The city of Madrid, which I never get to see. Photo by Cuellar
The Afghani fellow asks, quite poignantly, if the speakers had a master key he could take home to help his country. I try to pay attention. He doesn’t talk much and obviously feels a deep human suffering, the normal suffering of a human compounded by the additional suffering of a nation which is more than a bit messed up. The Palestinian girl says she’s looking for something practical to take home after years of trying. An Egyptian tries to say that asking to resolve these questions in a four day workshop is not fair, and then emotion breaks out, across the room. For most, this is just felt as awkward.
I always liked awkward. Awkward is when reality intrudes upon illusion. The reality is suffering, a word I use in the Buddhist sense. Awkward is a moment that we stop pretending that everything is OK and silently observe that it is not.
What the Afghani and the Palestinian are feeling is pain. Living with injustice sucks. Not being able to do anything about it sucks even more. The idea that you could do something about it but not knowing exactly what just adds a Sisyphean dimension to the pain. At some point it’s hard to listen to theory without having that brutal reality acknowledged.
The next day, it gets awkward again. The teacher is trying to explain YouTube mash-ups and a journalist from Yemen can’t take it any more. He keeps interrupting and finally gets up to speak about how bad the situation in Yemen is and asking how this can help. He’s not especially coherent, but I can get the emotional import of his words, which is broadly that he’s in pain. He’s asking for help or, at the least, understanding. Instead, people ask him to shut up and, if he can’t, to leave. He’s not in the best physical state and he’s not actually contributing to the workshop program. In a very important way, however, he is.
I’m in Madrid for a workshop on Citizen Journalism and Civil Resistance. There are academic instructors with codified theory and practice and also participants with unique experience, including one of the organizers of the Egyptian protests. Like school, some of the best learning is on the sidelines, the crash courses on street organizing during the break, the personal experiences of different activists.
The teachers, however, keep having to pull the discussion back to keep it focused. They must, because group discussions that meander eventually fail. At the same time, however, there is serious shit going down in Yemen and Afghanistan and Bahrain, all of which are represented here. That’s not really acknowledged at all. There are some people here from safe countries like mine looking for information, but there are also people from dangerous countries looking for, essentially, salvation. It’s hard to hear that the answer is no.
There is no salvation here, and even the theory is not a guarantee. Non-violence works better than violence, but it doesn’t always work. It only works when the time is right, and there are numerous ways to mess it up. You never know exactly what’s going to abandon the theory and try. It reminds me of what the Buddha says about the dhamma, that it’s just a raft to get you across a river. Eventually you have to leave the raft and walk on your own.
Everyone here is looking for a way out of something. Not a personal pain, but a national one. What the organizers are trying to teach us is that even the most rigid security states are impermanent and that there is a way to make them change, that there is a way out. They don’t dwell on the pain because it’s not productive, but also because they are American and if things get dicey wherever they work then they can always get on the next flight.
Thus, they weren’t especially sensitive when a few people said, essentially, ‘I am in pain, what the fuck is this YouTube?’ It was off topic and at at times inappropriately put, but that’s life. Sometimes reality just intrudes. The organizers are good people and one apologized later, saying that he simply didn’t understand. This, I think, is all that people are asking for. Thankfully, they apologized for the misunderstanding and the participants rallied around the Yemeni fellow later, essentially to hug him and just listen. Which is I think all he wanted.
Civil resistance is essentially about pain. That this pain is there, that it is impermanent, and that if we’re civil then there is a way out. At the base of it all, there is suffering and there is pain. It’s important to focus on the way out, but you also have to acknowledge that the pain is there. Even if it’s awkward, it’s important that reality does intrude.