Saw this on twitter; a reminder that this season is hard for so many:
And here are some articles for those who do find themselves alone during the holidays. VOLUNTEERING is a suggestion that comes up in many of these kinds of advice articles, and it is a great suggestion in general for those who feel disconnected in some way; even if you are not physically alone.
So this happened:
I was truly blessed to be invited to attend a private dinner with the incomparable Angela Davis on Tuesday evening; an event organised by RISE Refugee in conjunction with Sisters Inside Inc, Eclipse, Morrocan Deli-cacy and Engenda.
If you’re not familiar with Angela Davis’ work, you really need to rectify this at once. Angela is an amazingly generous, holistically focused and incomparable American political activist, academic scholar, and author. Here is a list of her published written work – I highly recommend reading all of it. In addition, watch the lectures of hers that have been published on YouTube.
Highlight of this glorious evening of conscious conversation for me was when Angela came up behind my friend Wani Le Frère (who had met her twice before, two meetings and conversations Angela remembered because he is profoundly intelligent, charismatic, and asks great questions) and I, placed her hand on our shoulders and gently interrupted to introduce herself … and called me by name ❤️
What happened next was hilarious; earlier in the day I was on Twitter and saw prison abolitionist/activist Deb Kilroy tweet Angela Davis’ own selfie, taken at her public lecture at the University of Melbourne the previous day. I spotted my sistagirl Taloi Havini (artist/curator/thinker/beautiful human) behind Angela, so messaged her and asked if she was indeed in Melbourne and if that was her. Taloi later messaged Angela to tell her about the tweet thing and said that her “solid sista” Pauline would be at the dinner. Angela told me this. Yep. I talked to my intellectual hero Angela Davis about a selfie and twitter, ha!
Angela then talked with us for a while, and answered our questions about social justice work, intersectional feminism and global collective activism, before popping off to have her dinner.
I am still tingling from it all. So in awe of Angela’s energy: accessible, warm, generous and down-to-earth. No pretences or airs. Just an authentic human, soulfully committed to the collective struggle for the liberation of the planet.
I’m writing up notes about the University of Melbourne public lecture she gave, and will post them here when that’s done!
“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”
~ Angela Davis
[sorry this post is a few days late – I’ve been having issues with my wordpress admin page]
This post is about living, loving, and joyfully navigating the world in a body that may be culturally stigmatised, socially marginalised, and structurally discriminated against. I experience the pleasure, the privilege of insights, and sometimes the pain of inhabiting one of those bodies.
Because when your body is the target of discrimination, it is a challenge to not internalise some of the nonsense that is directed at you by others. Even when you are a strong individual who powers yourself from within – which I am (most of the time). I re-listened to a podcast earlier this week, that reminded me of the importance of body acceptance work – for people whose experiences moving through the world are coloured by other people’s prejudices against their “different” bodies.
The podcast was Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, Episode 2. In it, Girls star Aidy Bryant shares what it is like to be an actress happily living in an overweight body. Ethiopian writer Hannah Giorgis discusses the politics, style and magical bonding that connects Black women who embrace their (often stigmatised) natural afro locks. Young musician Mindie Lind, who has no legs and rides around on a skateboard, explains how being a “crip” is a daily creative process (a brilliant description), and talks about being the object of sexual desire.
Episode 2 also features writer, TV presenter and activist Janet Mock, answering questions about her experiences of being a transgender woman of colour; plus filmmaker/writer Rachel Fleit, who has alopecia, sharing truly beautiful insights from her journey of “coming out” as a bald woman. Rachel says the way she handles people’s weird reactions to her baldness, completely depends upon what she calls her “spiritual fitness” on that day – something that really resonated with me, in general.
In fact, aspects of the experiences of all of these women resonated with me: Aidy’s carefree joy in her body and positive professional experiences within it, despite the rampant discrimination people often warn her about; Hannah’s bonding with her Black girl friends over hair and politics; Mindie’s sense of both power and vulnerability regarding her sexual life, and the creative adaptability that being a “crip” necessitates; and Janet’s simple desire for reciprocal love – a loving, public, respectful and equal partnership.
To me, the experiences shared in the episode highlight how people who inhabit bodies that are socially marginalised, often need to develop – through persistent, loving, self-acceptance work – a confidence in themselves and their being that can withstand and transcend the dumb shit they will encounter in the world. The late poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey wrote: “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud […] you get proud by practicing”. For me, this simply means to continuously embrace and love your body.
I am practicing doing that again. In my previous post I wrote about how I am in the process of gaining my physical strength back after recovering from PTSD – integrating a new health and exercise routine into my daily life. At the age of 31, I am closer than I have ever been to realising a permanent, unconditional love for my body, that transcends all the harmful false beliefs I have allowed to exist within me in the past – all of which were internalised from negative experiences in the world, related to the way my body has been accepted (or rather, not accepted) by others.
These experiences started from the age of three. This is the age I was when I first experienced racism. A Japanese girl (funnily enough) at my pre-school told me at length and in great detail (quite alarming, given her age) why my Melanesian body – skin, hair, facial features – were ugly and not as lovely as people whose features were Asian or white. I was the kind of completely open-hearted child who believed everything the world told me at that age, so naturally, in that moment, I internalised it.
But it actually didn’t scar me too much, as I grew into a sensitive but confident child, with many a limerence-afflicted boy admirer and a healthy amount of affirmation from the people in my life. Nonetheless, the “bug” of that incident of racism was still embedded in my psyche, reinforced by the pro-white biased culture I was immersed in, and triggered whenever experiences of racism occurred. And when I say triggered, I am not talking about merely remembering the first experience – I am talking about feeling, in the moment, as inferior and uncomfortable in my body as vulnerable 3 year old me did in that pre-school playground.
I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I started to “de-colonise” my mind, and completely purged it of the white/light supremacism that permeates much of the world. But I do know it had everything to do with connecting with other Black people who already had unburdened themselves of the bullshit. Since racism begins as body-based discrimination, the unburdening process naturally involves a positive reclamation of the body – specifically, of all the traits that white/light supremacism deems unacceptable. Going natural with my afro-curly hair in my mid 20s was not only an aesthetic choice; it was a political act. A freeing, personal expression of both my antiracism and my feminism.
Becoming sick at the age of 13 presented another psychological challenge to overcome – more layers of body dysmorphia, discomfort with my physical form. I was a naturally athletic and sporty child, so losing the ease I always felt in my body was a shock to my system. And, just as my unconscious discomfort with my Melanesian features owed completely to the experience of being immersed in cultural white/light supremacism, my discomfort with the effects of illness (which in my awkward teens included scoliosis, scars and reduced muscle tone) owed largely to the unkindness of other people – and societal attitudes about “different” bodies.
Unburdening myself of that particular form of internalised -ism, happened strangely and miraculously when I became a paraplegic, at the age of 21. Given my medical history (the illness I battled in my early teens affected my spinal cord), becoming disabled was the one thing I was most afraid of. Ironically, though, I became healthier in the aftermath of that particular trauma. For the duration of the year after that life-changing event, I worked out every day, my skin glowed, my appetite improved and I felt extremely present (and, yes, fly as fuck) in my body… until I started full-time work in an office and no longer had time for it. Different story.
So here I am now, 10 years later, recovering from another extended period of trauma. Not only can challenging times in our lives seriously harm our physical and emotional health – they can also seriously damage the relationship we have with our bodies. For me, I think these last six years have really been marked by a desire to take care of and embrace mine… but an inability to do so consistently and effectively. The PTSD symptoms totally depleted me of the energy, stability, and clarity I require in order to be able to take care of myself as a disabled woman.
2016 for me is about giving myself that energy, stability, and clarity. I have designed my new health/body routine to ensure I am maximising the amount of vitality, gratitude and joy I feel within it. Because it is this amazingly resilient form – this Melanesian, disabled, female body – I will live my long, long life and dreams in. And it is by really, truly loving and caring for it – embracing everything the unconscious world around me signals in subtle and overt ways is unacceptable, every day – that I will be strong enough to make those dreams come true.
Just watch me 🙂
Two YouTube-rs I enjoy have teamed up to produce this fantastic, gentle, adorable animated short on understanding and privilege.
I recently watched Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 TED talk called ‘Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence‘ – have a look:
In it, he talks about how seeking transcendence is a part of being human:
“Most people long to overcome pettiness, and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor, conjured up nearly 400 years ago: no man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
And it reminded me of these words I wrote on the “My Philosophy” page of this blog in 2010:
“There are many who are already transcending the old divisions of the past and shackles of tradition, forging new identities based not on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or political factions, but, instead, rooted in a higher awareness and understanding of themselves as unique and powerful individuals that are part of a greater interconnected whole.”
The words on that page remain true for me. I wrote about the necessity of moving “past tribal dependency towards individualised awareness”. But this does not mean that I think one has to renounce all “tribal” loyalties. And if what Haidt contends in the video above is correct, for most people this is actually impossible to do. Even individualists “circle” around a sacred value, a sacred cause… liberty.
In contrast to the pure individualism I was into in my mid 20s, today, I nourish my roots to place and my kin/group in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. I am concerned about the conservation of our traditional lands and healthy development. But I also know that the safety and well-being of my kin is deeply and inextricably connected with the well-being of us as individuals, the well-being and survival of all of humanity, and the health of the ecosystems that sustain us. This – these linked concerns – are the highest priority. And they are linked to my love and concern for the country in which I was raised and am grateful to live, Australia.
So here is my broad contention: we face multiple global threats as a species. Given this, it is the people pursuing a form of self-transcendence that allows them to perceive beyond loyalties to tribes (subcultures, cultures, nations, religions, ideologies, “people like them”) who will lead the way to safety. This is because their self-transcendence will enable them to fully comprehend that our survival depends upon a global consciousness, the ability to see how our localised realities and concerns do connect to one shared human destiny.
They will lead the way – and are leading the way – by being able to speak to and mobilise their tribes, their groups, to safeguard humanity’s common destiny, and in turn the destiny of their group. They will lead (the individuals in) their groups to progress towards more holistic, healthier ways of living and working together. And they will mobilise (the individuals in) their groups to connect with, cooperate with, and care for others who are doing the same. I have discussed such leaders in the past. In posts to come, I will discuss more.
Whilst visiting the International Aids Conference’s Global Village back in July, I was given a pamphlet advising media about correct and incorrect language to use when discussing and reporting on issues related to HIV/AIDS. Prepared by AFAO, the pamphlet contains a great checklist to help communicators avoid using terms that are derogatory, or that perpetuate myths or stereotypes about HIV. These were some of its suggestions:
“USE person living with HIV; DON’T use HIV sufferer”.
“USE street-based sex worker; DON’T use street walker.”
“USE person who uses drugs; DON’T use junkie, drug addict.”
“USE affected communities; DON’T use high risk group.”
“USE children with HIV; DON’T use innocent victims.”
Innocent victims. Such an odd term. The AFAO caution against using it, as its use contributes to the stigma around and discrimination against people living with HIV. Let us, for the sake of the discussion in this post, entertain the notion that such a category does exist. If there is such a class, what are we to refer to other victims as … “guilty victims”?
These binary judgments sound ridiculous, and arguably are. Nonetheless, a significant percentage of the world’s population believe in the existence of such categories. Implicit within the terms above is the perception that some victims of – well, anything, really – have taken some action or done something wrong, to deserve (or at least facilitate) whatever it is that has happened (or is happening) to them.
From this point of view, the predicaments people experience in life are a consequence of the choices they make and actions they take. In the case of HIV, adults who contract it from voluntary unprotected sex with someone likely living with the virus, are said to have brought it upon themselves. A child who contracts HIV from their parent, in contrast, is absolved of any “guilt” in the creation of their life predicament – they had no choice. They are innocent.
You might expect someone to the right of the political spectrum to endorse such a karmic view of the world – one in which adults are responsible, and reap what they sow. Not too long ago, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies the intuitive foundations of morality, conducted a study in which Americans were asked questions to ascertain their moral values. Over 350,000 people were surveyed, and the sample group were asked to endorse or reject the following two statements, among others:
1) “Compassion is the most important virtue.”
2) “The world would be a better place if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences.”
Haidt’s research found that conservatives endorsed both statements mildly, and equally. It is a predictable finding. People who lean right tend to emphasise the idea of “personal responsibility”. Beyond cleaning up the fallout of ones own errors, this seems to involve encouraging (sometimes forcing) people into what could be described as conservative lifestyles. Setting aside religion-based notions of propriety and worthiness, these lifestyles are seen to afford the individual a measure of protection against all manner of undesirable things.
In contrast, the response of liberals to those same statements above was stronger – the liberals in the sample group strongly endorsed the compassion statement, and strongly rejected the failure statement. They wanted compassion to be the foundational virtue of their society (evidence of bleeding hearts). Haidt said the liberals surveyed were more likely to give people further chances – and more likely to endorse the idea that mercy is better than revenge.
Of course, many liberals also espouse notions of moral “personal responsibility” and “natural” karmic law. I recall dissident feminist Camille Paglia’s (controversial) assertion that the AIDS crisis that killed so many gay men in the 1980s, was directly connected to out-of-balance promiscuous excesses – although she attached no moral judgment to this assertion. In contrast, sex positive advice columnist/activist Dan Savage scolded some men in his community living with HIV, for endangering the lives of others through what he saw as wilfully irresponsible behaviour.
It is easy to see how both the “karmic” and “compassion” perspectives could be wrong – and how they could be right. On the one hand, many of us have a choice as to how we live our lives – we can mitigate risks to ourselves, and others, through these choices. Whilst apportioning blame to HIV-positive people is both cruel and unconstructive, providing people with resources, reliable information, and encouraging everyone (through incentives and disincentives) to responsibly self-care can be empowering for both individuals and communities.
On the other hand, we are inherently flawed beings; we make mistakes. We must navigate complex environments with familial, social, cultural, economic, legal, political and psychological pressures, using whatever knowledge and resources we’ve been able to accumulate at any point in time. We have different levels of access to information, different life experiences, different temperaments and abilities, different inner and outer struggles. We are not always able to foresee the consequences of the choices we make. A large number of us do not have many choices at all.
This is why it is important to balance an understanding of personality responsibility with an understanding of – and compassion for – the complexity of the human experience. We are all frequently victims of human frailty, both our own and others. Simultaneously, we contend with larger social forces in an unconscious world that powerfully shape our behaviour. Given this volatile, uneven and unfair world we all have been born into, compassion seems to be the only reasonable response.
Strolling around the International Aids Conference Global Village, visiting information stalls from over 30 countries representing all demographics affected by HIV, I was once again reminded of the necessity of that compassion – and just how (unnecessarily) complicated the world we have created is. How societies shame people living with the virus, whilst enacting policies and enforcing social mores that unintentionally raise the likelihood of high-risk behaviour, and prevent people from seeking, or even having access to, medical care.
In many societies today, the tension between a conservative “karmic” view of those affected by HIV, and those advocating a “compassion” response – with a greater emphasis on removing the burden and barrier of stigma – rages on. Stigmatisation inevitably accompanies the conservative view of morality, of cause and effect. Not only does this adversely affect HIV-positive people – babies, children, teenagers, adults, the elderly – but the stigmatisation can actually put a society as a whole at risk.
Consider the advent of “AIDS denialism” in South Africa, famously propagated by its former president Thabo Mbeki, under the influence of maverick (pseudo) scientists. The country faces hugely complex problems surrounding containment/treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Whilst sexuality is very much a part of being human, our species historically has had a profoundly tortured relationship with its own – in many cultures and religious traditions, sexuality has been stigmatised, and attributed to mankind’s lower “animal” nature. Such notions accompanied Christian-European settlement of South Africa.
Adding to this deep, toxic shaming of a basic human impulse, Black South Africans contended with a history of racist characterisation regarding their sexual behaviour – they were regarded by many whites as rampantly promiscuous, and thus less moral or worthy. In a country where these interrelated, shame-inducing bad ideas about sexuality and race were long embedded, the susceptibility of some towards wanting to believe that a disease spreading quickly in a majority black population was not transmitted through sexual contact, was foreseeable.
The consequences, sadly, were utterly devastating. By the late 1990s, Thabo Mbeki had started to question the scientific consensus on AIDS, that the syndrome is caused by a viral infection that can be treated (not cured) with life saving/extending medical drugs. In 2000, Mbeki publicly rejected that consensus, declaring AIDS was not brought about by a virus, but by the collapse of the immune system – which he said was caused by poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. Alleviation of poverty was thus the answer – not expensive medications.
The ensuing policies enacted by his government were responsible for the avoidable deaths of more than a third of a million people, according to Pride Chigwedere and colleagues from the Harvard school of public health in Boston. They estimated that more than 330,000 people died unnecessarily over the period 2000-2005, and that 35,000 HIV-positive babies were born who could have been protected from the virus. Culturally embedded stigma, shame, and denial thus contributed significantly to the massive spread of HIV not just at a community level, but also at the highest, legislative level.
There is clearly much to be said for taking responsibility for ones actions – for enacting policies that encourage people to do so, and guide social behaviour in order to protect both individuals and a whole population. But the unfortunate example of South Africa under Mbeki shows that rigid moral judgments – particularly when unexamined – coupled with a denial of human nature, can cause as much needless suffering, if not more, than individual poor choices. In that case, moral judgments (and the fear of them) actually prevented policies that would have facilitated healthier behaviour and saved lives.
And so, when it comes to assisting people living with HIV, a virus that does not discriminate, morality-based notions of “innocent” and “guilty” victimhood are entirely redundant and unhelpful. But we do need to get the balance right. Coming up with policies that encourage and empower people to make wise choices in regards to their lives and health, whilst working zealously to eliminate stigma as something that is both inhumane and dangerous for society as a whole, is the middle way forward.
Yes, that was another epic absence from here. I meant to post this back in July but, ya know, life.