side of the listener and understand bias on the side of the storyteller, we can get the closest possible to recording the true life and experiences of a victim, as seen through their eyes.

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  • Shobitha Jillella

    Shobitha Jillella

    February 22, 2016 at 02:22 | #

    A narrative does not have to be completely truthful or accurate to be authentic. One poignant part of Shin Dong-hyuk’s testimony in Camp 14 was when he expressed his wish to “return to North Korea, my home”. This points to Shin’s authenticity as a stakeholder in North Korean human rights because one can still see the effects of the brainwashing that had taken place from the day Shin was born to when he escaped the labor camp. Even though Shin is safe from further physical and psychological trauma, he still misses the “innocence and lack of concern” he had while in a total control zone. The signs of physical and psychological trauma are apparent in the documentary, but that does not prevent the DPRK from releasing a video in 2014 which attempts to discredit Shin’s testimony by the testimony of two people said to be Shin’s father and stepmother, who refute Shin’s story almost entirely. This he-said-she-said exchange is paralleled by the controversy involving the testimony of Rigoberta Menchú. The anthropologist who challenged Menchú’s testimony, David Stoll, according to John Beverly, seems to take issue with Menchú has an agenda in telling her narrative. Beverly asks the question, “who are we to believe”, and one can appreciate both Menchú’s and Stoll’s concerns. Menchú told her story to make a point about the injustices suffered by indigenous populations at the hands of the Guatemalan government, and that point has garnered much-needed awareness of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Guatemalan government. Even though Menchú herself did not witness her brother’s execution, the trauma of experiencing a loss in her family and living in a time of great upheaval is legitimate.

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  • Jenna Brianne Radomski

    Jenna Brianne Radomski

    February 22, 2016 at 16:19 | #

    After watching the film, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that Shin was telling an authentic tale of his life experience. To some people, Shin’s controlled and almost withdrawn demeanor along with his lack of minute details might cause them to question his accuracy and authenticity. However, from the beginning of the film, Shin expresses that he suffers from nightmares and has a difficult time thinking about his time in the prison camp. He offers to tell his story objectively, he does not tell his narrative with the purpose of captivating audiences and evoking emotion; he simply wants to talk about what actually occurred without delving too far into the details. This approach makes complete sense to me. As Shin mentioned, he grew up extremely sheltered and had no concept of the world outside of camp 14. Until he met his older friend who told him stories of the freedom of the world beyond the fences and all of the delicious food it had to offer, he had no idea that if he were to escape he could live a better life. Instead, he lived as a prisoner and trudged through each and every day hoping to survive. Because of this, I think it is understandable that Shin did not remember exact details of when he was where and at what time frame certain events occurred. He did not possess the same concept of time that most free people have.

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  • Brooke Jundt

    Brooke Jundt

    May 08, 2016 at 05:21 | #

    When you look up the word authenticity this is what you get: “the quality of being authentic; genuineness.” And when you look up testimony this is the definition provided: “evidence in support of a fact or statement; proof.” So in my mind being authentic means that you are telling the truth, or your version of the truth, and a testimony is evidence that proves what you are saying is true. So I believe that the cases of Shin Dong-huyk and Rigoberta Menchú are different based on the idea of what is authentic and what is a testimony.

    What I have learned from this assignment is that I think after someone goes through something extremely traumatic and is seeking for others help and understanding that it is a lot easier to fabricate, or change what had happened in order for them to feel more sympathetic towards you. In the case of Shin Dong-hyuk I think he changed his story for a legitimate reason, he did not want to relive his terrible past. But for Menchú she was trying to make some political gain for her people and she knew her story would help accomplish that.

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