23 October 2015

On the blindness of those who will not see

‘Talk is cheap’ is an ancient expression with multiple versions in multiple literatures. ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ is an oft-seen line in the USA. The descriptive katen bathala hitavanawa (planting sweet-potato with your mouth) is a Sinhala ‘frequent’. There are other variants on this theme of course. We see it happening all the time in multiple locations including those that are close to us and ones we are resident in. ‘Self’ for example. The expression came to me after reading the following observation.

Three ‘socially sensitive’ students engaged in an impassioned discussion about the sad plight of the homeless: two homeless individuals are within a few feet of them; the individuals remain ‘unseen’. An example of the importance of ‘discussioning’.

My friend Tanya Ekanayaka had made this observation somewhere close to a Tesco supermarket in Edinburgh, Scotland.

‘Importance’, I assume is partly tongue-in-cheek, but it could also indicate the exaggerated and misplaced value that ‘talking’ has acquired (as opposed to ‘doing’).

There is a lot of literature about how scandalous sums of money are spent on talking about poverty, poverty alleviation, etc., in plush convention facilities while children starve a few kilometers away. Homelessness is a buck-making business for some, one observes.

It can’t be that people are stupid. The global (and local) political economy demands the oppressor to act as though he/she has only the interests of the oppressed at heart. In certain situations the oppressor even argues that oppression is actually liberation or liberating.

The oppressor even appropriates the language of the oppressed, especially its emancipatory elements. There are prisons called ‘Liberty’, torture chambers called ‘Justice’ and other hellish places called ‘Freedom’. The architects, movers and shakers of the dominant and destructive paradigm of development talk of ‘sustainability’; tyrants talk of ‘participation’. The ‘doers’ make scandalous amounts of money. The ‘talkers’ don’t get that much, but still make big bucks.

The key difference in the ‘homeless’ observation is that it reveals a malady or let’s say a condition that is far more insidious than that captured by ‘talk is cheap’. A simple extrapolation tells us that talk can be blind, that it can be a convenience indulged in by the blind and perhaps that it has a way of inducing blindness.

The observation, at the ‘talk is cheap’ level reminded me of something that happened in a media institution a few years ago. There was a petition doing the round in the editorial office demanding stern action be taken against a fellow-journalist. That petition was authored by a person who held a grudge against this journalist. The author had considerable ‘political power’ within the institution and apart from two people everyone else signed the petition.

They had no option. One of the drivers is said to have told some of the ‘petitioners’ some time later that they should stop writing about injustice (as they frequently did) because they had all caved in come crunch-time at home.

This can be put down to self-preservation and therefore pardonable. What is harder to forgive is the complete blindness to things under one’s nose even as one writes/talks extensively on under-the-nose things, condemning them, advocating alleviation of relevant anomaly and even agitating on its account.

Theorizing is easy; doing, harder. Neither makes any sense if nothing is done about the blindness. Some say that only those who suffer truly understand the particular suffering. I am told there is a condition called ‘epistemic privilege’, which holds that unprivileged social positions are likely to generate perspectives that are less partial and less distorted. Hence, only gays and lesbians understand gay/lesbian issues, only the minorities truly comprehend the conditions they inhabit, and only the poor understand poverty. A corollary would be that others are naturally blind to these perspectives. In other words, they can’t help it.

Of course none of us can really know everything about someone else, but there are things that are in your face that you really can’t pretend not to see and defend the unseeing by saying ‘I am not that person’. ‘Unseeing’ is an acquired taste, I believe. It is a happy dismissal, a convenient untruth (or ‘de-truththing’) and a neat guilt-ridding device that beautifully complements the comfort zone called theoretical abstraction. Talk is not just cheap, it is fashionable too. There’s something foul smelling in teaching/advocating social justice and looking the other way when one is confronted with injustice. I am not saying one should not pick one’s quarrels or prioritize, but cultivating 360-degree blindness has a way of giving hollowness to words, irrelevance to sermon.

What’s the point in contributing to a fund for people with disabilities if one does not see that the architecture of one’s office is positively unfriendly to such people in terms of access? There must be some ‘bottom-lines’. Here are some suggestions. If you prefer to be blind, then don’t talk. If you want to talk, fine; but then make sure you do some ‘doing’ about it.

Sure, some of the blindness can be acquired involuntarily. But there’s nothing to say that one cannot divest oneself of such myopia and acquire the necessary eyes. Self-inflicted blindness is an insult to things one talks of as though they have been caressed and their contours meticulously mapped. As for the related ‘discussioning’, as Tanya puts it, some would call it ‘bullshitting’. I would not disagree. 


Lakshan said...

Talk is cheap , yes - and that's the curse of this country