Communicative memory through three or four generations of family

I love browsing through my grandmother’s photo albums, especially, searching for visual glimpses of her life before or during World War II, before and during the Soviet, then Nazi and then again Soviet regime. There are not many photos to find.. First of all, they were a simple farming family who did not have many photographers around their village. Secondly, the war, deportation of her parents to Siberia, confiscation of their family farm, scattering of family to all corners of Latvia and Lithuania, hiding in the post-war years… I am amazed that there are any photos left at all.

This is possibly the last photo of my great-grandparents Jānis and Margaret (sitting in the middle) and their eldest son Miķelis (on the far left) enjoying life, family and friends at their farm in Butinge, Lithuania. This territory belonged to Latvia until 1921 therefore most of the local population in surrounding area were Latvians. The photo could be taken circa 1942-1943. In the autumn of 1944 their village was again taken over by the Soviet troupes. In 1944 two of my grandmother’s brothers, including Miķelis, crossed the Baltic Sea as refugees and in 1948 my great-grandparents and great-great-grandmother (who was well into her 90-ties) were arrested and deported to Irkutsk region in Russia.

They were allowed to return to Latvia only in 1957, few years after Joseph Stalin’s death. They had nowhere to go since the farm was confiscated, except move from place to place to stay with their children who themselves were struggling to find places to live. Plus, anyone, who had been deported, carried the sentence of “enemy of the state” for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult to re-settle. You were discriminated and marked (as if with leprosy in Jesus times) and some avoided you for fear of the regime.

For anyone who follows the science of memory politics, social, collective and cultural memory, etc, you may be familiar with Aleida Assmann and her well-known  thesis about communicative memory which is limited to the recent past. “It evokes personal and autobiographical memories, and is characterized by a short term (80 to 110 years), from three to four generations. Due to its informal character, it does not require expertise on the part of those who transmit it.”

Here is my family. Almost 80 years since this photo was taken. Three to four generations that are connected with a particular memory, a particular story and this story tells of a very deep trauma. There is the first generation – my grandmother, her siblings, her parents – who experienced it first-hand. Often if the experience has been very traumatic, this generation becomes the “silent” generation, focusing on survival. In our family, this would be my grandmother’s generation. But there was an added layer of trauma – in the Soviet Union they were not allowed to talk about it. These memories were simply “erased” from public memory and official history because they did not match the ideology of the regime. When the memory is repressed, there is no chance for healing.

Then there is second generation which grows up with these “silent” parents. Even though my grandmother has never been the silent type, she was afraid to tell many details of her past to her children and grandchildren. Not until Latvia started shaking off the totalitarian Soviet regime and became an independent country again. Suddenly there was a flood of stories. Being the fourth generation in this chain of communicative memory, I now regret that I did not ask more questions before my grandmother’s memory got badly damaged by old age and before my mom passed away from cancer.

Recently I got a stark reminder how deeply this trauma still affects the older generation of Latvian society. My grandmother is the most cheerful, positive person I know but she started to complain about bad nightmares which she could never remember the next day. Only word she kept repeating was “mud” and “wading through mud”. One morning while I was staying with her few weeks ago, she woke up from another one of those nightmares. Only this time she could remember it and described it to me in vivid detail.

She dreamed of being arrested and taken from her home, loaded into an open truck together with a large group of other women (she told me there were no children and nobody had luggage) and driven through Siberian taiga. When I asked her what time of the year it was in her dream, she replied: “Oh, it was late autumn. There was no snow on the ground but there was mud everywhere. Very deep mud. The truck kept getting stuck in the mud and we had to wade through this mud. It was horrible.” And she kept repeating: “They were taking us to the death camp. They were going to kills us there and we knew that this was our last journey.”

The thing is… my grandmother herself was never deported (someone had warned her and she went into hiding). Her parents were and so were many of her neighbors and friends. This was a collective trauma which affected so many families in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In Latvia alone, on March 25, 1949, approximately 43 000 people were arrested and deported to Siberia. It took 31 train cars to transport them on the long journey across Russia.

I asked grandmother why she thinks she has these nightmares about camps in Siberia if she was never there. Her reply: “No, I was not there with my parents, but I have suffered as much. I have lived in hiding, I have slept in the forests… Those were terrible times.”

When I think I know something, I learn how much I don’t know. Only to realize that healing takes a long, long time and even at the age of 95, this repressed trauma can haunt. And to realize that these communicative memories remind me why we have to be on constant guard against any kind of totalitarian ideology and system. Left wing, right wing, atheist, religious, etc. … I don’t care. Anything that decides who is “in” and who is “out”, who lives if they obey and who dies if they disobey. (I plan to write a separate post on how I see the danger and deception of totalitarian  “seeds”)

Meanwhile my grandmother holds onto these words: “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

The Valentine’s rose from my unlikely friend in San Francisco

I had not thought of Wayne in long time… or the things experienced in San Francisco. But yesterday these special and very significant memories came back so vividly.

It happened while listening to a group of young foreigners, mostly American, who are spending time in Rīga. Not only to experience this beautiful city but also to get to know and bless some of its people. It is a group of young Christians who believe that in some mysterious but also practical ways God can use them to show divine love. Even to random strangers while giving out roses at a local coffee shop on Valentine’s Day. Or giving small gifts, Valentine’s cards and flowers to women who work as prostitutes on Rīga streets.

Suddenly it brought back memories of when I had just turned 21 and joined a very similar group. Except the locations were reversed and I, as a Latvian, traveled to the USA to study in Oregon and later spent one month in San Francisco. And the time in San Francisco changed me and left a very deep imprint on my heart.

Wayne was the biggest part of this story. The least likely person for me to get to know while in San Francisco and I met him on the famous (or infamous) streets of Haight & Ashbury. An area of the city which some decades earlier had become known as the hippy hub. The times had changed and Generation X had taken over but there were still plenty of flower and peace symbols, New Age shops, arts galleries, vintage clothes stores and very strong hippy vibe.

The streets were truly vibrant and there was a strong sense of community. Many friendly, interesting, creative, welcoming people but also many broken ones.  I was very naive and, for example, had never been around so much drug abuse. My mentor had to explain to me the bizarre and even dangerous behaviour I was often observing. But sometimes ignorance and naiveté is a bliss and I simply wanted to make friends without keeping people at arm’s length because of their addictions or mental and psychological issues.

That is how I met Wayne. We were walking down the street together with my friend Heidi, looking for people to hang out with. Then Heidi was approached by a homeless guy who first asked if we had a cigarette and launched into a long, serious conversation about the meaning of life. He was lightly drunk and kind of smug but my friend Heidi was not put off by it and they talked for a long time.

Meanwhile I was completely put off by his homeless friend  – an old man sitting on the sidewalk, completely drunk, dirty and smelly – who kept calling me to come and talk to him. I tried to ignore him and kept thinking to myself “I did not come here tonight to talk or hang out with you, an old drunk. I don’t even talk to old drunks like you on the streets of Rīga. Plus, you are weird and stink so bad. It will make me sick to be near you.”

He kept calling… and finally I gave in. Walked over, sat down on the sidewalk and turned my head where I could feel the fresh breeze instead of the stench of alcohol and uncleanliness. I was shocked to learn that Wayne was not so “old”. I had guessed a man in his 60’s but he was actually in his mid 30’s. Originally from Ohio if I remember correctly but had lived on the streets of San Fran for many years. Sleeping in the parks, under the bridges, eating in soup kitchens, drinking with his buddies and living one day at a time.

Little did I know that this was the first of many deep conversations. With a smirk, Wayne asked if I was with a group of Christians (which was clearly obvious) and then proceeded to talk about his faith in God (probably expecting to be evangelized). He told me he really liked the teachings and the life of Jesus but he did not like most of what is called ‘the church’. He even liked the evangelist Billy Graham and in his youth had sent money to this ministry.

That night I simply listened as Wayne did all the talking. It felt like he just wanted someone to listen. I did not even sense the typical manipulative “feel sorry for me”. His story made me sad, for sure, because he was a very intelligent guy with such a destructive lifestyle. The following weeks when my friends and I went to Haight & Ashbury, I started to look for Wayne and usually he was there. Often sober. Sitting on the sidewalk where we continued our discussions about life, God, joys and sorrows, friends and family.

Before actually remembering my name, Wayne started calling me “the Russian girl” and his “Russian friend”. The word got out and got stuck. Every time his other friends would see me, they would say “hey, you are the Russian girl, right?” (Since then I have learned to explain the geographic location of Latvia differently because as soon as you explain that Latvia borders Russia, many people remember Russia but forget Latvia. I say, for example, Latvia is south of Finland or across the Baltic Sea from Sweden or between Estonia and Lithuania 🙂 )

One evening we brought a big container of hot water, shampoo and scissors for any of the homeless men and women who wanted a haircut since one girl in our group was a professional hairdresser.  The police did not mind as we did it right there on the sidewalk. Wayne also got a haircut and for the first time we saw him without his dirty beanie. Afterwards the whole street block smelled like a shampoo and there were many happy, clean faces.

When it came to our last days in San Francisco, I was hoping to say “goodbye” to Wayne and to simply tell him that God does really love him and sees him whatever situation he is in and knows every hair on his head. And that I will continue to pray for him. It happened to be Valentine’s Day which I did not know since we did not celebrate such day in Latvia. I could not find Wayne in the regular spot but finally spotted him. He greeted me with a big smile and a red rose: “Happy Valentine’s Day, my friend! I was hoping to see you before your group goes back to Oregon. Thank you so much for sitting with me on the sidewalk, thank you for our talks and for listening me! I will miss it.”

So, here is the plain truth and the real mystery… meeting and getting to know this broken, homeless man turned out to be the most spiritual experience from my time in San Francisco and in fact one of the very significant spiritual experiences in my whole life. Which I could have almost missed by proudly walking by or looking over (and surely I have missed many similar mutually enriching connections and even friendships).

I planned to tell Wayne “I am glad I see you. But most importantly God sees you and really loves you.” But he beat me to it. By extending the rose as a farewell gift, he communicated without words which I translated it as: “Thanks for seeing me. I see you and God sees you. Most importantly God sees and loves all.”

For those who read this – happy belated Valentine’s!

2019… what do I see

It is time for New Year’s resolutions and I will confess… I usually don’t make them. I am not good at keeping promises to myself because most of  my time and energy is spent trying to keep promises to others and that is difficult enough.

But if I was to have my way, I would ‘plan’ more fun. Like dancing, swimming, reading classic novels, live concerts, hikes in the woods, museums and traveling around! Maybe this is how every student feels in the final year of his/her studies when Facebook becomes really annoying 😦 It somehow gives a (hopefully false) impression that others have all the time in the world.

So, what do I see when I think about 2019? In a larger, even global sense. Nothing rosy! Things used to be more predictable, forecasts more popular and every new year promised to be different and somehow better. And for some odd reason I have the feeling of ‘same old but more of the old’ to come. What I mean is that every new year, in fact, every month, week and day brings new challenges which also provide great new opportunities. Yet we stubbornly miss those opportunities again and again. (Don’t even get me started on sustainable global development issues!)

Here I am speaking of my sentiment over current affairs. Not gloomy but simply sad. Sad that many of our countries have become so consumed by domestic concerns and politics that our interconnection with the rest of the world and the global ecosystem is neglected, ignored or even bemoaned. Why should we care about other’s problems? Look how many problems are right here and right now!  Why should we think critically and use our brains when we can just go on social media and stop caring for facts and find people who will tell us what to think? Especially what to think of those “others”! Much easier and much more pleasant  is to live in our imagined ‘Whoville’ and get all upset when we are told it simply does not exist!

I know that this sounds like a broken record and we, especially in the West, keep going in circles with our discussions of politically divided communities and nations. But not until we are really fed-up with circling our ideological, theological, national ‘wagons’ and desperate enough to enlarge our hearts to love all our neighbors, we will just keep muddling through and keep up the frequent ‘mud-throwing’.

What we need in 2019 are more prophets! Not as fortune tellers or social protesters, but as people who, according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, “understood the possibility of change as linked to emotional extremities of life. They understood the strange in-congruence between public conviction and personal yearning. Most of all, they understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness “fresh from the word.”

I do not claim to have this kind of prophetic voice but I do know people who speak, write and, most importantly, live with this prophetic ‘newness’. I gravitate toward them because they see something that most of us do not see yet. They themselves do not claim that they ‘know’ or that they ‘see’. To me this is actually one of the marks of a prophetic person – they are never know-it-all or the expert. They are simply on the road less traveled which requires more courage and trust in hope…

So, here is my New Year’s resolution – I want to walk on the road less traveled! And I see a small, winding path and it probably goes uphill…

 

 

 

 

 

Filmmakers as the spies of our present and future

“I refuse your version of humanity and I will continue to struggle against it”, is one of the lines from “The Forgiven”, a British movie directed by Roland Joffé which came out last year . The story focuses on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa which was established as one of the restorative justice and national healing mechanisms after the end of apartheid. The role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is played by Forest Whitaker (who does a great acting job as always) and the other main character is Piet Blomfeld, a fictional former security operative played by Eric Bana (also job well done).

Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of TRC and the movie portrays his personal struggles with faith, forgiveness and mercy when facing the ‘in-your-face’ evil committed and now publicly admitted. There are some very intense and emotional scenes in high-security prison where Tutu visits Blomfeld and the two worldviews collide. Blomfeld tries to shock and win with violence, hatred and his version of life. Tutu responds with words: “Brutality is the aberration, not love. Think on that!”

I have a special interest in movies about reconciliation, especially ethnic or racial but usually these stories are not the big box office successes and often you have to be very intentional to find them. When asked about “The Forgiven”, the Australian actor Eric Bana said in an interview: “If you find films like [The Forgiven], it’s a no-brainer. That’s what most actors want to be doing. But they’re getting harder to find, they’re getting harder to fund, and they’re getting harder to get some air to promote.”  True and sad , isn’t it?

There are two more recent films  – “The Journey” and “The Insult” – which I can recommend on this topic. The first I have seen and the other not yet. “The Journey” focuses on Northern Ireland conflict and St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006. Directed by Nick Hamm, it is a political drama based on true events with a fictional version how two sworn political enemies meet and start working together. Ian Paisley, a loyalist and Protestant minister, and Martin McGuinness, a republican and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader share a car ride and are forced to simply start talking to each other.

As in any reconciliation and peace process, the first and hardest step are the questions of truth. Whose truth is correct? Which version of historical events is the right one? Which perspective is the most just? There is an immediate clash when ‘enemies’ start talking about ‘facts’. “The Journey” creates a fictional situation but it is not difficult to imagine the ‘real’ meeting between people who could not be more opposite in their views.

In real life Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness did talk for the first time in 2006 and few months later they were working together in the new Northern Ireland government where the power is shared between the unionists/loyalists and the republicans. McGuinness said to the international press, “Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything—not even about the weather—and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us…. This shows we are set for a new course.”

And “The Insult” (L’insulte) is the story about a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee which turns into an explosive trial that ends up dividing the two communities. It is on my list to see. If you have seen it, tell me what you think!

Someone said that “any human crisis is a creative situation” and it seems it gives creative energy to the artists, including the filmmakers. They see and feel the social processes and often lead the way in starting difficult conversations which others do not dare. Latvian sociologist Dagmāra Beitnere Le Galla said that “artists are the spies of future while historians look at the past”.

What is the version of humanity we choose? These films make us think…

Answering before listening is both stupid and rude

This nugget of wisdom comes from the book of Proverbs (18:13). In the same chapter you will find that “Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth.”

I can be both. Stupid and rude. And few other adjectives if you ask people who know me the best. My mom would have probably never admitted to others that she found me arrogant and too opinionated in our conversations. (Simply because she was the kind of mom who always ‘covered my sins’.) And don’t ask my husband. It is a given.

Why the confession? Because it is hard to practice what we preach. There is a general universal lament that we need relearn the basics of good, respectful, well-mannered, thoughtful conversations, dialogue, discussions, debates. Anything that falls under human communication. And the crucial skill of listening and actually hearing what the other person or group are saying and why do they see things differently from us.

Recently I attended a large meeting where the stakes were high and the main goal was to deal with polarization within an church organization and for two groups of opposite views to have a dialogue. I considered myself a neutral observer (since I was not from this church) who came to learn and listen and in the process I realized a few things.  How  I identified with one group or the other and how easy it would be to take sides. How difficult it was to listen respectfully to those who expressed views I did not agree with. Still, being a neutral person has one advantage – it helps to hear better what each side is saying. This is what mediators do – they help each side to be heard and sometimes step in as interpreters.

I also realized that booing and jeering is an understandable emotional response when you feel misrepresented, threatened or attacked (which happened at the church discussion I attended) but it is not a way to communicate effectively. If the goal is dialogue and understanding, booing only communicates “thumbs down” and the speaker will either ‘flee’ or ‘fight’ back more. And how can you listen and hear while booing?

There are too many examples of bad or non-existent communication. The mouths are moving fast, words are spoken but the ears seem closed and the meaning is lost. Just watch some of the talk shows or expert panels on TV. Much of the time there is no dialogue, only opinions. Even when the participants are polite and don’t interrupt. Or read many of our social media threads where you can observe the same thing. Are the people actually interested in understanding the ‘other side’ or do they simply care to win?

That’s just it. Our driving desire is to be “right” and for our “truth” to have the upper hand. We feel that our very identity is threatened if we are somehow “wrong”. The urgent contemporary question each one of us has to answer. Is it more important to be right or to relate rightly and righteously?

Without emphatic listening we cannot relate to others rightly. Full stop.

Latvian:

“Ja kāds atbild, pirms uzklausījis, – tā viņa muļķība, tas viņa negods!”

Šis gudrības grauds atrodams Bībelē, Sakāmvārdu grāmatā (18:13). Turpat ir teikts: “Netīko muļķis pēc saprašanas – ka tik izrādīt savu prātu!”

Man padodas gan muļķība, gan negods. Un vēl daudzas līdzīgas lietas, kuras mani tuvākie cilvēki var viegli raksturot. Mamma drošvien nevienam nebūtu atzinusi, cik augstprātīgi un visgudri es ar viņu bieži vien runāju (jo viņa bija viena no tām mammām, kuras ‘apklāj savu bērnu grēkus’). Un manam vīram var pat neprasīt, jo viņam nebūs ilgi jādomā 😉

Kāpēc šī atzīšanās? Jo ir viegli pamācīt, bet grūti izdarīt. Mani, tāpat kā daudzus,  satrauc zemā sarunu kultūra, it sevišķi tajās jomās, kur darbojas sabiedrībā ievērojami un iecienīti cilvēki, kuriem būtu jārāda piemērs. Acīmredzami mums ir jāatgriežas pie daudzām pamatlietām, lai prastu cieņpilni, pieklājīgi, saprātīgi sarunāties, diskutēt un debatēt.  Un viena no visbiežāk iztrūkstošajām praksēm ir klausīšanās ar mērķi tiešām sadzirdēt savu sarunu biedru, pat ja viņam vai viņai pilnīgi nepiekrīti. Pirms nedēļas piedalījos praktiskā nodarbībā sarunu skolas “LAMPA” ietvaros, un tur tas tika ļoti labi pasvītrots. Lektore Ilze Dzenovska aicināja padomāt, kāds ir labs klausītājs, kāds ir labs stāstītājs, kādas ir mūsu reakcijas sarunās, un kādas ir mūsu vajadzības.

Nesen apmeklēju arī šobrīd aktuālo diskusiju LELB vidē, kura tika rīkota Lutera draudzē Torņakalnā. Saruna, kurā ir sajūta, ka daudz ‘likts uz kārts’, un uzstādījums divām (vai vairākām) pusēm uzklausīt vienam otru, patiesi sadzirdēt un atrast veidu, kā būt labākās, draudzīgās, cieņpilnās attiecībās. Es neesmu LELB draudžu locekle, un varētu uzskatīt sevi par neitrālu novērotāju, kura vēlas labāk izprast kaut kādus šībrīža procesus sabiedrībā. Tovakar es atzīmēju sev dažas lietas, piemēram, cik normāli ir identificēties ar runātājiem un cik viegli nostāties vienā vai otrā pusē. Cik grūti ir klausīties ar cieņu cilvēkos, kuri liekas nosodoši vai agresīvi. Cik ļoti šī saruna jeb sarunas nepieciešamība nav par LELB, bet par Latvijas (un ne tikai Latvijas) sabiedrībai svarīgiem jautājumiem kopumā. (Vērtīgu komentāru uzrakstījusi Bella Briška, Lutera draudzes locekle. Lasīt šeit)

Tajā diskusijā man bija tikai viena priekšrocība. Tā kā mani tas neskar tik personīgi kā LELB draudžu locekļus, arī manas emocijas bija mazāk iesaistītas. Žurnālists Aidis Tomsons godam pildīja savus moderatora pienākumus. (Jā, moderatoriem/mediatoriem parasti ir iespēja sadzirdēt labāk, ko abas puses vēlas pateikt, un palīdzēt veidot komunikācijas tiltu.)

Par emocijām karstās sarunās runājot ir saprotama cilvēciskā vēlme izrādīt neapmierinātību ūjinot, utt, kad jūties nesaprasts un/vai apdraudēts, bet tas neder un nepalīdz. Ja vēlēšanās ir tiešām saprasties, tad ūjināšana vienkārši apzīmē ‘īkšķi uz leju’, un runātājs vai nu padosies un apklusīs, vai vēl vairāk centīsies aizstāvēties un cīnīties. Ūjināšana der, ja vispār nevēlamies uzklausīt kāda viedokli. Ja esam tik dusmīgi, ka “aizbāžam ausis”.  Jo kā cilvēks var vienlaicīgi ūjināt un klausīties?

Šodien vardarbīga komunikācija nav tālu jāmeklē. Var uzgriezt kādu TV raidījumu, kur tiek aicināti pretēju viedokļu pārstāvji. Var palasīt (vai labāk nelasīt) komentāru palagus Facebook, kur neuzklausīšanu un nedzirdēšanu var redzēt ik uz soļa. Tāda kārtīga virtuāla klope! Mēs pārāk bieži esam kā Sākamvārdos minētais muļķis.

Nāk prātā trāpīgie M. Lutera Kinga Jr. vārdi: “Mums jāiemācās dzīvot kopā kā brāļiem, vai arī iesim bojā kopā kā muļķi.”

Tā ir viena no iezīmēm mūsu nesaprašanās un konfliktu problēmām. Vēlamies, lai mums būtu taisnība, lai tā uzvarētu, un attiecību kvalitāte tiek nostumta zemāk. Mums liekas, ka mūsu dziļākā būtība un identitāte ir apdraudēta, ja neuzvarēsim vai ja mūsu uzskati izrādīsies ‘kļūdaini’ vai, pasarg Dievs, ‘nepareizi’. (Par idenitāti reliģioziem cilvēkiem vispār vajadzētu uztraukties vismazāk. Galu galā kristiešu identitāte ir Kristus, nevis pareizība.)

Tātad… vai mums svarīgāka ir ‘mūsu patiesība’ un ‘mūsu pareizība’, vai taisnīgas, labas un mierpilnas attiecības ar līdzcilvēkiem?

Bez ieklausīšanās un sadzirdēšanas nu nekādi. Punkts.

 

Facebook and the conundrum of hate speech

“As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

“I can’t live with or without you”, I considered such title but decided it would be too much. Facebook is a thing, not a person. Simply a social media platform and, most of the time, a useful one for certain interaction with friends, colleagues and work.

As we know, it easily connects people and just as easily breaks them apart. I usually ‘flee’ from the latest controversy, debate, back-and-forth comments because I 1) don’t think as fast as other respondents 2) think too much what words to choose and to use because words are important 3) would rather join face to face conversation 4) want to engage with friends and people I know because only they will value my opinion 5) don’t think I can actually change someone’s mind with few short comments 6) don’t want to get in ‘cross fire’ if the conversation is aggressive 7) and don’t want to spend time creating more and more ‘hot air’. If there is anything this world has more than enough, it is “hot air”.

But unfortunately and tragically this virtual ‘hot air’ can become real, violent and simply evil fire. Last week again there were two instances where Facebook as a community platform had to acknowledge it has been used effectively in stirring hate and prejudice. Facebook removed the pages of the anti-Islamic group ‘Britain First’ and its leaders because of repeated violations of FB community standards. I would say not just FB but most of the British society’s standards. I know friends in the UK who are working very hard to foster relationships and bring healing to hurting communities and they have criticized ‘Britain First’ for long time.

The other story was even more painful and more personal since it involved Myanmar/Burma. When I started ‘peaceroads’ blog three years ago, it was inspired by many years of working with refugees from Myanmar and living on Thailand – Myanmar border. And now U.N. human rights experts investigating abuses and violence against the Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar say that Facebook has played a major role in spreading the hate messages and inciting the violence. I cannot read Burmese but I do know one racial slur which Facebook had already banned in 2017.

Fortunately I have not had to ‘censor’ any of my FB friends for hateful comments but many of us have expressed loads of stereotypes, fear of different groups and called for certain ‘exclusion’. There have been a few situations where I wrote my friends (in a personal message) and tried to explain why I thought their comments were not helpful, but harmful. And I have ‘unfollowed’ few people because their posts were too frequent and too zealous in their desire to prove their point. But I have never ‘unfriended’ anyone just because they have different opinion and views from mine. I don’t want to insulate myself with people who all think alike because that is exactly one of the big problems of our day. These group ‘bubbles’ we live in.

The people with ‘bad’ intentions do not hesitate to take advantage of social media while people ‘good’ intentions often wonder if it is worth it. It can also be very difficult and scary to express your opinion when you already know what possibly aggressive and angry reaction your posts will get. For example, if the Christians who are a religious minority in Myanmar were to stand up for the Muslims who are even smaller religious minority, they would be in a very difficult position. If the Karen or any other people who are an ethnic minority were to stand up for the Rohingya who are ethnic minority, they would be in a very difficult position.

In Myanmar, UK, Latvia, Russia, Nigeria, USA, (you name the country)… social media has been and will be used used to enforce prejudice, stereotypes and to incite discrimination against certain groups. Based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, social status, ideology and any other way we like to define the ‘other’.  As long as people (with growing robot enforcement) communicate, this issue of hate speech stays with us and we have to discern what contributes to it and what does not. And what to do about it.

My hope and desire is to use this blog as one of many tools to suck out some of this ‘hot air’ from our online interactions. What are your tools? Suggestions?

Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
IMG_2626

The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)