Lucienne Diver from the Knight Agency warns writers who blog to be careful about what they say. Common sense stuff, really, but it probably does bear repeating. I know it can be awfully tempting to treat a blog the same as you would the living room of your house, especially when you feel like the only people reading are your intimate circle of 'net buddies.
Vandana Singh has thoughts about "writing the Other", a continuation of the topic she wrote about in this post. This is important stuff she's talking about. She touches on RaceFail, MammothFail, and some other things.
I think very importantly, she says:
But the "outsider view" shouldn’t exist at the expense of the "insider view" or be given greater weight, or be depicted as the only view.
For me, at least, this helps because it focuses very clearly for me what the crux of the "damned if you do" and "damned if you don't" argument comes down to. I think that any writer who seeks to write about a culture that isn't their own, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the inferiority of their position. It's like having a nosebleed seat at an arena when you go to watch, say, basketball. Yes, you can see the game, the players, the score. And yes, you could give a technically correct accounting of the game. You could give statistics. And it's not to say that from the nosebleed seats, you can't give a very interesting account of the game.
But then there are other details: the squeak of shoes on hardwood, the grumbling of the coach, the blank eyed determination on a players face when they jump above the fray to make a shot, the sound a ball makes when it hits nothing but net, the clash of body against body and the way the human form slides across well polished wood when you get knocked down, the swish of semi-shiny uniforms, the way a player struts tiredly towards the bench after fouling out. The personalities of the players, the one who keeps his calm, the one who looks pissed after every blow of the whistle, the way ball feels when it just brushes the tip of your fingers during a jump ball.
These are details which are important, especially if you're looking to go beyond technical accounts and statistics. And from the nosebleed section where you sit, you cannot capture those details accurately. You will be left to guess at them, and you can make educated guesses if you've watched a lot of basketball games or used to play it yourself (I did as a kid).
But to say that you saw the game better, more accurately, or more truly than a person sitting behind the bench, or the coach or the power forward? Is foolishness. Yes, you saw the same ballgame, but you got very different perspectives. Even worse if you just heard the game on the radio or on TV.
There will be intimate, important, and very real details that you will always be distant from. Details that are of vital importance to people who are "insiders" in that culture. The way sweat on your hands changes how you dribble isn't important to the guy in the nosebleed, but if you're three points down with five seconds left in the game and you just got passed the ball? It becomes damn important.
Such with writing. When, say, a Westerner seeks to write about India, they are in the nosebleed seats. They have distance, and more than that, they have prejudices and preconceived notions that blur the view.
So, I think one of the solutions to the Damned Dichotomy is to acknowledge that you will always be a secondary source in a foreign culture, that you can never truly be an authority - save, perhaps, if you should go live there for many, many years, and even then, maybe not. Because when you admit the position you're actually in, when you acknowledge that you are from the outside, then you can begin to examine what may hold your story back, what weakness both you and the tale you're telling will have.
It's okay to have secondary, outside tales, views from another perspective. As a historian, I know that sometimes it is really useful to have accounts which come from foreign sources (say, ambassadors to a foreign court or travelers or merchants) or come from the distance of time. But, as a historian, I also know that it's foolish to weight such things as accounts from Christian missionaries or court historians writing family histories for royalty and nobility above sources of those who were there. Because such accounts, however well intended, are problematic. Nor does cultural/temporal distance equal any kind of objectivity.
The answer isn't to only use primary sources. The answer is to make sure keep in mind just how much value a source can possibly have and to make sure that you're keeping that in mind when reading and writing.