A global discussion is being held today, October 16th, on the topic of inequality. Organized by Blog Action Day, this year’s event brings together bloggers from over 100 countries to consider an issue of vital importance.
Inequality evokes images of poverty, abuse, injustice, discrimination, suffering, so ubiquitous that we often feel there is little that we can do to address these problems. Sometimes, they are even considered part of the human condition to be simply accepted and endured. Yet, inequality is mostly man-made, and amenable to intervention and change. There are numerous ways open to us to redress skewed balances, and perhaps the most effective ones start right here, right now: from each one of us becoming aware of our own contribution to the layers of inequality in everyday life.
In my earlier posts I reflected on the language of art and its role in bringing awareness into the equation. Looking at artists’ creations not usually associated with inequality, I noted how Anselm Kiefer’s work embodies remembrance in his use of materials such as clay and metal fragments; how Frank Auerbach’s long preoccupation with repair manifests in his heavily encrusted paintings of the same subjects, over and over again; Kader Attia’s concern with the fragility and malleability of meaning and the cyclical processes of creation, recycling, and re-appropriation. Phyllida Barlow’s juxtapositions connecting us to the history of use and abuse of materials and resources. Malevich’s ways of lifting painting out of the necessity of depicting reality… All these ‘revolutionary’ approaches to painting and sculpture, I saw as being instances of digging under layers of appearance, bringing out the asymmetries, the inequalities in the building blocks of our world. In this sense, good art becomes a language mediating our preconceptions, and experience, re-shaping our ways of seeing the world.
Specifically, becoming aware of the subtle ways inequality arises, expresses, and perpetuates itself in our everyday interactions, is the first important step in helping rebalance unequal relationships.
For instance, common words we use unthinkingly can be a major way of maintaining inequality as well as a vehicle for change. Mary Beard, Cambridge professor in classics, in her recent call for a grey revolution, noting this double-edged potential in language, urges us to reclaim the word ‘old’ from the negative connotations it has acquired. In particular, our associating old age with negative traits, rather than acknowledging it as a source of pride, needs to be examined: in our accepting comments such as “you don’t look your age” as a compliment, she observes, we come to maintain this form of imbalance. We prefer to deny the reality of a natural stage of life, because we have come to see it as only riddled with problems: wrinkles, forgetting, instability, unemployablility, illness. The wisdom, acceptance, achievements, survival, reflectiveness,… that go with it, seem powerless to counteract the negative values we have come to associate with ageing. And this matters because attitudes towards the older generation are at the core of governmental policies making available, or denying, further opportunity, adult education, support, healthcare, and social resources.
In addition to ageing, further examples could be drawn from areas of mental ill-health, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, immigration, conflict… Attributing the cause of these predicaments to the individuals concerned – e.g. genetic or acquired traits, social, or national character – and keeping them separate through linguistic devices, only continues our turning a blind eye to what we have the power to address and change.
Becoming aware/re-minded of this tendency in ourselves, helps us redirect our attention to, and question the assumptions determining our relationship to others. This awareness enables each one of us to make a positive contribution, however small, to the big problem of inequality. But let literature have the last word. Let E. M. Forster’s “Only connect” become a motto for the day, and the year ahead.
This year, Blog Action Day is partnering with Oxfam, whose work and involvement around the world has brought in-depth understanding of the issues involved in inequality.