Monday 18 July 2022

Solidarity in action


In the last 18 months, I have had the privilege of being part of an international network of museum professionals called “Solidarity in Action”. In the last year, I am also a member of the network’s advisory board. Together with the lessons taught by the pandemic, this amazing group of people (led by a tireless and motivating Bernadette Lynch) has given me the opportunity to go so much deeper into thinking and practicing solidarity. It has also allowed me to fully understand the word in my mother language, the language one “feels” the most.

In Greek, the word for solidarity is “αλληλεγγύη”, which I had previously understood as “being close to the other”. Delving deeper into it, after one of the first forums of the network, I looked for the first time at the etymology: the pledge, the security one gives to another person; being another person’s guarantee. This new understanding of the word took me away from notions of philanthropy, charity, paternalism. The rich discussions in the group helped me see it as a contract to stand by, support and care for each other. And this contract, the way I perceive it, expects us to be able to perform such radical acts as listening and empathising.

Last month, we commemorated the network’s first 18 months with an online conference. Divided into four groups, we discussed the following issues:

Group 1 - Decolonisation and solidarity

Group 2 - Local community organising and self-help outside of the museum

Group 3 - Museum workers unlearning so at to become 'solidarians'

Group 4 - Pedagogy of solidarity

I was part of group 3, Museum workers unlearning so at to become 'solidarians'. Our task was to come up with one main challenge and one key action.

In the discussion that followed, participants shared concerns such as feeling powerless, lacking diverse teams, museums being an unsafe space to challenge the status quo, facing structural racism and uneven distribution of power, becoming the “unpopular voice”. We talked about possible ways of bringing about the change we desire: acknowledging whatever power one has, listening, creating space for diverse voices, engaging everyone, developing empathy skills. Sometimes, it’s the small, more flexible organisations that show the way. And then someone said: “Learning to be vulnerable, exposed”.

This got me thinking about how little prepared or willing we are to come to terms with the feeling of vulnerability. A vulnerability that emerges when we have to deal with things we don’t know about, that are new to us, that contradict what we thought we knew about the world around us.

Thus, the group managed to define its one main challenge: unlearning the comfort of knowledge, letting go of the over-confidence our knowledge gives us, becoming humbler and understanding that knowledge should not be a base for competition. “Sharing our vulnerability allows us to build more empathy”, a participant said. Thus, the group also came up with its one key action: learning to be vulnerable at a collective level, being able to admit that we don’t know everything, becoming more, human, supportive, empathetic.

I thought about our group discussion and what it could mean in practice when I read José Pacheco Pereira’s article in the newspaper Público. Wishing to give us his opinion about inclusive language, defining the public discussion around it as a “controversy”, he entitled his article “Porque é que ‘todes’ não é todos, nem todas?” [questioning the inclusive adjective for “all”, thus, there is no direct translation into English]. The title is a question, but not really, as he has got all the answers. He writes about an “outbreak of identities”, “supposed identities” which are “acritically accepted, “an obsessive illness of identity”, he’s being ironic and sarcastic. But, above all, he makes his ignorance about these matters obvious to us; and, together with his ignorance, his big discomfort in having to deal with it. I tis OK to be ignorant, we all are, about so many issues. But what if he listened, what if he admitted “I don’t know”, what if he tried to find out what he doesn’t know, before assuming he’s an authority on those matters and sharing his opinion in a big newspaper? “Oppression is the business of not respecting one’s personhood”, said Pauli Murray.

Luísa Semedo, another columnist in the same newspaper, wrote back (“A chave do armário e o orgulho da invisibilidade” – The key to the closet and the pride of invisibility). She quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein who in 1921, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Semedo questions: “Now, if there is no word to describe who I am, who am I? Do I exist? What existence am I allowed for myself, in society, in democracy?”

Pacheco Pereira, like so many other people who feel threatened by the diversity of the world, prefers to believe that this is just a fashionable issue. It is because he ignores how far back all these issues go. They didn’t come up when most of us first heard about them. In her article, Luísa Semedo tells us about Pauli Murry (American, 1910-1985: civil rights activist, gender equality advocate, lawyer, author); has Pacheco Pereira heard of her? Or even Virgínia Quaresma (Portuguese, 1882 – 1973: first Portuguese reporter, feminist, lesbian), among so many other people? The truth is, we don’t become poorer, as Pacheco Pereira says, when we stop using offensive terms to refer to others; we become poorer when we don’t question what we know, when we desperately seek the comfort of our knowledge and prefer to ignore that the world is full of “other” stories and nuances.

Going back to our “Solidarity in Action” discussion, why do museum professionals feel that museums are an unsafe space to challenge the status quo? Because most of them are so full of answers, so comfortable with the superiority brought by their knowledge, that they forget to ask questions, they are not able or willing to listen, they silence the voices that bring nuance into the discussion. Many museums contribute towards a poorer version of ourselves and that’s a fact that should bring much more discomfort to us than inclusive language or world diversity.

Photo taken at the exhibition "For a history of the black movement in Portugal", Library Palácio Galveias, Lisbon.

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