Tuesday 19 April 2016

Re-veiwing peace

“For freedom is honed in the struggle with destiny.  The freedom that develops in our confronting our destiny produces the richness, the endless variety, the capacity to endure, the ecstasy, the imagination, and other capacities that characterize the world and ourselves as conscious creatures, free but destined, moving in it.”
(Rollo May, 1981, p96)

(I Found this post while searching through some old documents.  It dates back to December 2013, and while a lot has changed in South Africa at the moment, particularly with the Rhodes Must Fall movement and it's emphasis on reflexive learning, it still feels relevant when discussing how to work towards 'peace').

Nelson Mandela’s memorial service took place today, and amongst many of the comments which I read one in particular pointed out that freedom was (and is) a process rather than an end result or a destination.  Perhaps, as Rollo May argued, once we give up fighting for freedom, we have lost our place on the path we use to search for it.  Although we live in a country that has political democracy, we live with the terrible impacts of human rights abuse still visible in the form of poverty, lack of adequate sanitation, the struggles for adequate education, high rates of infant mortality, illness and high levels of violence.

South Africa had the vision of a Rainbow Nation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a story of forgiveness, and yet there is quite clearly work to be done.  I would like to argue that peace is not sentiment.  More importantly, working towards peace is not about dominant groups or belief systems retaining power while ‘other’ people peacefully accept this.  Peace, I would argue, is an act of rebellion, a refusal to fit in with dominant norms, if these norms marginalize or oppress populations or groups of people.  Peace is about exploring history, evaluating who has been harmed, and using our freedom to work towards new possibilities while refusing to stand by belief systems or value systems which harm others.

I would like to argue that the very beginning of human rights work means looking beyond ourselves, our ideas and our perceptions of the world, and into the wider collective of the human family, seeking out those beliefs or spaces which allow abuse or human rights violations to thrive, and searching for new options.  In working towards freedom and a society that is safe from abuse, we, as a society have to continually question our perceptions of the world and the blind - spots we have acquired over time. We have to work, continually, to challenge set theoretical notions that we believe make the world safe and predictable, exploring our freedom to re-view the world continually, casting ourselves into the chaos of not knowing so that we can embrace the dynamic flow of ideas or shifting realities with courage and a willingness to learn.  

To do this, we have to recognize the boundaries of our existing worlds, and where the limits are.  We need to acknowledge the reality of the present, and use the limits people face as a means to working towards deeper human rights.  Exploring the limits within the social world is important because it exposes privilege.  As Goffman argues, we sometimes only become aware of the rules or boundaries, which limit us when we come up against them.   When we are aware of how our own behaviours construct and re-construct reality over and over again, we are more able to see the limits we place on ourselves and on ‘other’ people, and how we interpret the world or ourselves because of this.  

Perhaps one of the most moving examples towards a protection of human rights came from World War II, where citizens of Denmark all wore golden stars after Germany issued instruction that all Jewish people wear one.  With the declaration of a human family living in Denmark rather than separate groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’, Jewish people remained safe.  This action was an act of defiance, an awareness of the power which comes with unity, and showed an understanding of the dangers of social categories and divisions.  It was the awareness of the social norms used to discriminate, and the refusal to comply, which brought about the compassionate rebellion which saved lives.

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Wednesday 13 April 2016

Giving myself the space to write badly

                                                      (Photo Credit:  James Reed)

As part of my research journey, I was lucky enough to spend the last week in March at a workshop called 'Navigating the Research Journey' which is run by CHED at UCT.  I was able to attend even though I am at Wits, which was really very fortunate, as it helped clarify some of my research goals, and add my own voice to the mix.  It's a workshop I would recommend to anybody who'd like to find his/her way through the research journey a little more clearly.

I wanted to go because I was feeling stuck when it came to my writing.  I love research, I'll read pretty much anything I can find, and I enjoy learning from the participants.  But condensing all that I've learned well enough to write it down can sometimes be a struggle.  With my masters, I procrastinated, pretended I was busy, and then watched House MD in marathon box set runs, falling in love with the debates within episodes as much as the excuse it gave me to take time off.

Reading sends me into alternate worlds.  I tend to withdraw for periods of time where I try to grasp new ideas.  I read on the train, on the beach, wherever and whenever I get a chance.  People I know start to ask if I am alright.  I become very quiet.  And I am more than alright.  I am in that fascinating space where other people's ideas create new worlds, new understandings, and new connections to old material.  I love this space.  I'm willing to be patient with it.  I'm aware that exploring new ideas often takes a lot of time.  I am less patient with my own inability to explain them.  I grow frustrated.  I do other things.  I worried that I might never finish my masters thesis.

This time, I was determined to be more proactive.  When the old urge to procrastinate crept up on me, I'd already learned that the only way out is through.  You have to start writing eventually.  And so I thought I'd search for some assistance with writing.  I was very grateful to learn that the grappling and struggling through questions or uncertainties is an important part of the process, and that the way to move forward was to write through it.  The work didn't have to be 'right', just in process.  I've learned that I can cut up my chaotic paragraphs, let parts of the work go, underline those sentences I most value and rebuild form there.  I've also learned that when I'm stuck, it often helps to write what I feel.  That way, the work doesn't feel as distant or detached, and I'm able to find my way through it.

I love my work, from the depths of my soul, but there are times when I really wish I'd taken some more English or Linguistics courses.  There are times when I look at the writing the English graduates are able to produce, and I feel a jealous appreciation which leaves me yearning to do the same.  Some days are better than others, but mostly I've learned that writing and re-writng is okay, and that you can't always get it right in one simple try.

A little while ago, I watched Elizabeth Gilbert on TED, speaking of the pressure writers sometimes feel to get it right, and the very individual responsibility modern writers have to take responsibility for their work.  In the old times, she explains, people believed in a 'muse' or that being who came out of the walls to speak to the writer, helping him/her with the narrative.  If your work was good, you had a great muse.  If it was bad...not your responsibility.  Gilbert then explained that on bad days, on those days when the muse does not speak to her, and she is left to slog it out alone, she realises that she is doing her part.  She is there, working, and that perhaps this is enough.

I'm learning this too.  Being there, at the computer, putting words onto the screen, sometimes has to be enough.

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