Oct 15, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day five: dissidents

The recording of Glenn Greenwald's TED talk is about one of the most important issues of our day: privacy. That some fail to acknowledge this as a problem in today's society is an indication of how much the assault on privacy and the erosion of social norms has made the abnormal state of things seem acceptable to many, though as Glenn points out, the actions of privacy deniers stand in stark contrast to their words. Many people, translators among them, have been victims of identity theft (I have been myself at least twice that I am aware of), and this problem, too, is intimately linked to modern problems of privacy.

So when an individual stands up to the surveillance state and lays bare its lies about the extreme degree top which the modern infrastructure of our networked society has destroyed our privacy, requiring from us what some would consider extreme measures to hold any part of it out of the jaws of ravenous government "curiosity" and commercial advertising greed, one might think that some would be grateful for that individual's actions, which might involve no little personal risk. Some call Snowden a hero, as I do; some are less generous in their assessment. But I am grateful that he took a stand and upended his life in dissent against a government gone far out of control, reaching far, far beyond its legal powers simply because it can.

This morning I read about students missing in protests in Mexico; apparently their bodies were not in mass graves which were discovered. This time. But this reminded me of students and other people butchered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and others shot years before at Kent State University in Ohio in the USA and others in so many other places. What would our world be like if nobody had the courage to take a stand and risk everything for something of which the majority might even disapprove?

As a child, I listened to a neighbor describe the wars (the best word I can think of for the conflicts) which accompanied the unionization of coal mines in the part of the US Midwest where he had spent his youth. And when I asked my grandfather about the crazy tale of the Bonus Army I heard on the radio one evening, taking it for some sort of fiction because I had never heard of the protest and the massacre in my history courses in school or college, he confirmed that it was all real and related his experience in the army of that time and the contempt he had for MacArthur and Eisenhower for their part in suppressing the protesting families.

Confrontation between Bonus Army protesters and police in Washington D.C.
History is full of examples of individuals and groups who have expressed their dissent in many ways, sometimes with success, sometimes ending in disaster, with few sure predictors of the outcome being clear in the early days. I cannot call all forms of dissent good and I struggle to find legitimacy in any form which advocates violence. I am particularly grateful for the many examples of courage under duress by those who choose non-violent forms of dissent. These are, in my opinion, one of the bet health checks on the political system of any country which aspires to just or even democratic rule.

In the language services professions we also have opportunities which call for dissent from the wisdom offered by certain commercial interests. This dissent does not, of course, entail the great risks of many political or economic dissents in the world, but given the carefully coordinated way in which those who profit from abusive practices sometimes direct their campaigns against those who oppose them, with largely transparent divide and conquer tactics which sow fear, uncertainty and doubt and turn one colleague against another, following a script which was written in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, standing up for good sense, good work hygiene and normal, respectful business relations in language services is not entirely without risk.

I am not really sure if "dissident" is the right word to use, when really what I mean are those who will take a principled, non-violent stand against something perceived as wrong and, being aware of the possible cost of opposition, choose to do what they feel to be right. There is a wide spectrum of courage, and I think that many, once they find themselves somewhere on that spectrum, may find greater courage as and when it is called for. There is a line which has stayed with me for many years in a song by East German dissident songwriter Bettina Wegner: “Grade, klare Menschen wären ein schönes Ziel, Leute ohne Rückrat ham wir schon zuviel”. Be the one who stands straight, with backbone and a clear mind.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Six – Hands
Day Seven – Free Will

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