What Witness Means

by Alanna Carlson

Anyone who knows me knows that I am unabashedly, loudly, political. Not infrequently, a family member (often on the other side of the political aisle than myself) will ask me some variation of the question, “Why do you care so much about something that doesn’t really affect your life?” I have, until the past couple years or so, had a very hard time answering that question. In many ways, it has been my work on Rock & Sling that has helped me to develop a concrete answer.

Here at Rock & Sling, we frequently get the question, “What do you mean by ‘witness’?” It’s a fair question; after all, the word “witness” has come to mean so many things both societally and academically (the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary has five different definitions of the word, thirteen if you count sub-definitions). When we say we are “a journal of witness,” people are likely to have differing gut reactions to the word.

But that’s kind of our point. 

Witness is a deeply personal, unique experience, and that is exactly what we want to cultivate at Rock & Sling.

For me, witness has taken on new meaning in recent years. With the rise in popularity of hateful and divisive rhetoric (and actions)—from our current president’s tweets to the oppressive laws being passed at the state level all over the country to the white supremacy movement I see growing right here in Spokane—I have had to personally reckon with a lot of my own feelings and beliefs about what is going on in our country and in the world. Growing up in a middle-class, white, and somewhat conservative household for most of my childhood meant I didn’t have to grapple with many social or societal issues. Many of the issues at the forefront of social and political debate are unlikely to affect my life in direct and concrete ways.

And it is in that realization that I think the core of witness lies; witness, for me, is the idea of the powerful and the privileged raising their voices and using their power to fight for those who do not have a voice in the societal debate—or creating meaningful platforms and opportunities for the disempowered to speak for themselves. Certainly, there are issues on the societal stage that do directly affect my life in some way—access to affordable healthcare, debates around the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, and others. But there are many issues that I feel passionately about that have very little likelihood of ever affecting my own life—although I will likely never get or need an abortion, I will fight vehemently for the right of other women to access that option; although racial profiling will never personally impact me, I will fight for measures that decrease police violence against people of color and other types of racial profiling; although I have not thus far experienced crippling poverty, I will speak out in favor of programs and initiatives that help those who are struggling with poverty. 

Witness is not, however, about a savior complex or some misguided attempt to flaunt my privilege. The most important thing about witness, for me, is the creating of meaningful spaces and platforms for those less privileged to tell their stories; we don’t need to save women, or the poor, or people of color, or the LGBTQIA+ community—we need to be creating a world where people don’t need saving. Witnessing to and allowing others to witness to their own experiences is where building that world begins.

I truly believe that Rock & Sling is working to build that world. So many of our contributors are creating valuable content that strives to bring important issues to the forefront of discussion in our communities. Every single piece of Dara Herman Zierlein’s artwork featured in Issue 13.2 brilliantly depicts a range of societal ills that makes us acknowledge the problem head-on, leaving no room for apathy. “What We Forget,” by Donald Carreira Ching, also published in Issue 13.2, is a beautiful story that weaves together witness of cultural, familial, and generational struggles. One of my personal favorite pieces we have published this year is “Privilege Issues a Call for Feminist Poems,” in which poetess Autumn Konopka writes, “Privilege says girls can be / anything they want to be. / Stop wearing those tiaras / and raise your hands in science class.” These pieces and so many more deserve to be seen. These contributors deserve a platform where they can speak their truths. It is important that we listen. 

Rock & Sling welcomes submissions from people of all worldviews, not restricting those we publish to those who believe “like us”—partly, of course, because the staff of Rock & Sling is not a homogeneous group who all hold the same set of values and beliefs, but also because we believe it is important to give voice to—to witness to—the experiences, big and small, of all walks of life. I love working on the Rock & Sling team and reading submissions from all over the world that witness to life experiences I will probably never otherwise come into contact with. And I love feeling like I am doing meaningful work in helping bring some of those stories to light through publication, in helping to sustain this platform for those who need it.

Recently, when asked why I care so much, I’ve been a lot more forthcoming with an answer than before. Simply put, I care because we are supposed to care. I care about things that may never affect me personally because they do affect other human beings, and part of being human is having empathy for others. I care because I believe that caring for and helping others—essentially, witness—is the most important part of being human. 

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