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The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. 

John Stuart Mill

 

A celebrated individual is being interviewed about their triumphant life, their wealth, their success, their renown when, upon being asked to name their proudest achievement, they have merely two words to say: “My children.” I feel like I have heard this many times. And it has always provoked the same response in me. I have felt bemused and somewhat perplexed at the idea that a person can be an ‘achievement’ of which one could be proud, like a beautiful painting or a well-built house or a newly-landscaped garden or a business empire or an invention. Even worse is to describe your children as your greatest success. This animal you’ve trained, this beast you’ve tamed. This unwieldy, unknowable thing that has been homogenised into a compliant pabulum of reflected mores and values.

Give me a break. I mean, for a start, it takes a village, right? Well, it depends on the village…

I have a daughter and I am utterly amazed by her. She lights me up and makes my heart ache with tenderness. She makes me laugh and she frustrates the hell out of me. I love spending time with her and I hate being out of her favour. She has only been here for a few years – she turns four in just over a month – but I simply don’t have the words to capture the richness of experience and the exhilaration of our shared life so far. In other words, I am totally besotted. You may barf now, the gushing has concluded. The point I want to make is that I have never looked at my daughter and thought “she is my achievement. I want credit for this.” I see an entity. An individual. A little being with their own thoughts and feelings and instincts and impulses. And of course, she is a product for which my wife and I are responsible, in terms of “yes, we made her” and also “yes, she is ours to take care of and be answerable for. And to.”

Think about it. Did you ever describe yourself solely in terms of being a product of your parents? There are times when, socially, it is expected you name yourself with reference to kith and kin but don’t most of us offer “I am” followed by our choice of relevant detail? I have no idea what my daughter will feel like sharing in the future when she identifies herself but I suspect the conventions of her time will be quite different. I will try not to put her under any pressure to represent anything other than herself. She will not be my achievement, nor will she be or is she my property.

Property is something you own. Do I own my daughter? Do I own my wife? Am I owned by my parents? Slaves were owned. The idea of owning a person, like wildstock, is now horrifying to us. We recognise the arrogance, the moral bankruptcy, the dehumanising essence of slavery, for both slave and owner. We have allegedly evolved into more enlightened custodians of our times. And yet. Women are still relentlessly objectified and undermined in a world where misogyny is being normalised as ‘banter’. Black people in America and the UK are still routinely discriminated against and reminded of their vulnerability to the offices of power. Minorities are withheld, constrained, denied, rejected, vilified and demonised. Refugees and asylum seekers have indignity after indignity heaped upon them. In many societies, to openly identify as LGBTQIA is still not a straightforward matter. In all of these examples there is one thing in common. Tacitly or otherwise, a status of ‘less than’ has been assigned. Which begs the question – who is ‘greater than’?

If we stay in the world of slavery we can agree, in power terms, that the slave owners, as in the plantation owners, were ‘greater than’. So who are their equivalents today? I think it is the big multinational conglomerates. It is the men in suits who sell the world food and medicine and cars and clothes and cigarettes and alcohol and social media and personal devices. And these men in suits are in bed with our elected representatives. And they have conspired to convince us that our happiness lies in continually acquiring and replacing vast quantities of their brands and placebos. And if our lives are sufficiently impoverished we will crave the ownership that they are selling. That’s the ownership of a bought life, built by one ‘product-brick’ at a time. The ownership that is really needed however, is not anywhere to be seen. That of identity.

Identity is power. Slavery is disempowerment. The granting of identity is empowerment. One of the most determined tools of colonialism was the systematic destruction of identity. Language and traditions outlawed, demoted, destroyed. Irish language driven out of the classroom. African slaves given new names once landed in America. Aggressive, occupying forces, protecting their interests, feeding their empires. Lords and leaders. Landlords and owners. The wise, the tenured, the sage father figures. Who took what they could to secure their futures and to hell with everyone else. These are the ‘greater than’. They are the dictators of the narrative. They are the writers of the script. They write the characters in and they write the characters out. So, who has been written out of their story? And have some never been given a story in the first place?

One of the most visible responses to African-Americans being fatally shot with alarming frequency by various representatives of various US police departments has been the Black Lives Matter movement. And I would like to think that many of us felt that that was a very obvious assertion. But of course the movement would never have arisen if there wasn’t significant evidence to the contrary. Evidence that explicitly shows that Black lives don’t matter. That particular narrative, of black lives being ‘less than’, has been ever present in the US and I don’t know if it is ironic or very telling that the race issue heated up so significantly under the presidency of an African-American. But that is irrelevant now as many Americans reel in shock at the unending displays of crude and dangerous buffoonery coming out of the White House. And never has it been more white.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.  

Jimmy Carter, 2009

The list of those others whose lives don’t matter should not surprise us: women, queers, the disabled, minorities, asylum seekers, the aged, the Indigenous, the departed, the returned. This is not an exhaustive list. The same gatekeepers have been writing the same script for hundreds of years. There are no roles for those who do not belong. They will be given no identity. And to deny an identity is to deny a voice. To be denied a voice is to be kept silent in a world that has for too long been dominated by too few voices. The world is comprised of cities and towns and villages, and the universality of humankind can be found in any of these places. The world does not feel like a very peaceful or tolerant place at the moment. The rise of populism and various masks of fascism seem to be in troubling abundance. These are people, especially power-hungry politicians and leaders, who want to divide the world into black and white. Them and Us. But those days are gone. Long gone. We are so much more than that. This is the 21st century.

This is now. And in this village we raise our children to know that their identity is sovereign. They will not be denied. They will not be owned. They will not be less than. They won’t want to be greater than. They will be equal to. And they will know that that is just the starting point.

Life is a game in which the rules are constantly changing; nothing spoils a game more than those who take it seriously. Adultery? Phooey! You should never subjugate yourself to another nor seek the subjugation of someone else to yourself. If you follow that Crispian principle you will be able to say ‘Phooey,’ too, instead of reaching for your gun when you fancy yourself betrayed.

Quentin Crisp

 

 

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