Saturday 23 March 2019

The great privilege of public life

Poster image of "The Coat", presented in 2017 by the Grupo de Teatro da Nova in Lisbon.

The recent blackface episode at a school in northern Portugal and the kind of comments it attracted was another indicator of the worrying lack of (non-virtual) meeting spaces for dialogue. Many did not understand the racism criticism of an initiative aimed at celebrating cultural diversity (from "countries" such as Africa, China and Brazil) and ended up accusing the critics of racism and hate speech. The exchange of comments on the Facebook page Blackface Portugal is revealing of the incomprehension, and even of the ignorance, around this matter. But can we say that we were shocked or surprised? Is this not a reality known to us on which, no matter how much we feel like saying "they should have known better", we cannot turn our backs? We cannot, because it continues to influence the education, thinking and notions which big part of our society holds on this matter and several others. It is these notions that end up conditioning the freedom of many citizens and perpetuating all kinds of racism and, in some cases, violence.

This episode left me with a great doubt that has not yet been clarified: did any State organism (The Ministry of Education or Culture, committees responsible for citizenship and equality policies, etc.), association, cultural organisation or even individual (a mother, a father, an activist) requested a meeting with the school and the parents' association in order to promote a dialogue about this controversy? Fernanda Câncio’s and Ricardo Vita’s interventions were very enlightening and you may find them, along with other articles, at the end of this text. But what about those who do not listen to the radio and do not read a specific newspaper? I was left with the same doubt about a year ago, when the students of a university theatre group were caught off guard by the attacks they received on the eve of the premiere of Athol Fugard’s "The coat" due to the play's poster. Did they learn or understand anything thanks to the adjectives that were thrown at them?

After asking this question, I have to ask yet another: do we wish to have meeting places for dialogue? Are we not seeking the comfort of confirming our opinions and notions, avoiding spaces where we can be confronted by those who defend radically opposite views? And when these opinions are founded, serious, expressed with passion or with a sense of revolt, do we not hurry to classify them as "aggressive" or "violent" and put them aside?

Where is the violence?

In February, Access Culture and Griot Theatre organised the seminar "The black presence in culture in Portugal". I was told that one of the (white) people present considered the meeting violent. I found it curious, since, although there were some intense moments in the debate, there was not something that could be classified as "violent". All the people who wanted to speak had the chance to do so, nobody was interrupted or silenced, opinions were exchanged with civility. Another (black) person who was present told me that she did not like it, that there is always someone whishing to deconstruct the narrative and that there should be only one person speaking without having a dialogue.

Where is the violence here? It is in the fact that we are not able to recognise that not everyone knows what we know or sees what we see. It is in the fact that we are confronted with our own ignorance. It is in the discomfort created by the confrontation of ideas, by the direct questioning of life within the bubble we created so that we may live in peace - wishing the same to others, but not wanting to have anything to do with it. But peace is not promoted from within our bubbles. It is more likely to happen when we burst them, when we honestly seek to know the thoughts of others, when we do not simply dismiss their opinions by calling them racists and ignorants; it happens when we invest time in gaining knowledge, when we value reason and develop the ability to show empathy. Yes, we are racists. Yes, we are ignorants. Now what?

I recently read an article by philosopher and curator Zofia Cielatkowska on the symbolic and communal role of the public square in contemporary Polish society. Reflecting on the demonstrations in the public space against the nationalist and increasingly authoritarian government (demonstrations that sometimes become desperate acts of protest, such as Piotr Szczesny's self-immolation in 2017 for freedom and against xenophobia and hate speech), Cielatkowska says: "Szczesny’s act of protest happened in this public space and was for sure visible, but how was it ‘seen’? How was it ‘heard’? Attending a continuum of regular anti-authoritarian demonstrations in Warsaw, beginning in earnest in 2015, I have felt that there are two cities, two spaces existing one within another. The paths of protesters and the paths of passers-by, both on the same street, but not meeting. The protests are visible, but not seen, they are loud, but not heard."

In the same article, Cielatkowska reminds us that in the writing of Hannah Arendt, public space is described as a sphere intrinsically connected to people, a common ground to be seen and heard (the great privilege of public life for the ancient Greeks) . "I would like to emphasize," she writes, "the subtle importance of Arendt choice of words: 'seen' and 'heard' - and not, for instance, 'what is visible' or 'what is said' in public. 'Seen' and 'heard' stresses the activity of the subject - the privilege and burden of the subject to be active, to actually see and hear, and to think, to think critically. However, subjects might be ignorant, indifferent, they may absorb the dominant discourses without reflection, or they might be active in a harmful way; various acts of hate speech, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and so forth have become the norm in recent years."

The question of the place of speech, of the voice and of being heard had also been  by Grada Kilomba, in the debate organised at the Maria Matos Theatre in 2017 (see here). At the time, she spoke about listening and silencing and questioned "who can actually speak, what happens when one speaks and what one can talk about." More recently, Jean Wyllys (the gay MP who fled Brazil) spoke in Lisbon about the inconvenience that someone causes when he/she leaves the place of subordinate and reaches the place of speech; and also of the envy that the ex-subaltern provokes with his/her intellectual formation. What a big confrontation this is. And what a great violence, for some, the fact that certain people demand to have a voice, demand to be heard.

Cielatkowska further reminds us in her article that Hannah Arendt believed that reality is only clear to us and made visible through sharing thoughts with people who hold different perspectives. Without common ground, that might assume form as a public square, what dominates political conversation are feelings, desires, and fears. In a mature democracy, people with the drastically opposite views should be still able to meet and talk.

Is our democracy mature? If its quality depends on the citizens, our critical thinking, our informed involvement, we know that it is not. And it will not improve if we prefer to continue living in our bubbles listening to our own voice, determined to silence others - because that's what we do when we are not willing to listen. Does the ignorance of some bother us? Does the fact that others know more than we do also bother us? Paraphrasing Wayne Modest (sub-director of the Tropenmuseum who made a brilliant presentation yesterday at the Access Culture’s seminar "Decolonising the Museum"), if we want to commit ourselves to certain causes, we must commit to discomfort. We must be willing to meet and talk, not in virtual spaces, where we do not look each other in the eye, but in small or large public squares. We must be able to explain our point of view and even repeat what others should have known. And we must be willing to listen too. We will not be able to improve our democracy without real, challenging, disconcerting, uncomfortable dialogue. Democracy does not benefit from ignorance, nor does it benefit from arrogance.

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