Tuesday, May 22, 2012

News, Ignorance and Information

Thirty-second sound bytes that sound like a roll call of tongue twister countries, sudden cuts to harassed looking correspondents in far off continents, pixelated clips of violent deaths and bleeding victims, fatal waves and deadly earthquakes. A mine has collapsed somewhere in South America, or was it South Australia? What's happening in the world right now, and how do I keep up?

I've only just learned (thankyou, Wikipedia) that the Tea Party in America has nothing to do with providing a great array of herb and floral concoctions to it's thirsty population, that Burma and Myanmar are actually the same country and that there exists many persecuted peoples across the world whom I have never heard and whose names I cannot pronounce (see: Uyghur people). With the invention of the internet, accumulative documentation of modern history and the exponential increase of written, photographic and video reportage on current world affairs - how is one to keep up? How do I keep from looking like a complete ignoramus when somebody asks for my position on Palestine?

Opinions are interesting things, in university there's no shortage of them. Yet the bridge to be crossed in education is attaining an informed, relevant and respectable opinion, to do this you have to actually have some sort of knowledge, or at least a framework, of the issue at hand. And boy, that doesn't come easily.

As a communications student I'm well versed in subjects dealing with paradigms of 'The Other', 'Post-Colonial' analysis, 'Deconstruction of texts' and so on and so forth. What continues to be confusing to me is the linking of theories and academia with what I see in the news, what I read in the newspaper (more often than not these days online) and what I hear discussed by peers, colleagues, journalists and strangers on public transport.

Recently the terms Neoliberalism, Global North/South and Post-Development have come to have a useful definition. Yet I still don't understand what the Gulf War was about (oil, president bush and something in the middle east?) and with history repeating itself I am as yet not enlightened on the relationships between Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan - who is America 'supporting', 'opposing', 'invading', 'reconstructing'? With all this going over my head and not enough time in the world to catch me up in recent modern history it's no wonder I turn to c-grade sitcoms with barely plausible story-lines and inconsistent characters.

But I don't want to be ignorant, I promise. I am trying to put the pieces of the world together but there's so much information and where do I start and what do I do with that afterwards? The internet is at best an all powerful ally and at worse a daunting, formidable obstacle. Hurrah! when wikipedia turns up with a direct page for my search 'North Korean Nuclear Program' I need to research for an assignment, the world ends when it turns up with 156,0000 pages with some vague reference to my obscure search on 'Politics in Kyrgyzstan'.

If you were anything like me in high school the dominant occupier of time was the tiny needles-eye world that was What Happened at School Today or Who Did What or rants about various mediocre aspects of My Narcissistic Life. Here's hoping you made a little more use of your six years of secondary education. I sure wish I did.

All is not lost. The online world and this ancient resource called The Library are more than well-equipped to lead even the most removed from world affairs to an elementary understand of What's Going On. It's impossible to know it all, or even a little bit of everything. From my slow and still very much underway transition from ignorance to knowledge (understanding may come in a few decades) I've realised there's no point in seeking information on something for the sake of not looking like an idiot in a conversation.

The things I'm learning and what I'm seeking out are those that interest me, through studies of development, aid, the history of grassroots movements and government resistance. It's not a text book learning by any means and the information comes in the forms of poignant documentaries, opinion pieces, class rooms and off-hand comments made by peers or lecturers. (Eg. Did you know one of the origin myths about the croissant is that it was made by Austrians to celebrate the defeat of the Ottomans? Who knew the croissant was such an important historical artefact!)

I guess the point I'm making with all this rambling and my fleeting references to other countries and media headlines is that The World is a big, scary larger-than-life place, but that the stories are interesting, human and everywhere. The media does a great job of transmitting information, but understanding, frameworks and comprehension are not transferrable - they are left up to us. The great news is that we are all in the same boat. Only a fool would propose they know it all.

Even better, to reassure you that ignorance is common and full understanding near extinct I will leave you with a quote (what better way to validate my arguments than with those of somebody else!). There is a 'fix' to ignorance and it starts with confusion but ends with exchanges in stories, in history, in experience.

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”  
                                                                                                  ― J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye

Saturday, May 19, 2012

You can't fail if you never give up

A lot can happen in a week. The last post I wrote about here was my reflection on a project that I saw as over before I really got it off the ground. Will Travel For Life was my big idea, the reality however was different. A week ago I was resigned to it's failure, hiding behind the notion that I had learned from it but that at least I tried. I was going to wrap up by making a concluding video of my regrettably small efforts but still being accountable for it's failure to launch. At least I gave it a go, right?

The real truth is that I hadn't given it a real go. These last couple of days have been a lesson in doubt, belief and vulnerability. As I wrote last week the cold truth that my own inaction and insecurities had set me back from really taking action, this week the encouragement, belief and confidence of friends and family around me have spurred me to action.

I thought, I've got an idea.
They said, You've got a great idea.
I worried, What if it doesn't work?
They said, You can make it work.
I agonised, What if I can't?
They said, You can - stop making excuses!
I asked in a small, scared voice, You think so?
They said simply, Yes.

So once again, plans have changed. They've gone from an almost year long silence and inaction to resignation about it's failure to renewed ideas, motivation and strategic, thoughtful planning.

I've got a great idea.
I can make it work.
I'll no longer make excuses.
I will get out of my own way.

I won't divulge too much of the details here but suffice to say the ball is rolling, once again. Apologies for stating I would release a final concluding video. However seeing as I am no longer concluding the campaign but starting afresh, expect better things than a one-off video. I've changed tact.

Where I was scared to talk about my project for fear of criticism, I'm beginning to seek out people who can look at my ideas and tell me what I'm not seeing. I had it all wrong. I was trembling in my boots wondering, 'What am I doing wrong?' instead of 'What can I do better?' It's that importance of asking the right questions coming around again. I was thinking about the wrong things. Nobody was worried about my own failure except me and nobody was going to be invested in my own successes but me. I needed to get out of my own way.

On a broader life-lesson kinda note (of the type if you've been reading this blog for a while you will have realised I have a certain fondness for) if you don't really try, you fail by default (see: J.K Rowling's Harvard Address on the Fringe Benefits of Failure).

You can't fail if you never give up.

This is a testament to having people around you that see things you can't see yourself. Covering my blind spot.

Thanks, friends.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Will Travel For Life: an update

Just before Christmas of 2010 I went to Darwin to volunteer in running some programs for asylum-seekers in the detention centre centre there. I left just over a month later, after New Years eve and the beginning of 2011 with a resolution that I would take what I had seen and learned and what had changed me and I would do something.

This is what I did. This was my big plan. I had two weeks after I got back from the life-changing experience that was Darwin to another life-changing experience where I would spend a year living and studying in Spain. I was going to put my skills as a Public Relations student to good use, create an advocacy campaign to draw attention to the plight of asylum-seekers in Australia and the government's unfair and internationally illegal mandatory detention policy. The big idea was to connect the idea of Travel - an idea we love, cherish and are infamous for as Aussies - with the perilous and often fatal journey of asylum-seekers across relentless oceans and far off lands. If I was going to spend a year travelling all over Europe, setting foot in the North of Africa and the tip of Asia on the eastern side of Istanbul - I was going to make it count.

Now this is where things happened and didn't happen. I'm sharing this here because I think my experiences as a well intentioned novice and the many lessons I learned can be useful. What happened was that I tried to launch a campaign single-handedly. What didn't happen is that I didn't use the resources I had at my disposal to the best of my ability. I had these incredible travel opportunities, experiences of meeting people from Morocco, France, America, Sweden and all over the world to take part. My failure was too often that my own insecurity and self-doubt led me to inaction while I debated the details, the viability of my plan. Also, I was being distracted by the many incredible experiences I was having in Spain, and instead of incorporating that into the campaign it became a separate part. I wasn't sure how to integrate the two.

All shortcomings aside, the learning curve was an achievement in itself. I did manage to get some incredible video footage, participation from a few friends and a video I will be releasing within the next week. Meanwhile while the campaign took a back seat, I kept updated with the many great works and advocacy campaigns gaining traction in the public sphere and media back home. In Australia documentary makers, Artists, Politicians, celebrities and a host of other professions, students and everyday people were joining in the conversation on Asylum-seekers in a number of ways. Promoting and being a part of Welcome to Australia and watching the ground breaking, thought provoking series Go Back To Where You Came From inspired me. 

While my campaigning last year may have failed in some regards owing to my own inaction, others all around Australia were acting. They were making sure the stories and humanity of persecuted people finding themselves on our shores were being told. More than that, they were being listened to earnestly by a public confronted by a truth we rarely got to see beyond the political rhetoric of our nation's leaders vying for cheap points and media headlines. These campaigns showed me the large and growing network of Australians who care to know more, to understand and to take educated action on those who seek asylum in this 'Lucky Country'.

The Will Travel For Life campaign is still under works, I'm updating it with a video I will release this week. It will show my 2011 efforts on this learning-curve of a campaign that taught me invaluable lessons in advocacy campaigning. However this will definitely not be the end of my self-education and campaigning on this issue that is so close to my heart. Look out for more as I make better use of this platform, the resources I have here and the lessons I've already learned.

Here's to Trying and Failing, and trying again. 
Here's to those seeking asylum on our shores and all over the world.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Asking the right questions

There are those lightbulb moments you have, where you realise you've had it wrong all along and only now the penny has dropped.

The pennies have been showering down on me lately. I've been in a self-induced paralysis of sorts, paralysed by fear of the future, nostalgia for the past, chronic dissatisfaction at my present situation. I've been battling hard with myself and my own first world problems, or is more academically correct 'Global North' problems as you would.

Here it is, for what it's worth. The pennies, that is. I came back trying not to lose sight of what I learned over in that big epi-centre of thoughts that is Europe. I kept asking myself - How do I go back to normal life? How can I relate to people like I used to? Where do I go from here? What am I doing next? How can I get out of there? How soon?

I've been asking all the wrong questions. My issues with my own situation reflect the attitude I've had towards the bigger problems going on in the world and how I perceive them. See I've been having a lot of interesting conversations lately with like-minded people and reading a lot of blogs and going to interesting sessions on development, community organising, aid and all the issues implicated in this business of 'doing good'. I'm writing a research paper on the promises and failures of Neoliberalism, Development and Microfinance. I am constantly learning from the many jading but invaluable experiences of those older, wiser and more experienced than me who have gone before me singing the song of idealism and youthful passion. And just as I've written on this space before that I've been moving away from the notion of 'Saving' or 'Changing' The World it is because I've realised quite a lot.

The World needs less saviours, protectors and martyrs and more listeners, connectors, innovators. Less glamorous titles that are inclusive, not exclusive. Because my change-the-world crisis had been about asking all the wrong questions. How Can I help? What Can I do? What's the problem? 
Instead of asking... What's right and good? How are they helping themselves? Do they need my help?
And an even better place to start would be the harder questions... What's my role in creating or facilitating the problems I'm seeking to address? 

Just like in any personal situation too often we ask for the quick way to get out of the mess we're in, instead of asking how we made it in the first place and how not to do it again. We just want a band-aid, a bit of reassurance and a clean up job. We make a big fuss about the symptom and do nothing to address the cause.

And the reason so many of us fall into this trap of asking the wrong questions is that it takes more effort than we're usually willing to commit to understand a problem so large it paralyses us. Either the problem feels too big to solve we become overwhelmed and give into the prevailing cynicism and escapism that nothing we do changes anything, anyway. OR we jump in full force, we rally the troops, become shamed into passionate action without knowledge or skill set or educating ourselves. We do all this when we should be investing time in the less cool, more tedious side of Doing Good is knowing how to do that, understanding how it all works, and how it doesn't. Then going from there.

It's hard to constantly find out you've had it wrong all along. It takes a lot of humility, which I think our world, our leaders and ourselves would benefit from greatly. What keeps cropping up is that being courageous isn't about doing things in spite of everybody else, it's about making yourself vulnerable, being OK with vulnerability. Asking questions (even if they aren't the right ones), listening to the answers (even if they're not the ones you were hoping for) and readjusting the way you think accordingly (even if you have to admit you were wrong, even if you have to admit your own ignorance or arrogance or whatever noun is impeding you from cracking open your thought process).

It's those pennies, they just keep dropping.