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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Who Can Talk About What? Who Can Talk About Whom?

I often think about things in which I have no personal stake and sometimes come up with what I think of as my own solutions to other people’s problems. So I think that Armenia and Turkey could resolve in a positive way their hundred -year conflict if Turkey ceded to Armenia  Mount Ararat – it’s national symbol – and if Armenia in exchange accepted that as full and final reparation for  the wrongs it suffered in the First World War. But I’m not a Turk or an Armenian and I have no personal stake.  I have visited both countries and read quite a few books about Turkish and Armenian history. And maybe my interest in their conflict may have been triggered by the fact that my mother once confided to me a Family Secret – her sister Queenie married an Armenian after the First World War. His name had been Mostichian (born about 1890) but he changed it to John Ashton. I knew him as Uncle Jack (he died when I was a young child) and my mother may not have told me this interesting fact about him until after his death. But she said nothing about a genocide or how it was that Uncle Jack had ended up in England and changing his name.

But visits, reading and a chance connection aside, do I have a right to think about Turkish-Armenian relations and, more pointedly, go into print with my idea for how the two countries might get along better than they do? (They have to live side by side, that’s agreed; it’s just a question of whether they do it well or badly). Surely how they settle their dispute is a question for them. Well, yes, of course. But they are not doing very well. In such circumstances, parties in dispute often call in mediators and mediators often come up with their own ideas. My idea is no more than unsought mediation – and that, you might say, is its flaw. The obvious retort to it is this, If we want your advice, we’ll ask for it.

Well, I am willing to back off tactically but I am not sure I am willing to back off strategically. It seems to me that everyone has a right to think about anything they want to think about and, in addition, say what they are thinking. Of course, their thinking may be ill-informed, unhelpful, inopportune or just plain wrong. This will often enough be pointed out to them but it does not remove their right to think their own thoughts and express them. True, we should avoid expressing ourselves unthinkingly because if we do then we just risk making bad situations worse or, self-interestedly, we will lose credibility on any topic we choose to talk or write about.

I will accept a further qualification to my right to speak about anything I want to. If you belong to a marginalised or (very) oppressed group, then one aspect of your experience may well be that discussion of it has been entirely or largely framed by others who haven’t shared it. It’s not just that a group’s experience may have been framed in hostile terms by a surrounding culture, with – for example - settlers settling an image onto native Indians or Aborigines.  You may also have advocates even before you know you need advocacy. An important first step in gaining more control over your situation may well be to talk in groups closed to anyone except members of your own group, closed even to your would-be advocates. I have no problem with this.

But when you emerge from your group to confront the world what you cannot expect is that everyone just rolls over and treats your account of your situation as undisputable. Other people have to feel that your narratives are true and important (there is nothing more tiresome than a group protesting loudly about minor inconveniences).  And since you are confronting them with your own narrative, they will feel free to respond both with questions and with their own narratives, and to that they are entitled. Once you enter the public arena, you can no longer use as a silencer, “But you have not had the experience I have had!”

An example. If you put up a resolution at a National Union of Students conference with the headline title “My Identity is None of Your Business” (it’s been done) you are simply telling other people that they should roll over and do as they are told. Unfortunately, there is no obvious reason why they should agree to do so, without debate, whatever the substance of the Identity in question (in this case, transgender self-identification). That is a straightforward implication of every notion of equality and equal rights that I can think of.

Of course (once again, of course), it is rational and respectful to pay special heed to someone’s authentic narrative of their own experience and to the political or policy implications which they derive from it. But those implications are never indisputable.

Consider the situation of a very marginalised and oppressed group, people in prison. They do have rights and those rights should certainly include the right to articulate their experience of jail and make claims against their jailers for changes in their regime. If prisoners claim a right to a diet which enables them to eat their Five a Day, well, how could you be against that?  It’s not part of our notion of what imprisonment is about that prisoners should be deprived of the right to try to keep themselves healthy. But that does not imply that all deprivations of rights are wrong; the whole point of imprisonment is to deprive you of some rights you would normally have, either to punish you or to protect others from you. We just have to be clear on what deprivations we intend. Prisoners are out of sight and out of mind and we don’t often have to think clearly about what deprivations we do indeed intend.

You may think that I have chosen a perverse example. But it’s not so perverse. In other cases, demands are made which are clearly demands for equal rights or equal treatment which should be recognised, but sometimes they are mixed up with demands for special privileges. Everyone is entitled to debate the merits of each particular case.

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