Thursday, May 31, 2012

Justice, dialogue and negotiation

There is so much in the news over the last week that has to do with rights and justice that it has been hard to keep up. The ongoing violence in Syria shows no signs of slowing, and the question is being raised by many as to what responsibilities the international community has with regards to the rights of Syrian citizens brutalized by their own government. Then, and one can cannot but see this as a pointed threat to leaders like Assad, an international tribunal has just sentenced former leader of Liberia Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in promoting violence in nearby Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile the student protests in Montreal continue with anger now not only over the proposed tuition hikes but also over Quebec bill 78, which is seen as a threat to the rights of people who are protesting. Legal challenges to that bill are already coming forward. And in Ontario, a different fight is shaping up over rights and education: this time, between the government's anti-bullying bill 13 (the "Accepting Schools" act) and the Catholic School Board who does not wish to support the bill in its present form or allow students in Catholic schools to form clubs that deal specifically with bullying of LGBTQ students.

The issues that are being raised and played out both in the legal courts and the "court" of public opinion will have a profound effect on the shape of the world and the particular societies with which each of these issues is concerned. The situation in Syria is affecting countless lives, and having ripple effects across the globe. The spread of violence into neighbouring areas is a real threat, and the massacres being perpetrated not only result in astounding loss of life, but also leave deep wounds that fester to breed new violence. More and more a growing section of the international community is learning from history and realizing that atrocities like this have a real political and social cost, even outside of the area in which the violence actually takes place. The debate now is what to do--how can rights be met and justice done in the present situation? The sentencing of Charles Taylor offers one example of a retributive response that comes after the violence. But what about during? How does one resolve the current stalemate about what response to have to the Syrian government's actions among the members of the UN body who are at such odds over the issue?

Likewise, whatever outcome there is to the Montreal student protests, it will have the potential to change the way Quebec itself is shaped, and possibly open wider Canadian debates on issues such as educational rights and accessibility of education in a harsh economic climate, as well as bringing laws aimed at protesters, such as bill 78, to the forefront of discussion. And the outcome of the debate over the "Accepting Schools" act here will have repercussions for all students--whether they are gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, queer, or anything else. It will also shape how much leeway religious authorities (not just Catholic, but more widely as well) in charge of publicly funded schooling are granted to shape their school policies in response to government legislation.

There is unfortunately no societal or global consensus on any of these issues. Often there is consensus that "something" needs to be done. But what the details of that "something" should be are where already contentious issues get even more contentious. Nevertheless, part of the process of being a healthy society is being able to talk about things we don't agree about, and to be able to chart an equitable way forward, whether we resolve those differences or not. Our inability to move forward, whether by consensus or some other equitable means, magnifies human suffering in palpable and quantifiable ways. The Syrian massacres and ongoing violence there are at least in part an outcome of a breakdown in social dialogue and negotiation. Negotiation is going on right now in Quebec and Ontario, but whether a socially just outcome will happen--whether we move forward equitably--remains to be seen. Dialogue and negotiation does not guarantee that justice will be done, but it seems a whole lot more likely to happen if real dialogue is allowed. At least that is the thesis I want to pose this week for discussion here. It seems to me there is a link between the process of dialogue and negotiation on the one hand and justice on the other. Where dialogue and negotiation get shut down, injustice is much more likely. And yet so often the greater the issue, the less the two or more sides want to talk with each other. Is it perhaps true that in order to learn how to work greater justice in this world, we need to learn better how to talk and listen with each other, even in cases where we just don't agree?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Trials and tribulations" vs. Injustice

How often do we hear the phrase "trials and tribulations"? Although it is certainly not an everyday occurrence for most people, the phrase is pretty common in parlance, especially for those of particular religious backgrounds. Lately, having heard the phrase come up a few times in speech, I have been reflecting on how the concept of "trials" affects our understanding of our lived experience and our perceptions regarding our own social responsibilities. As I reflected, I began to wonder whether, (and then even conclude that) the language of "trials and tribulations" can sometimes function to exclude the possibility of seeing the need for concepts like social justice. "Trials" after all are a way one's character is shaped. They are obstacles to be overcome, not consequences of the actions of wounded people with desperate needs left unmet. I suspect in fact that often when we label something a "trial" instead of an injustice, we run the risk of excusing a socially passive response to wrongs and simply allowing the wrongs to compound.

I'll give an example. When I was 14, myself and one other friend were returning to my house from dropping off another friend at her house, just literally down the street from my own. The neighborhood we lived in at the time was struggling with gang violence, poverty, and a rampant drug trade. It was not late, but being October, it was already dark. Just before we reached my house, my friend and I were attacked by a group of about five teenage or early 20's males. We were lucky in that my house was within sight, and having grown up the proverbial Tomboy, I had done a lot of play fighting. Without getting into all the details, I managed to break away and get to my porch, at which point they scattered when my mother opened the door. My friend and I were bruised and a bit bloody, but had managed to get away before things went much further. But I knew from what they said when they attacked that the intent had been to do a great deal more harm than they actually managed.

At the time, I knew the attack was wrong. I insisted we call the police, but when they did show up hours later, they wouldn't do anything about it. They had bigger problems than dealing with two young girls who had been roughed up but managed to get away. There was a national recession, leading to massive unemployment in my community, and it had broken my community's fragile ability to care economically for itself. Poverty led to despair, and despair led to all sorts of social problems. Added to this mix of poverty and despair were racial tensions that had always been just below the surface and were now, for a variety of reasons, bubbling over again. I suspect all these issues played into that violence. The police didn't even bother to take a statement or open a file. And yet at no time in this process did I, as a 14 year old, really perceive a systematic problem. My understanding was that what happened to me was just another, albeit traumatic, "trial" I had to go through, a "thing" that had happened to me and my friend as individuals. I understand now that this meant I didn't see the people who attacked us as people with their own struggles (however poor their actions were), but as instead I saw them as Problems.

As time went on and I continued living in that neighborhood I began to suspect that something(s) was wrong on a deeper level, however. What happened to me was not just a thing or event, but also a symptom of a much bigger problem. And gradually I came to the understanding that what was wrong was a whole plethora of compounding social injustices that were causing all this (continuing) violence--and that many of those injustices were structured well outside the bounds of my particular community. I also started wondering what had led my attackers to be out that night, and what it was that had filled them with such rage toward two young girls who were complete strangers to them. I began, though still angrily, to see them as people and not Problems. The more I watched and lived, the more I understood that "trials and tribulations," the way I had explained to myself what had happened, didn't cut it as a category for dealing with social issues. Both their lives and mine were wrapped up in compounded layers of social practices and broken relations that had became part of, or were interwoven with, deep and pervasive injustices. Trials are something you live through, to show your mettle. Injustice is something that needs to be confronted and fought systematically, not just for you, but for society as a whole, or it consumes in a way that even "trial by fire" can't.

To my knowledge, I never saw those boys/men again. If I did, I didn't recognize them, and I doubt they would have recognized me. It was dark, the struggle was brief (though violent), and it was just chance that our paths crossed at all. But it is in looking at experiences such as this one that I was eventually able to realize that the "story" or phrase by which I had organized my understanding (this was a "trial" that happened to me) was not permitting me to see systematic issues. Concepts like justice and injustice, however one works them out, are necessary to social flourishing, and do work that concepts like trials and tribulations cannot do. It was experiences like this one that made me want to work on issues of social justice--partly so that what happened to me and my friend happens to fewer (better, zero!) people, but also partly as an understanding that there are two sides to my story, and that, though I can't say with certainty because I don't know who they were, it is likely that the actions of those people who hurt my friend and I were largely products of an unjust society. I still can't excuse their actions, but I have come to an understanding that those actions didn't happen in a vacuum. I came to believe that if we look systematically at issues, we may be able to find ways to prevent contexts where gross injustices are allowed to flourish and nurture violent (re)actions. Instead of seeing such violence as a society "given", just some "thing" that happens, perhaps we need to see it in terms of something gone drastically wrong somewhere; a communally grounded injustice, and not an individual person's "trial"--or simply an individual person's crime, for that matter.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Returning to Work

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Over the past weekend the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics, out of which this blog is run, co-hosted a conference on Social Justice and Human Rights--the theme this blog has been picking up on. The conference brought people from many different walks of life together; social advocacy workers, academics, judges, lawyers, activists and other people who are simply concerned citizens (or immigrants) to speak about and listen to a wide range of topics on which social justice and human rights are key concerns. As someone who was there, I can say there was a lot of excitement and the feeling for a great deal of potential moving forward.

Now that the conference has happened, though, the question of course is what next? Topics such as were discussed (things like the rights of children, environmental issues, women's rights, aboriginal rights, immigration and movement rights, and disability rights, as well as inter-religious dialogue on the question of human rights in Canada, etc) are too important to simply talk about and then let go. Speaking and listening are only the first steps. Reflecting on that question--what next?--the answer that came to me was everyone returns to their work.

At first such an answer felt too obvious and as though nothing of what was said or done mattered if we all just went back to work. Of course everyone returns to their work. We all have food to put on the table, bills to be paid. Aren't issues of justice and rights bigger than that? Well, yes. But as I continued reflecting, I began to have a deeper understanding of the word work. On the one hand, the majority of people who attended this conference are doing work in their professional lives that is directly concerned in one way or another with the conference themes--hence, returning to work will mean re-engaging with issues of social justice and human rights, now perhaps with an expanded vocabulary of rights, or renewed hope, or heightened urgency, or new ideas for partnering to make important and necessary things happen. Surely that much at least is true. But in addition to that sense of work as one's profession, I thought about a term that I heard conference presenters and participants use again and again in describing what they were doing: calling or vocation. And when I thought through that, I realized that this conference was not so much a "Big Event" or interruption of daily life and work but rather a part of people's work--whether their professional work, or as something they "worked on" outside their professional lives.

Humans are social creatures, I think that much is safe to say. One theme that seemed to run through many of the sessions of which I was a part was an emphasis on relationships, and on healing, strengthening and building relationships in order to have a more just and less violent society. When we, humans, gather together as a group and share food, drink, conversation, work, hope, fear, and open up to each other, relationships are healed, strengthened and built. We all know too that relationships, in order to stay healthy, need that deep but elusive word: work. Coming out of this gathering of people, this conference, we all go back to work. I'm working on it we say when there is a problem we are trying to address, an issue that needs to be resolved. And we are working on issues of social justice and human rights.

What shape does this work take after our gathering? That is what will be sorted out in the coming months. For myself, I know I will continue writing (and reading) on this blog as a forum for discussing issues and, hopefully, potential solutions. I'll be following up in other ways on connections made during the conference, and on trying to distill conference themes into a format that others can engage with. I'll have some more thinking and reflecting to do as I process much of what was said. I know many others are already engaged in similar work. Moving forward while we all return to work, I invite everyone to keep up the conversations begun already and to see how our social abilities (and disabilities) can reflect in positive ways on the work we do for a more just and healthy society.