Opinionista Mark Heywood 12 January 2015

Who Are You?

You may be Charlie, but solidarity doesn’t begin and end with press freedom. We need to stand together against inequality a lot more than we are.

History loves a quirk.

In 1945 as the drafters of what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were working on the ringing declarata that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, George Orwell had the pig Napoleon subvert Animal Farm’s dreams of equality and replace it with the commandment that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Neither Orwell nor Eleanor Roosevelt and her team could have been expected to foresee how inequality, already a mark of the twentieth century, would become the defining issue of the first years of the twenty-first. But it has. Today, in the 70th anniversary year of the publication of Animal Farm, across the world the Napoleons are in command:

  • White animals are more equal than black ones;
  • Male than female;
  • Able than disabled;
  • Rich than poor;
  • Christians than Muslims or Hindus or Rastafarians or many of the worlds other religions.

Indeed, across the world the inequality syndrome, something that Orwell satirised and the UDHR wishfully outlawed, has become the norm. People have made its very public manifestations invisible to their consciences and thus accepted and acceptable.

These thoughts came to me on 8 January as I was caught up in the mass outrage that swept Europe, the USA and their media networks over the murder of the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. Murders so brazen, so brutal, so unapologetic cannot but cause anger, outrage and despair. ‘This is a dastardly attack on free speech’ I thought. ‘If we don’t stand up for Charlie Hebdo, who will protect our Zapiro when he lampoons politicians with a God complex or God’s with a supremacy complex?’

Je Suis Charlie.

It seemed simple. But something bothered me.

Twelve people had been killed in a centre of human civilisation. Within hours several presidents and prime ministers, including the most powerful in the Western world, had spoken. The news networks had gone mad. Social media exploded. Across Europe people were taking to the streets in silent, well-intended and meaningful vigils.

We are not afraid.

But, I started to ask myself, was this wave of rejection a global one or something short of that? Would people in Palestine, Diepsloot or Ferguson be feeling the same? Might they be feeling sympathy for the murdered, anger at the brutality (as any moral human being would) but at the same time be choking on some of the hypocrisy? Would they wonder what it is about the death and destruction of (predominantly) white lives that can draw such opprobrium when the death and destruction of others’ lives that takes place daily – admittedly not captured on YouTube within minutes – goes largely unlamented?

JeSuisCharlie became a global hash-tag within hours. For a few hours we made it the cover profile on the SECTION27 Facebook page to show solidarity and respect. But the nagging feeling that gradually took shape was ‘why can’t this outrage extend to all people senselessly murdered or maimed?’ If only millions of people had declared:

  • Je Suis Andries Tatane!
  • Je Suis Mgcineni Noki!
  • Je Suis Michael Komape!
  • Je Suis Michael Brown!
  • Je Suis 13-year-old Raghad Abu Mustafa Jouda and the 1,600 people murdered in Gaza City!

Why don’t we identify equally with the others?

I believe that underlying our failure to lament equally for all of these deaths is our subconscious surrender to the inequality syndrome. Many modern conflicts, including the religious ones, can be traced back to inequality, the arbitrary denial of equal opportunity, the fruits of citizenship and unfair discrimination. The inability or unwillingness of our political leaders to solve or admit these conflicts, the rank opportunism and self-interest that clouds global politics, will increasingly boil up in fanaticism and hatred.

Have no doubt; there is more of the same coming. And we won’t stop it with bombs or incarceration.

The problem is that you have grown tolerant of the intolerable. You tolerate an inequality continuum that blights the poor from conception to extinction.

Consider this: in grossly unequal countries (like yours), the futures of poor children are determined in the womb when their mothers are denied sufficient nutrients for the foetus to thrive and develop full mental and physical capacity. Once outside of the womb, research has shown, inequality immediately pounces on children of poor households who hear millions fewer words due to the poorer learning of their parents. As they grow older they are fed into overcrowded, under-resourced and frequently violent schools. There the child is further stunted, limiting her further education and employment opportunities. Without educational qualifications the young adult is bound for unemployment, hunger and aimlessness. Look at the people you see but don’t see on the streets. This carries through into a poor standard of living and eating and infects the next generation of children.

And so on and on and on and on and on…

Thus the vicious circle is complete. Cradle to grave. Conception to extinction.

Unless we commit to breaking this circle in our homes, communities, countries, and across the globe, we are doomed.

Those of us who think we are on the safe side of inequality, locking ourselves up behind high walls or higher borders, tolerate it at our increasing peril.

The walls will be scaled.

Until those of with some degree of power and privilege shout Je Suis Je Suis Je Suis! in response to every act of barbarity, then the polarisation will deepen and continue.

Until we revolt against the de facto occupation of the West Bank and the way Israel humiliates the people of Palestine with the same anger with which we condemn the murderous barbaric rampage of ISIS, then there will be more acts of terror and despair.

Until we shuffle off the cloak of hypocrisy that governs so many of our responses, the poor world will look on and marvel at how the white animals are mourned when occasionally they run into the path of senseless violence, but wonder why it is that the black and poor animals are for the most part dispensable.

So, Who Are You? DM

Photo: Members of Turkish-French association gather in front of French Consulate as they hold placards reading ‘Je suis Charlie’ during a tribute rally for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, in Istanbul, Turkey, 10 January 2015. EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU