Saturday, 4 August 2018

How easy is it to put your children in a boat?

The fire in Mati (Greece, 2018; image taken from Facebook)

“Do you see how easily you put your children in a boat when in despair or in danger?”, someone wrote on Twitter on 26 July, when the whole of Greece was in profound shock after the tragic fire that claimed so many lives. As the personal stories of those who perished and those who survived, tried to save their loved ones or people they didn’t know at all were emerging, turning the tragedy into something less and less abstract, someone made this connection between the people who put their children in boats to be taken to safety during the fire and the refugees who attempt the perilous, often deadly, crossing of the sea. How many people made that connection? What kind of people made that connection? Would this connection ever occur to someone with a negative attitude towards refugees and migrants? Would this tweet be enough to make someone reconsider?

I often think about this: connections, lessons from history. Americans were shocked to find out in 2015 that Anne Frank’s family had been denied asylum in the US (although a more recent study claims the request was never processed due to bureaucracy). Did Americans make the connection when, for instance, Syrian refugees were denied entry to their country? Do Israeli Jews see the connection between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the South African apartheid? Do they see a connection between the new “nation-state law” and Nuremberg Race Laws? Are Americans, Israelis and people from every other country able to identify the similarities when people of other ethnicities, religions, etc. become, at certain moments in time, the enemy, a threat, vermin, parasites, cockroaches…? Do they realise it when history repeats itself? What makes them evaluate differently these moments in time?

Things become even more complex for me when people seem not to know about or to forget their own history, experienced not that long ago. The first ethnic/migrant group to suffer violence in the UK after the Brexit vote in 2016 were the Poles. At the same time, the Polish government questioned the presence or acceptance of migrants and refugees in their own country, just like the Hungarian government did (Hungarians themselves found refuge in other countries after the Soviet invasion in 1956). How much do citizens who support these governments know (or wish to know)?

One could easily think that it is lack of knowledge; or that it is the way history is taught: more like a long gone “story”, rather than actual events involving actual human beings, like ourselves, and their decisions, actions or misfortunes. This is probably true. But the question remains: if someone else made these connections for the people who didn’t know or didn’t realise, would they be open to giving it a thought? Would some of them reconsider?

In February 2017, following the US President’s travel ban, the National Museum of American History posted on Instagram the image of a pamphlet calling attention to “70.000 American refugees made in USA”. The pamphlet referred to the incarceration of Japanese – Americans in camps in World War II, by order of President Franklin Roosevelt. The museum informed that many US citizens found this unjust and “went so far as to question the democratic ideology of the US government”. A subtle statement aiming to create a connection, but, nevertheless, a statement. Were people also able to make the connection? Who were the people who saw this post? How did the NMAH built on it, took this reflection further? How was this received by people supporting the travel ban?

I recently read B.H. Liddell Hart’s Why don’t we learn from history?. In the beginning, the author discusses feelings and emotions. “The Japanese locate the seat of courage in the stomach (…) The source of the passions has also been located in that quarter. All that expresses the extent to which mind and morale depend on the physical, in the normal run of men. And from all that the historian is led to realize how greatly the causation of events on which the fate of nations depends is ruled not by balanced judgement but by momentary currents of feeling, as well as by personal considerations of low kind.” (p.12) Liddell Hart states that we learn from history that “nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance.” (p.17) He goes on to question whether there is a practical way of combining progress toward the attainment of truth with progress toward its acceptance and suggests that we should avoid a frontal attack on a long-established condition. “Looking back on the stages by which various fresh ideas gained acceptance, it can be seen that the process was eased when they could be presented not as something radically new but as the revival in modern terms of a time-honored principle or practice that had been forgotten. This required not deception but care to trace the connection – since ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’” (p.58)

This is what a historian has learnt from history. “Cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias” are terms that became part of my vocabulary only after the 2016 US election (Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why facts don’t change our mind? was a good start for me). Since then, my questions regarding involving people with opposing views and/or little knowledge of facts in a dialogue, as well as regarding the role of cultural organisations in this, have intensified. How can we create a non-threatening environment in order to promote these much-needed discussions? From everything I have read and seen in the last two years, my conclusions at this moment are the following:
  • It is fundamental to turn the abstract into something concrete, a group’s often stereotyped characteristics into individual stories. People can easily and comfortably express biased and less informed views against others when they don’t see them as actual individual human beings. Face-to-face conversations with the objects of their fear or hatred could be more efficient. 
  • There is a need for a space where people can meet each other face-to-face; a place to listen to “opponents”, but where one knows that there will be space for him or her to be heard too. In this space, no one should be attacked for their views, no one will be called names. The idea is not to put an end to the discussion, sending people back to their cocoons, but to make it happen.
  • There might be anger and discomfort, but there is a need for patience and tolerance too. It is necessary to appoint a less passionate, more distanced, but nonetheless empathetic moderator, who will be able to deal with the participants’ emotions and create space for the critical analysis of facts and different people’s truths.
  • This space should serve to make connections, invite people to reflect on similar situations that occurred in the past and what we can learn from them today. Remind them of long-held, commonly accepted principles of our living together in society and how these could and should affect our everyday behavior towards others. Principles such as universal human rights, which we say we embrace but rarely think about their concrete implementation and impact on our lives, decisions, behavior. The “free2choose” experience at the Anne Frank House Museum used to be an impactful moment when visitors were coming out of the secret annex, questioning the limits of basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, and confronting them with situations where these rights clashed, sometimes threatening security in a democratic society (read here)
  • It would be worth following up on some participants, try to understand the impact of certain discussions (be they on exhibition panels, on a theatre stage, at a concert, in a book, a TV series or in actual debates) on their way of being and thinking about the world.
free2choose, Anne Frank House Museum (image taken from the website of Ars Longa)

Why Culture? Because it is not the homogeneous space most of us comfortably live in; because it allows for experiences that may challenge our strictly personal view of the world, based on our known surroundings, and give us the opportunity to get to know those of other people; most of all, because it is the place where imagination flourishes, the kind of imagination that can allow us to project a different future.

In “How to cure a fanatic?”, Amos Oz writes: “…there is something in the nature of the fanatic which essentially is very sentimental and at the same time lacks imagination. And this sometimes gives me hope, albeit a very limited hope, that injecting some imagination into people may help cause the fanatic to feel uneasy.”

He got me thinking…

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