Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On being blue, like us...

Yesterday The Guardian reported on the Sami reindeer herders who live in Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and adjacent parts of Russia and their struggle to keep their language alive (as a critical component of their cultural identity) faced now by mostly indifferent public bodies (and as recently as the 70s active hostility) and casual racism:
see here: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/dec/22/-sp-reindeer-herders-an-app-and-the-fight-to-save-a-language

As I was lying awake, waiting sleep, I was reflecting on how, of the many unjust indignities in the world, this one, the rights and well-being of indigenous people still sits at the margins of our attention. Perhaps I thought because though 'indigenous' has become a recognised category, its boundaries do remain 'fuzzy' and because though there is a commonality of struggle - land rights, the incursion of mineral and other companies seeking exploitation, violence and cultural assimilation on the terms of the dominant society - it is difficult to give it immediately recognisable face. The struggle of a Yanomami in Venezuela, often life threatening, is more dramatic than the insidious indifference towards the Sami in Sweden and you do not immediately connect the two, as you would if it was a question, say, of being a refugee, of human trafficking or of a gay rights violation.

Thus did I find myself dreaming last night that every indigenous person had become 'blue'. They are in 'Avatar', if I recall, correctly from my inattentive watching once on an aeroplane! You could then talk about the global rights of 'blue people' etc and their common struggle for freedom etc. Absurd as it sounded on waking, it does, I think, have a grain of truthfulness: how to see indigenous people weave a better common narrative between themselves so as better to put a 'face' on their story.

However, perhaps becoming 'blue' would be too distancing! For it is increasingly clear that our moral lives are shaped by common feeling and accompanying imagination, rather than the cold calculation of reason and utility (or for that matter of 'rights'). Witness how campaigners for gay marriage in the US turned the tide by transforming the message from 'the right to marry' to do not Bill and John or Jane and Janet (who look like you) deserve similar happiness and protections? Well, when you put it like that?

So as well as a common identity running through indigenous people (being blue), their lives need narrating so that they increasingly appear 'just like us' - not exotically different but carrying the everyday concerns that everyone does - am I safe in my home (and do I have one)? Do I have a say in the way my life is governed and organised? Etc We need domestic and social texture that provides for hooks of recognition. Yes, the chosen cultural patterning of that life is different (but then it is different in Switzerland than it is in the UK) but the core, recognisable concerns are not. The cultural patterning is infinitely precious but its best hope of preservation maybe in seeing a carried over 'social sameness'.

I am not sure that even the best of intentioned agencies, such as Survival International, have got this quite right and it is a difficult balance: you have the right to be different but only when, at some level, we see you are not! Put like that it does sound deeply compromised! But the, possibly sad, truth appears to be that we care for what we can love and we love most deeply what we can recognise!

We have to continually, as Mencius wrote, expand the circle of that imagination to embrace all but he was realist enough to see that this was an expectation that would make everyone a sage, so let us be realistic about how far seeing will go in any one society!

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