We Need to Listen – But What Are We Hearing?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? ~ Isaiah 58: 6 & 7

Sometimes I will read an article and my reaction will be purely instinctive – it will immediately make me cross, or happy, or mad. Or it might trigger me emotionally and psychologically. And I will get that off my chest by praying and thinking it through, and occasionally it will result in one of my sporadic blog posts.  If I blog first, (and think later) I will usually read it afterward and groan to myself about any number of issues I will inevitably find with the language, or the structure.. I’m not a serious writer, but I like words you see.

I like how they can paint a picture in your mind of a time and a place, of complexity of purpose and character.. I like that they can be used to invoke and incite passion, even revolution.. and as a white, cis, able-bodied person I need to read (and in so doing, listen) to those whose colour, gender identity, disability or beliefs mean that the world see’s them as ‘other’.

By ‘the world’ I mean those who hold the dominant narrative. Think of words for a moment as music – indeed words spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and volume, and these are the properties of music, which has the ability to find and move and lift us up.. (err, yes, I did borrow that from The West Wing, but the point is still valid).

Back to my point.. the narrative that dominates the world in which we live is dominated – as it has been for centuries – by a white, cis, usually wealthy, elite. They drive how we see the world, how we understand it, how it is shaped in our minds. It is the view of the world which we first internalize, and if you are white and cis and able bodied, it is internalized to a degree we rarely, if ever, fully acknowledge.

And yet despite this dominant narrative, there are the stories that can draw us back from this status-quo, the words of those whose lives do not conform to that dominant narrative which can call out to us – and call us out.

If we read them. If we hear them. If we listen.

Sometimes, those words are taken by those who have control of that narrative and co-opt them. Words like.. justice and injustice. When that happens, there is an impact. The lived reality of actual injustice is one of oppression wrought daily. The so-called injustice done to a white cis man of wealth and power is worlds apart from the injustice done by society to trans*gendered woman of colour. But it is not her story that the media give the headlines to.

Injustice is a powerful word – but it’s meaning, it’s lived reality and it’s use to convey the appalling wrongs done to those whose lives are subject to the dominant kyriarchy becomes weakened, the parameters by which we judge what is unjust become warped. What do you hear, when Marissa Alexander tries to tell you of the crushing injustice done to her? Do you hear and understand the wrong she has suffered, or just another woman of colour complaining about her lot?

Women of colour, people of colour, the LGBITQ community, the sick and disabled – they needus to hear them, and to hear them properly, truly. To recognise and respond and stand with them, so that the narrative which shapes the world in which we live is, little by little, given back to those from whom it was taken.

If it sounds a little like revolution.. well, I would argue that it sounds like liberation and transformation, a world transforming from one of systemic oppression to one of systemic liberation.

So I loathe the cheapening of words too important to treat in such a manner: it was this article by Allison Pearson a few days ago when (not for the first time) I was struck by how the word ‘injustice’ can be used so flippantly. In writing about the supposed revelation that Nigella Lawson may have used drugs, she said:

“…if the Grillo sisters turn out to be telling the truth – and I hope they aren’t – then Charles Saatchi is the victim of an injustice.”

If you do not know anything about the case, or Charles Saatchi, then I am glad for you. Don’t Google it – there will inevitably pictures which you will find distressing.

Saatchi is a powerful and very wealthy man, who was photographed choking his then wife, Nigella Lawson. He has since insisted – because his reputation is frankly in tatters – that there was ‘another side’ to that story.  As if anything could possibly excuse, or explain away, this materially and physically powerful man’s act of violence against his wife.

What injustice has he suffered then?

No, there is none. His life will continue, and the perception of the general public will go on being unfavourable to him – but so what? It will not affect his wealth, or status, or power. The police caution he received will not prevent him from maintaining these things, and he has not been incarcerated, kept away from his family and robbed of his livelihood.

We who are white, cis, able bodied – who have some or all of the privileges that being those things mean – need to be quite so that we hear and listen.

Let us not make the hearing harder by distorting the words that might have the greatest impact.

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