In search of human dignity in Greece

Could compassion be a currency of our economic systems?  For of all of the pains Greek people are suffering now, perhaps the most acute is the loss of dignity.

Roxanne Krystalli
15 July 2015

I remember when people would gather to watch the war.

This usually consisted of sitting on a hilltop and watching the bombs fall not even two miles away. Hearing the sonic boom, seeing the smoke rise, then quiet. In other situations, a crowd would gather to watch a lynching or another paradigmatic punishment for a perceived war-related crime. I would find myself in these situations as a humanitarian practitioner in conflict-affected areas, and I remember being puzzled by the callousness of watching the war as though it were a film, as though it were the fictional story of someone else’s life, as opposed to a reality unfolding so close you could touch it.  

There is ample research on the psychology of crowds in war, and much as I read it, I cannot get over the paralysis of watching suffering, when the act of observation is not one of documentation, assistance, or advocacy, but merely of voyeurism.

Recently, Athens-based photographer Mehran Kahlili tweeted that “ATM shots are the new crisis porn.” All around Greece, my compatriots are lining up outside ATMs and stuffing their savings under the mattress at home. When they are not lining up at ATMs, they can be found at gas stations or grocery stores, preparing for the unknowns to come. Starting tomorrow, the banks will be closed for a week, and the maximum withdrawal limit is 60 euros per day.

Those without ATM cards (often the elderly, the retired, and those living in the periphery) cannot access their pensions or public sector payments, which are allegedly due to deposit on Tuesday. For those who depend on their relatives abroad, any remittances sent may not be able to be withdrawn in Greece. Responsibilities, be they bills or taxes, are not letting up during this time, nor are the everyday necessities of family life, from food to medicine. In the meantime, in the foreign press, numerous articles delineate every possible outcome, narrated with a clinical, detached tone, full of acronyms and economics jargon.

In thinking about the effects of war, it is tempting to talk in abstractions: to talk about ‘systems’ and ‘powers’, to think at the level of governments or institutions or armies or militia groups, and not of individuals. As a researcher on mass atrocities and practitioner in the humanitarian field, I often ask how the depersonalization of violence and the framing of war in the broadest, most abstract light serves to obscure the horror of the individual lived experience of it. What does war actually look like?

What does it mean to participate in war — as a combatant, as a civilian, as a victim, as a survivor, as a bystander? What does it feel like? The discussion of the financial crisis in Greece has reached the level of an international gamble: Will Greece go bankrupt? Default on its loans? Leave the Euro? Leave the EU altogether? Drag everyone down with her? How do we insulate ‘us’ from ‘them’?

image by Roxanne.jpg

Street art in Thessaloniki that reads "Nobody is free when others are oppressed." Photo by Roxanne Krystalli.

The internet is full of ‘explainers’ and ‘predictors’, and life unfolds in quotation marks because it is hard to assess what is literal in Greece any more. Even the predictions are full of abstraction: “If Greece does X, things will be very bad.” “If Greece does Y, things will be bad (too).” Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of watching this discussion unfold as a Greek and an immigrant is the ease with which the human experience of this crisis fades to the background and a callous narrative of ‘personal responsibility’ floats to the surface. In many discussions, there are undertones of “the Greeks brought it on themselves.”

So I ask: Which Greeks?

It is seductive to summarize a whole country based on the decisions of its political leadership. It is easy to imagine Greeks as a faceless, homogeneous whole. It is also dangerous, for it renders power and its inequalities invisible. It presumes equal agency, equal responsibility, equal determination of one’s fate. And it ignores a system that was already full of the everyday injustices and cleavages that magnify the effects of the lived experience of a crisis like this one. So let me tell you about a few of my Greeks, and what austerity and a debt crisis look like.

X is an engineer. N is an architect. M is a special ed teacher. E is an archaeologist. My other friend M is a doctor. T is a doctor too, so is A. Or at least, that is what they trained as. That is the future they dreamed for themselves when they were putting themselves through school. We are saturated with a narrative of complacent Greeks who neither have drive nor strive. When we believe that narrative, when it crowds out all the stories of effort and imagination of a future, we fail to treat my friends’ dreams as equal and legitimate.

The person who makes your coffee in Greece, that ever famous Greek coffee that is emblematic of our culture, may be my friend the engineer, or my other friend the doctor. My friend A graduated from university, with an honors degree with distinction, and became an intern. She is a 30-year-old intern, who has never had a job, and she is repeatedly told to say “thank you” for the stipend of roughly 400 Euros she receives for a total of 5 months of interning. Total, not monthly. These are the stories of my friends, unless they are in the 49.70% of youth unemployment reported in the country earlier this spring. Before you rush to suggest that perhaps they should have worked harder, or looked for other jobs or taken what they can get, before you point out that Greeks enjoy doing nothing, contemplate this: Nothing quashes imagination like idleness does.

The arrival of new mail triggers hearts to beat faster. Greece needs to collect enough money to ‘earn’ its bailout payments, so each bill comes with new taxes and fees, slapped on in the name of ‘national camaraderie.’ The word that sums up these added fees is xaratsi, a term that originated from taxes and fees levied by the Ottomans on their subjects.

The xaratsi is slapped on to the electricity bill, in an effort to stem the rampant evasion in the tax filing system. In abstraction, it, too, is a tax, a fee, a policy. In reality, it has led to people living in darkness. It has led to headlines about the imminence of homes being seized because of unpaid taxes on electricity bill. Or, in the exceptional but still very real experience of a 56-year-old tetraplegic woman on life support in her home in Crete, it caused the electricity company to cut off the power because of unpaid debts, leading to the woman’s tragic death.

For most Greeks, austerity has not meant death, in quite as literal a way as it did for the woman in Crete. Unless it did. According to a University of Portsmouth study, there has been a correlation between spending cuts and suicides in Greece (emphasis mine):

“According to the research, every 1% fall in government spending in Greece led to a 0.43% rise in suicides among men – after controlling for other characteristics that might lead to suicide, 551 men killed themselves “solely because of fiscal austerity” between 2009 and 2010, says the paper’s co-author Nikolaos Antonakakis.

In the research on war-related atrocities, we often focus on fatalities. The reasons are both complex and straight-forward: Fatalities are easier to determine, callously so. You are either dead or you are not, and there are few qualitative differences and nuances between ‘dead’ and ‘not dead.’ Complicated as the fatality numbers may be to document and verify, the data for other forms and experiences of violence, from sexual violence to torture to disappearance, is even more scarce and difficult to procure.

There are good, scientific reasons why we focus on the fatality standard in our research, but we have to ask what that means about experiences of violence in mass atrocities that do not lead to the person’s death. How do we account for those? And how do we make sure that our fatality standard does not end up meaning that people with other, non-fatal experiences of violence do not feel invisible and that those stories fit into the broader narrative of atrocities and patterns of violence?

There are many alive Greeks right now. What about the non-deathly suffering? What about the death of dreams? What about all those images of what life may have been? Of meaningful employment, fulfillment, creation, of youthful travel, of not abundance but enoughness? And before you dismiss the pain of shattered imagination, think about the moments in which, even from a place of abundance, you have experienced loss of a dream or a vision of a life: the break-ups, the grief that follows a sudden loss, the rejection that shuts a door. Now picture living in a country of shutting doors.

Some respond to the loss of an imagination of a life defiantly. Four of my Greek friends have gotten married this summer. Their anniversaries will coincide with memories of bank runs and gas raids. Every time I see photos of my high school classmates in wedding gowns and suits dancing as the sun rises over Thessaloniki, I remember dancing until the sunrise in the same spot.

Images of dancing Greeks in the foreign press prompt indignation at their ignorance in the face of ‘these times.’ When I see those same images, I see resilience and an awe-like defiance to let love and the sea and those Thessaloniki dawn skies drown out, for a moment, all that Greeks cannot have. It is an attempt at emotional abundance, one of the only kinds that is still available.

Just as the narrative of lazy-corrupt-Greeks-who-deserved-their-fate wipes out all nuance, it is also unfair to assume that suffering has a single face and a single story, that it falls equally on all Greeks. In fact, we know that the same power inequalities and justice cleavages ensure that the burden is not shared. These are the stories of some of my Greeks, not of Greece writ large, not of THE Greeks. We need to turn our anthropological curiosity to those who do not appear to be as affected, and ask about the factors–just and unjust, legitimate and corrupt–that shield them.

And just as looking at the lived experience of Greeks matters when it comes to really understanding what a crisis feels and looks like, looking at the lived experience of those on the other end of power can be illuminating as well. 

As Cynthia Enloe and other feminists or critical writers have reminded us, speaking of ‘the institutions’, ‘the troika’, or even ‘the IMF and the Eurogroup’ comes with its own level of abstraction. What are the mechanisms that enable these policies to come into effect? What does power look like? How does it preserve itself? How does it make itself look invisible? How do decisions appear to be ‘natural’, when in fact a lot of effort goes into them? And how do these questions relate to the effects on the lived experience of humans on the other end of powerful decision-making?

My friends are hurting, but they are not entirely robbed of agency. They vote, they attend and organize protests, they attempt to convince their friends and families on how to vote, they put up the best fight they can summon. Suffering is often portrayed as voicelessness, and that is another victimization: yet another way to rob people of agency and integrity in a moment of vulnerability. If I have learned anything about Greek suffering, it is that it certainly has a voice. The rest of us need to ask whether we are hearing it, and whether we are treating the stories it tells as legitimate and real and worthy of equal scrutiny as the Financial Times graphs and projections.

A lot of these sound like exceptionally dark tales from a country on the brink. Exceptional they are not. For each story I can narrate here, there are another dozen lurking around it. I am only a vessel for these stories. I repeat them, in English, because in a sense, they are pointless in Greek. The Greeks I know have lived them, heard them, can retell them themselves. It is in the space of English language deliberations and pronouncements on ‘responsibility’ and ‘justice’ that these stories of a lived human experience of crisis are necessary.

I am not a correspondent, not a reliable one. I am not there right now. This immediately assaults my credibility and the badge of honor that is assigned to co-suffering, to having been in the trenches. I am in my own trenches, but even hinting at the existence of those illuminates the path to hierarchies of suffering and competitions of victimhood, a path I do not wish to go down here. I will, however, say this: There is something particularly paralyzing about being an immigrant during this time.

It feels as though I am sitting on that hill, voyeuristically watching the bombs fall, and being powerless to stop them. They are not falling on me, not directly. I am shielded by distance and by the life that a privileged education abroad and international employment have afforded me. I hear their echoes and reverberations, though: I see the suffering I cannot allay, and I experience the burning disappointment, that classic immigrant disappointment, of knowing I cannot meaningfully give back to those who helped me get to this shielded place. I cannot restore dignity.

Perhaps the greatest loss is that of human dignity. Dignity demands some determination over one’s fate and standard of living. There is little room for dignity when fears of losing one’s home to a missed electricity tax payment resurface every month. There is little dignity to being a parent who has to entirely depend on your daughter to stay alive, and there is little dignity to being the daughter who cannot meaningfully help.

The space that dignity could have occupied is now instead filled with shame: shame about all the things we wish we could do, and the collective web of helplessness that binds us. Dignity is personal, but like many other facets of identity–like masculinity, like victimhood–it is also continuously confirmed, contested, or validated by others. The indignity of many Greeks’ existence right now becomes especially unlivable when it is cast in the frame of having been earned: of being a just end to a trajectory of excess. Cast in this light, Greek dignity and its lack are invisible, blinded instead by notions of justice and deserving and agency and responsibility — notions which, in turn, blind our compassion.

Is compassion a currency in our economic systems? Is compassion a vector in austerity packages? Is dignity?  Are our conversations about these programs and policies framed around compassion and the dignity of the human experience? And can we truly live in a world in which they are not?


This article first appeared on Roxanne Krystalli's blog, Stories of Conflict and Love.

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