Many delegates wondered what the session on “liberties” would cover at the Xchange Summer School at the end of June. It felt like a clumsy word. Didn’t the organisers mean “freedom” or “human rights”? Liberté surely belonged with Égalité and Fraternité?
Yet in the end, the four captivating speakers all brought difference perspectives and dimensions to the subject.
Pádraig Ó Tuama was introduced as “poet, theologian, retreat leader and mediator”. He began by talking about a trip last year to Uganda to meet development workers. Personal security measures were necessary given the proposals at that time to introduce the death penalty [now life imprisonment] for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people. He wove theological examples in amongst his lyrical text and was unafraid to critique his own privileged position.
The word “liberty” has three meanings. The first is a sense of privilege by grant, and usually grant is built on title … The second meaning of “liberty” is to go beyond the bounds of propriety and we know that usage well. “Can I stay out until 9 o’clock tonight Mum?” I used to ask. She’d say “Yes.” “Half nine?” “Okay.” Ten? “You’re taking liberties now Pádraig” she’d say.
I’ve heard that Desmond Tutu, when he was made a bishop, it was suggested to him that before he moved into the bishop’s palace he should wait a while while the white diocesan board voted to change the rules that stipulated that only white bishops could live in the bishop’s palace, of course served by black workers. He thought it was hilarious, that a bunch of people who had maintained a system that excluded should now be permitted to participate in a self-congratulatory, hollow gesture of voting to open the door to black people as if they ever owned the key. He organised a festival of people and they danced up the road to the bishop’s palace, they danced into the house, and they danced around the house. They were free because they were free not because anyone had voted to grant it to them.
This is the third level of “liberty” from the Latin “libertatum”. It is the condition of a free person, the absence of restraint. It is noble, gracious, munificent, generous, unrestricted, unimpeded, unbridled, unchecked. This kind of freedom is frightening to us who have dwelt in unexamined privilege, who take accessibility as a freedom granted and who think our liberties need to be defended at the expense of the already disenfranchised.
Liberty in terms of how we discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in public discourse must pay attention to its premises, its privileges and the product of its word. I am utterly uninterested in the self-justifying intentions of those who calmly say that gay people are a threat. “But I called you an abomination or an intrinsic moral disorder, calmly” they seem to say. The consequence of their words is increasing danger for us who need a day when we can hold hands with predictable safety once a year in our city.
So what works? JRR Tolkien said that escapism is absolutely fine if you find yourself imprisoned. So to stimulate hope I practice the theological art of imagination. Imagination fired by capacity, captivity, human possibility, fired by art, fired by words, and fired by fury. I practice the art of naming my own complicity in systems that privilege me. I practice the art of freedom in the open village we should live in not the closed city we often live in. I practice the art of not insulting those with whom I disagree. I am uninterested in insult because it gets in the way of a damn good argument. I practice the art of poetry …
Liberty is not the consolation prize for the marginalised, or the happy ever after ending granted by the always privileged. Liberty is the public accountability to ask if you have been complicit in corruption, corruption that has kept people bound and excluded, damaged and stereotyped. I am not liberated from those who hate me. I am free already, and I hope they can share it … I believe liberty is an open village, whose doors neither favour nor oppress the privileged.
Lauren Elkin asked what liberty meant in a city. Her research and writing focuses on gender in cities – flâneuse – “a feminist answer to the 19th century iconic figure of the Parisian boulevards, the flâneur”. She looks at how cities reflect the values of the society that created and sustains it.
No one experiences the city in a gender neutral way. Space is not neutral. For all of us in the city, the space we occupy is constantly remade and unmade, constructed and imagined. The cities we live in are to a certain extent imagined spaces. How we use them depends on who we are.
City-centre outdoor meeting places can be architected in such a way that they make people feel exposed and lessen their usage.
It’s been 40 years since the women’s liberation movement was launched in the UK. Since then we’ve gained surprisingly little liberty of movement. Women still can’t walk in the city in the way a man can. Across cultures in the cities I’ve lived in – which include New York, Paris, London and Tokyo – a woman alone on the street occasions all kinds of commentary, some complimentary, some not. Mainly it’s harmless. For some women – and I don’t exclude myself from this category – it can be flattering. But it belongs to a system that genders women differently from men, and others them …
A 2012 survey of 1047 women revealed that 43% of between the ages of 18 and 34 had been sexually harassed on the streets. Some councils have responded with no tolerance poster campaigns – “Flirt. Harass. Real men know the difference”.
Are town planners (in England) ignoring the gender equality planning regulations recently brought in?
From bus shelters to insufficient toilet space to public transport, the built environment is a man’s world.
How can we break out of this? Lauren gave the example of women asserting change in male Parisian café culture and quoted from Virginia Woolf’s essay Street Haunting.
From a gender perspective – though applicable to lots of other social ethnological groupings
[We should] aim not only to change how we move through space but to intervene in the organisation of space itself. We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe or not to observe, to occupy or not to occupy and to organise or to disorganise space on our own terms.
Debbie Watters is a member of the NI Policing Board and is assistant director at Alternatives NI. She spoke about working class protestant communities and started by asking the questions:
We’re 16 years on from the peace process, where are we now? And what does liberty and peace process look like in loyalist communities?
What I hear on the ground is: Things have never been so bad. The balloon is about to go up. Our communities are about to erupt.
It was important to “engage with the perceived losers”. The Twelfth of July had been a significant date in her family’s calendar when she was young. Today, people “snigger behind their hands” when they ask her about the camp at Twaddell.
There almost is a shame around it. And there almost is an overt embarrassment around it. And I have to ask myself the question, why is that? How have we as working class protestants got to this place? We need to change the conversation, and we need to change the narrative.
Debbie gave two examples of two north Belfast young men who have picked up criminal records through the flag protests. Circumstances needed to change so that those men could hold their heads up high and have pride in their community.
The reality of that community is that it has very little – and at times, no – political leadership. Educational attainment is very low. And the chance of getting a job, not even a meaningful job, but a job of any kind is very poor. What does liberty mean for young people growing up in socially disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland, that haven’t felt the benefit of the peace process? That haven’t felt that dividend? That don’t know what’s it’s like to feel peace on the ground? Because peace for them isn’t only an absence of violence. Peace is about quality of life, and many people in those communities don’t feel that.
The question for people in those communities is: how do we make our voice heard in ways that allow us to be heard and in ways that people don’t alienate us, don’t demonise us, and in ways that we don’t demonise ourselves.
What is our mutual responsibility to encourage, if not coerce, our politicians to stand up and take carer of the people most in need in Northern Ireland, and particularly in socially disadvantaged communities? What would that strategy look like? And what is our responsibility to help those communities come up with that strategy? Because it’s very clear to me they can’t do it on their own. We are where we are because they can’t do it on their own.
The north Belfast community – and other communities in my opinion – are crying out for help. The peace camp [at Twaddell] is a cry for help. The flags protest is a cry for help. We need to see it that way. We need to see it differently. Rather than allowing those communities to be demonised, and allowing those communities to be alienated, we need to be part of the changing the narrative.
Quoting Seamus Heaney, Debbie finished her remarks:
Many people thought that the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was t he longed for tidal wave of justice in Northern Ireland. For many communities it wasn’t. They’re still waiting for that tidal wave of social justice. And our responsibility is not to be ashamed and not to snigger, and not to make fun of. Our responsibility is to help them find a place where hope and history rhyme.
Jessie Joe Jacobs was the last panellist to speak. Along with likeminded friends, she helped found the A Way Out charity in the working class town of Stockton-upon-Tees to “help women and young people whose lives were being torn apart through addiction and sexual exploitation”.
Our tag line eventually became “Hope, Love and Freedom”. For me there’s always been a powerful connection between love and freedom, but also the opposite of that which is control and power.
Debbie’s talk echoed as Jessie Joe explained that while people’s lives weren’t completely transformed immediately:
… no one had offered them hope before, no one had offered them a way out before, no one had been there … we became family …
She identified that “the system” and “the sector” was one of the most challenging parts of her journey. The power and freedom to make change became tangled up in the cords of funding and relationships with funders.
The Q&A afterwards revealed that faith was in the background – and perhaps the foreground – of at least three of the panellists.
Does Northern Ireland need a healthy dose of hope, love and freedom? Can cynicism, neglect and slavery to deprivation be replaced by better political policies, public and private sector delivery and a change of attitude across society? Without turning into a bunch of legsgetalongerist peaceniks, doesn’t society need to offer itself hope, and a way out, to become family and change the narrative around how working class communities, LGBT communities, newcomer communities, and indeed Northern Ireland’s total population of minorities.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.