Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: difference

Why We Are Launching Citizen Network

Hütia te rito o te harakeke, kei hea te kömako e kö? 
Kï mai ki a au, ‘He aha te mea nui i te ao?’ Māku e kï atu, ‘He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata’. 

If the heart of the flax is pulled out, where will the kömako sing? 
If you ask me what is most important in this world, I will reply, ‘It’s people, it’s people, it’s people.’Maori Proverb*

Last Thursday, in Auckland, at the international conference on self-direction, brilliantly hosted by Manawanui In Charge, we launched Citizen Network. I think this might be the most important initiative that I’ve been a part of and I want to explain here why we’ve come together to create Citizen Network, and why we hope you will join us.

The idea of Citizen Network began at the Vancouver Conference on self-direction in 2015. We wanted to find a way to connect up all the positive initiatives, around the world, that advance citizenship for people with disabilities, and for the many others who face oppression, stigma and exclusion.

Many of us have spent a good part of our lives working on important system changes (like closing institutions, creating community supports or developing systems of self-directed support) and we want to build on all of this. We want to get better at recognising and supporting positive innovation and be more effective at advocating for these changes within our societies.

However we also feel that these system changes are not enough. Even the best system can be corrupted when we lose sight of the deeper values that inspire our work and our own integrity in helping change to happen.

We need to understand what we are really trying to achieve and why it is important. So we have focused not just on self-direction, but on the broader goal of citizenship for all.

For while it would be simpler to have a narrow focus, on systems of self-direction (important as these are) we feel that this will fail to address the real challenges that we face. Even more importantly, we would fail to tap into the hunger for justice and for true citizenship that had originally inspired deinstitutionalisation and the creation of positive innovations, like systems of self-direction.

It is the values that inspire and fuel our appetite for making change happen. We believe people are ready for a more ambitious and hopeful vision of the future.

Now is a good time to stand back and think about the bigger picture. Now is a good time to break down the barriers, silos and categories that so easily divide us. Now is a good time to go deeper and seek the true source of our values. For so many of us want to live in a world where

  • difference is not just accepted, but rather it is cherished and celebrated,
  • where we don’t just treat people as if they were equal, we know that they really are equal, and
  • where everyone can be a true citizen, living a life of meaning, supported with love.

There is no better time to express these hopes and to try and act from them. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, politicians pandering to hatred and vicious austerity policies (especially in the UK) are all signs that the old ways of thinking are not working.

We cannot be satisfied by just focusing on changing systems when the world as a whole is going backwards towards increased social injustice. We must see our lives and our work in the light of this bigger picture – no matter how challenging that may feel.

So how can we respond to the challenges ahead?

Of course it is important for all of us to play our part in the ordinary political processes in our communities, to get involved and to support those advocating justice and citizenship for all. But even if we win the occasional victory in this way this won’t help us if we do not also understand the cause of our current problems. Winning power is only helpful if we know what to do with that power.

Those of us who have been fighting to close institutions, to advance disability rights, to promote self-direction and community lives, have a special responsibility to share what we’ve learned with others. We have two generations of learning about what it takes to support real citizenship. We must share that and try to reshape the assumptions of the political landscape around it.

For instance, we could make common cause with those who face others kinds of exclusion from citizenship. The migrant, refugee or asylum seeker, fleeing terror or just trying to build a better life, faces hatred and exclusion, just as have many disabled people. Can we not work with those communities and learn from them about what they are doing to achieve true citizenship? Can we not help them stand up against xenophobia and racism?

Also, if we do advocate inclusion into community, then surely we must also pay attention to the real state of those communities. We do not want to include people in communities that are rife with poverty, insecurity, inadequate welfare systems or where there are no decent democratic structures. Citizenship is a problem for all of us; we are increasingly living in an elitist society where the only source of value is a paid job. This is bad for all of us, and in our changing economy it is hard to see how this is even sustainable. Inclusion is not enough. It must be inclusion, with justice, that we seek.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, this is also about the kind of people we want to be. Do we think the worship of money, status and power will lead anywhere good? Lives of meaning and love, lives of citizenship, are possible for all of us. But we must leave behind the shallow values and insecurities that feed our fears and tempt us to blame other people for our problems.

We must be citizens, true citizens, thinking and acting with integrity and with a concern for other people and the natural world. We must value citizenship – and explain its value to others. We must act like citizens – cooperating and taking responsibility for the communities in which we live.

We must grow and safeguard the heart of the flax – the communities that nurture and sustain us.

This, at least, is our crazy dream; and this is what led us to form Citizen Network.

You can find out more by visiting the Citizen Network website. You can join for free, and groups or organisations who want to become part of a community committed to the values of citizenship will be listed on our world map.

It is early days, there is much to do and we are bound to make some mistakes. But we have already established networks in Australia, Scotland and England and we hope to have several other countries join us shortly.

What will it do?

Well to begin with I think the focus will be on innovation and advocacy.

There is much we can do already. There are great people out there doing brilliant work. We need to learn from each other. So Citizen Network will act as an international cooperative of people and organisations who are willing to learn and share with each other – share and share alike. We hope to end the pointless competition which so often closes down innovation. Instead we will focus on how we can help make positive change happen together. Events, webinars and practical projects are likely to be early first steps.

There is also much to challenge. Sometimes we need to change systems, change laws, combat injustice. Often this is too hard for one person or one organisation. But through cooperative international action we may have the ability to exercise more influence on behalf of justice. For instance international surveys can help us better understand where progress is, and isn’t, being made.

And of course self-direction and individualised funding will still be a very big part of things – it is still our strongest suit. I very much hope we can build on the great work started in Vancouver and continued in Auckland. Perhaps we can set a new date for an international gathering.

It’s early days, but I know that others will join us. There is a hunger for a more positive vision for society and we can play a part in helping to define and share that vision.

When times are hard and when so many seem to have forgotten the meaning of citizenship and justice then we must stand up and we must reach out to each other. We must not join in with those lost in hatred, nor can we stand by, expecting someone else to solve our problem.

Perhaps the triple call of the Maori proverb is to remind us that

People are valuable – there’s no place for rejection and exclusion

People are special – each of us can live a life of love and meaning

People are powerful – together we have what it takes to build a better world

Citizen Network may not be able to solve all the worlds problems; but together we can create a world where we recognise that everyone is different, everyone is equal and everyone matters.

Join Us

* By visiting Auckland library I discovered that the kömako is most probably the bellbird and the metaphor of the flax is related to the fact that new life comes from the heart of the flax bush; to pull out the heart of the bush is to leave the bush sterile and incapable of bring forth new generations.

The Right to be Different

Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! the only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.

Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate

I like this thought. Political philosophers rarely assert the value of this right – the right to be different.

Some, like Hobbes, see society as developing out of our basic needs for protection. Others, like Locke, see it as the rational requirement of our fundamental rights. Burke and other’s might see society as having a value in itself, as the transmitter of values through the generations. But rarely do philosophers proclaim the value of difference itself.

Grossman’s point is useful because he sees that the individual’s proper commitment to the group must be a reflection of the needs of individuality itself – it is my unique place in community that I expect society to respect and sustain. If society cannot respect and support that very individuality why must I support it? If I must become not I in order to be valued and protected then I have no reason to commit myself to society.

It is curious how careless we are of diversity and true individuality in our thinking about society. All too quickly some rationale becomes the new god for society – and we must sacrifice ourselves for that artificial idol. I think that part of the reason that Judaism was so opposed to idols was precisely to protect the individual from this kind of mad social coercion.

Equality With or Without Degree

For there is no other heaven – the hierarchy admitted, there is, it seems, no hierarchy at all; no higher or lower; all is here, in the first. “Only,” and as if (lover-like) Beatrice exerted herself to explain to her lover, she seems to use an intense metaphor – “only – they have a sweet life differently, by feeling more or less the eternal breath” (per sentir piu e men l’eterno spiro (IV, 36)). The swifter ardour of that sweet immingled life is all the difference any can know; passion is their law, not place. Anything else is democracy intoxicated with itself, the moon-lunacy of equality without degree, as without equality degree is sun-madness. Even in this world, even outside love, one does not envy Caesar or Shakespeare or the God-bearer; existence is equal, function hierarchical; at every moment the hierarchy alters, and the functions re-ladder themselves upward. To know both – to experience and to observe both is perfect freedom.

From Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice

Understanding how to take equality is one of the most important challenges of both political philosophy and morality.

As Arendt observed there is a grave danger that the ideal of equality will be corrupted into some kind of enforced normality – what I think Williams might call “equality without degree.” If we say equal, but think normal, then all those of us who are ‘too different to be equal’ will be at risk.

The challenge is to combine equality and degree.

Williams is exploring Dante’s picture of heaven – which is (whether or not you believe in heaven) a useful intellectual exercise. In heaven there must be a fundamental equality – can you imagine yourself as somehow envious, proud or demeaned in heaven. There can be no pretence that we are ‘better’ in heaven. But we cannot all be the same – that would be hell.

Dante imagines heaven as a hierarchy of multiple perfections – the hierarchy seemed problematic, even to Dante himself; but it is then revealed as a way of understanding the beauty of our diversity.

Difference evokes Meaning

The philosopher, and disabled activist, Judith Snow tells us that disability is a gift.

Disability is a gift because all of our distinct features – everything that makes us different and unique – is a  gift.

Of course this statement can only be made as an act of faith. Clearly differences do not always feel like a blessing and they may not be treated by others as a gift. But she is asking us to have faith in the possibility that another person will exist who, at the right time, in the right place, will be able to receive that gift.

This may not be an empirical statement – but that does not matter. The demands of faith are central to our approach to the world. Judith Snow is telling us how to approach the world – not predicting that we we will do so.

She is also calling us to recognise the central importance of difference to a life of meaning. Getting back what what we’ve already got is an unsatisfactory experience – without meaning. Difference stimulates, provokes and creates the possibility of meaning.

However to experience this meaning, through difference, also demands that we share in a common world that makes meaningful exchange possible – inclusion.

© 2017 Simon Duffy

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