the muiz

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Speak as we feel

Thoughts on the pope's visit, human rights and the freedom to speak...

I walked past the pope having breakfast today on my way to work. He was surrounded by many red mini-popes, but not much obvious security – it seemed as if I could easily have walked up to him and started a conversation. What would I have asked him? I wondered about this as I continued walking up the street, and nearly bumped into a group of students protesting about ‘victims of hope’ – I wasn’t sure what they meant exactly, but felt strangely tempted to tell them the pope was just around the corner, if they wanted to move their protest somewhere more noticeable…I resisted the urge, and continued through the grey streets in the chilly early morning – noticing the gradual build-up of fluoro-daypack wearing pilgrims filtering into Sydney’s CBD.

What do they all hope to get out of this week? Are they ‘victims of hope’ too? Their youthful hope in such a materialistic, ostentatious religion seems to me misplaced. After all, Christ had nothing but scorn for the pomp and hypocrisy of the traditional religious leaders of his day – he reserved his harshest words for those who ‘place a heavy burden on the poor, and do not lift a finger to help them’…His most powerful parable of neighbourly love contrasted those hurrying past an injured man, to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean on their way to the synagogue, with the man who stopped to help – from a marginalised group, considered totally unspiritual by the religious watchdogs of that time. This is the Christ I follow – who taught love as the only law, the only way to live. I am amazed that so many people still play these religious games, and outsource their own personal spiritual journey to others, to make their decisions for them.

Sure, you could argue that the Catholic Church has done a lot of good in the area of social justice, and I would agree – but also note that these are mostly efforts at ameliorating the symptoms of poverty, rather than any serious efforts to uproot the true cause – the structural violence of today’s global system. Is that what I would have said to the pope? I wish…but the truth is I don’t want to spend any time in an Australian prison (having visited a few, I have some idea what that would mean)! Given the draconian security laws recently passed in Sydney especially for the pontiff’s visit, including prohibitions on what t-shirts may be worn in public places – so as not to offend ‘His Holiness’…a direct confrontation, even a friendly one, is hardly likely to end well for me. So walking mutely and unemotionally past the papal breakfast gathering this morning, I realised it wasn’t a lack of things to say that prevented me from entering, but a lack of hope that anything could change, no matter what I say.

So this is what our society, our world, has come to – we have the right to remain silent. Anything we say will fall on deaf ears anyway, or potentially result in a loss of liberty – depending on the level of ‘terror alert’ we may be on officially at that particular time, of course. However, it seems that most of the world’s problems are due to a lack of imagination, and open discussion is surely one of the best ways to stimulate our collective imagination in the search for far-reaching solutions…

Yet instead, we are dominated and manipulated into submission, by top-down, one-way communication – carefully crafted to conceal the real issues. Our pursuit of ‘truth’, or even more modestly, ‘collective goals and values’ are negotiated continually by a struggle between unequal participants. Communication is always power-based – with access, inclusion and equal participation being especially problematic for women and non-westerners.

Which brings me to the other little cluster of thoughts I have been nursing recently – the blanket of silence that suffocates those whose lives and views are considered so dangerous to ours, that their human rights are sacrificed in an attempt to keep them safely out of public discourse. Out of sight, out of mind, exhibit one: the recently returned Guantanamo detainee – ‘he whose name shall not be mentioned’ for fear of popping up on some international intelligence agency’s radar screen somewhere…

I met his partner recently - a shy, sweet girl – cowed into silence by the fascist restrictions on his rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement…the same rights that have been signed away on behalf of Sydney to honour and ‘protect’ the pope, actually. I wonder, does he really need protecting from the truth? I thought religion originated from the pursuit of truth - yet another thing I was so very wrong about. Add it to the rapidly growing list - after the na├»ve belief in an international respect for human rights and dignity of the individual. Or before?

This girl – you would have seen her in the tabloid coverage of recent months – once again reminded me, without saying a word, how wrong our perceptions of others can be. She sat next to me during a lengthy discussion of poetry and peace - and as the day progressed, I sensed her discomfort, her insecurity when we realised her identity – and I felt strangely protective of her. After sharing a few guarded words, I realised we shared a few similar views on life, injustice, spirituality… This real life encounter replaced the media image of some misguided partner of a ‘terrorist’ - one of ‘them’ - with the embracing of ‘one of us’, and the hope of a new friendship.

Of course this may be yet another hope I will have to sacrifice to the realities of a world gone mad. A world where victims of injustice, victims of human rights abuses, are not only left on the side of life’s road, to fend for themselves, but also gagged and bound to ensure we don’t have to hear their groans of pain. If they are from the wrong side of the ideological divide, then, instead of covering their nakedness, we feast with the media vultures on the exposed carcasses of their private pain…

Lederach, a renowned peace scholar, stressed the importance of acknowledging and sharing one another’s stories as an essential first step towards reconciliation and restoration. This is also essential in writing our own, authentic version of events in history - there is a Spanish saying that ‘memory runs through the heart’ - so by extension, if you lose memory, you lose your heart…The less we remember, the less we are… and how will we ever build peace even within our own communities, if we are unable to truly communicate? (Did you notice the similarity, the shared root of those two words?)

Instead, in Australia, and much of the world, “precious little in the way of dialogue and exchange – both of which occur in scholarly debate, in artistic production, in the encounters between ordinary human beings who do business, interact, and generally talk to, as opposed to at, each other – makes it into the public domain so dominated by the mass media. Sensationalism, crude xenophobia and insensitive belligerence are the order of the day, with results on both sides of the imaginary line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that are extremely unedifying” (journalist Ed Said).

In contrast, idealists and poets have historically been seen as a threat to the ‘powers that be’ - they challenge the ‘status quo’, and attempt to reclaim language for the imagination – whereas politicians and religious leaders manipulate language to serve their own ends, sell their own versions of ‘truth’… Power lies not only in the ability to enforce one’s will, but in the more sinister ability to define what is right, or rational, or even real. For this reason, the struggle against domination, and the very mechanism of emancipation, is communication. And as Czeslaw Milosz said "Dissidents are not necessarily those with the strongest minds, but those with the weakest stomachs – the mind can rationalise anything, but the stomach can only take so much…"

We need to pull back the neoliberal veil that obscures any ability to see possible alternative viewpoints and solutions - remembering that concepts like democracy, human rights, peace and justice run the risk of being co-opted, and being used to legitimise hegemonic regimes like the United States – especially in the post- 9/11 world. As Bendang pointed out, “we need not follow neoliberal economics in the Orwellian ‘newspeak’- allowing propositions of bombing in order to build, war for peace, or ‘developing’ for impoverishment”.

This reminds me of the beautiful African concept of “ubuntu” – it means (in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words) “…my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people’. It is not, ‘I think therefore I am’. It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong’. I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others...”

Oh, how I long for a world where we can speak as we feel, not as we ought to! Instead of drawing lines between 'us' and 'them', we could be painting in watercolours…As the wonderful, warm-hearted Stuart Rees (Sydney Peace centre founder, and author of ‘A Passion for Peace’) so poetically phrased it: “Somewhere between religion and revolution…between the alleged opposites, lie the colours of the rainbow”.