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Creativity must operate across borders

DiEMVoice took to the stage at Central Saint Martins in London this October, to share its creative vision for Europe in a time of culture war. Short speech.

lead Screenshot: Delegate from Northumberland at Labour Party Conference.

It’s great that DiEM25 and DiEMVoice, our arts platform, are here at Central Saint Martins tonight. I’ve been looking at your Creative Unions response to the triggering of Article 50. And I think this call to demonstrate that creativity must operate across borders and boundaries couldn’t be a better starting point for us.

I say this because I want to talk  – not so much about the direct threat posed to our beleagured democracies by what Yanis rightly calls the nationalist neofascist international – as about its challenge to a cultural politics of self and other that I believe is all around us.

Operating across boundaries is at the heart of this challenge. As Inna Shevchenko, the exiled Ukrainian leader of FEMEN says, “Democracy is not only about counting silent hands… it is about allowing the confrontation of different opinions; many, many voices; about public debates, discussions and disagreements too.”  These are ‘discussions and disagreements’ where people listen to each other, and may change their minds about what is the right or the winning position, because, as Shevchenko says, “We all have multiple identities and we also have multiple answers.”

She contrasts this with the way that rightwing populists and extreme nationalists aim instead to divide society “by reducing people to only one identity, only one adjective; by creating clashes between groups, groups that live in the same way, think in the same way, practise their religion in the same way. Then, they claim to represent these groups, manipulating societies by playing on the fear and insecurity of individuals.”

The truth is that the Bannonite leaders of Europe cannot thrive in societies that are confident about crossing borders.  If “Brexit means Brexit”, it is because the ‘people’s will’, this unitary sovereign will they are so fond of invoking, must be beyond question or change. The Bannonites only thrive in a profoundly unequal Us and Them society, secured from its enemies without and within by the strong man who can act with impunity, breaking all the rules on behalf of the ‘real people’, people who are only readily convinced that they are winning if someone else is losing out.

Take a recent classic example from Italy. This August, using his loudspeaker, a train conductor ordered “gypsies and molesters” to get off the train on the grounds that they were “pissing off” the other passengers, presumably the ‘real passengers’.  As a public official he was picking up on the wishes of Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, who had recently announced his intention of opening a file on the Roma people, regretting having “to keep” ones holding Italian citizenship, as he put it. Matteo Salvini now promptly returns the compliment on his Facebook page, by publicly naming the passenger who had reported this discriminatory act, and calling instead for support for the official. As a result, the passenger received more than 50,000 messages – the usual mixture of sarcastic, intimidating and menacing.

For DiEM25, the passenger operating across boundaries is the imaginative democrat here, a victory in itself against the Nationalist International. But what of the 50,000, a force proliferating enemy images and en route to violence? If we are to reinvent our democratic cultures, we need the skills to be able to reach out across those boundaries and change people’s minds. And for that, my premise is that we need a culture of “openness and generosity” that acknowledges vulnerability as a strength.

This is why I am concerned at the shift in the meaning of the ‘safe space’ that has taken place in my lifetime. During the euphemistically-called ‘Irish troubles’, a ‘safe space’ was the place where brave Catholic and Protestant individuals, and the very brave people who brought them together, would meet to work out a better way forward than violent conflict. In these conflict resolution spaces, whatever the power imbalances between the parties, and regardless of the conflict raging outside, for the duration those present were equal. They were mutually vulnerable, face to face and crossing boundaries to overcome the enemy images and change each others’ minds.  How different is the ‘safe space of today’? – an identity politics that demands recognition and state protection for socio-economic groups unjustly marginalised, by securing them from the Other, in a borderless space free from threatening conflict, criticism, or too unsettling debate.

Of course inequality creates far too many victims in our societies today, but this victim culture worries me. Because the nationalists and the xenophobes are all too quick to capitalise on the worst aspects of a securitising relationship to the Other, with its repertoire of anger, authenticity, truth-speaking and public presence and its retreat to ‘people like us’. Writ large, under their leadership, we can see in country after country the emergence of aggrieved majorities, encouraged by their political representatives to perceive themselves as the real people, the ‘National Us’, unfairly victimised by some Other – let us say a few thousand migrants destitute on European shores whose arrival has triggered a major political crisis throughout the European Union.

In renewing our democratic culture, our strength will never rely on force, whether the force of numbers or the strong man with his warlike qualities, but in sharing time and time again the creativity, and yes the pleasure and joy that is released in that moment when we are not frightened of the multiple identities and multiple answers in each of us. Theatre people surely know this in their core, because theatre happens in those spaces between the different worlds that people are. “Even in political theatre”, as Harold Pinter said in his famous Nobel lecture:

“The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will.”

That is why I urge you tonight, in your Call to Action, don’t move too swiftly to what binds us together in the Creative Union. Let us instead freezeframe the previous precious moment, which is the crossing of geographical borders, social borders, borders of all kinds – that openness to what is different when the outcome hangs in the balance for all, when – as I believe creatives know – whole new worlds can appear.

That is a pluralist democratic culture, one sorely needed back here in Brexit Britain, where two aggrieved majoritarian National Us’s have been so busy tearing our political fabric apart. 

                                                      ***

I end with a suggestion. I don’t know if any of you saw that interesting moment at Labour Party conference when a young delegate from Northumberland, confronting a sea of enthusiastic Remainer activists fresh from an impressive demonstration on the Liverpool seafront, was the first speaker to come out clearly against the People’s Vote. He said:

“Delegates should remember what people feel about a ‘people’s vote’ in places like my constituency in Blyth Valley where we voted overwhelmingly to leave. I am not against Europe. I myself am a European, from a third generation Polish refugee family expelled after the war. But now I believe the European Union to be a capitalist club that is for the few, not the many.

“I implore you all, come to Blyth Valley, go to Bowes Court where the buildings are crumbling behind St. Wilfrid’s Catholic church. Go to Cowpen ward. Tell them why you want us to remain, and go to Kitty Brewster, where for too long they’ve felt marginalised like they have not had their voices heard.” (my italics)

Here’s my idea. Why can’t we say, yes? Let us cross the boundaries between Us and Them, geographical, class, age barriers and so many other borders. Let’s bring the metropolitan Remainers to Bowes Court, St Wilfrid’s Catholic church, Cowpen ward, so that we can all get to know each other better.

Let’s ask ourselves why neither side in the Brexit debate and none of the main political parties, have ever thought to propose and enable this – why they incite us, scare us or maybe just manage us – but never invite us onto the stage of history to meet each other and change each others’ minds, confident that our differences can be mutually revealing and that we Leavers and Remainers can build a better future together?

It is my belief that we will never renew our democracies until we the people, in all our diversity, come onto that stage of history in our own right, once and for all. I’m hoping that you will agree that this is a job worthy of the best creative minds. And thank you for listening.


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