An event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 1968 was held in early November at Conway Hall. Ken Loach spoke about society being based on class conflict, while Lynne Segal pointed out that at a 1967 conference – the Dialectics of Liberation - none of the speakers were women.
When Michael Rosen spoke, he mentioned this famous quote from Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists – and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
It made me think of a discussion I’d had the day before with some students about human rights. After defining human rights in relation to dignity and safety, we broached the troubling subject of dehumanisation. Why is it that humans objectify others, whether it is related to gender identity, race, nation, religion, sexuality, disability or any other difference?
I asked the students why they thought dehumanisation of a group of people happened and one of them said that when people start blaming and dehumanising another person or a group of people, it spreads. When I asked why he thought it spread, he replied ‘because people are weak’. It was depressing to be reminded that peer pressure, the desire to fit in and the need to keep the peace may make people scared to stand up for what they really believe in. And because of this fear and weakness, oppression and dehumanisation can be perpetuated. If only we could be reminded whenever we have the choice of whether to say something, what the implications might be if we are to say nothing. As Martin Niemoller has written, people often don’t speak out until it is too late.
Similarly, Albert Camus in ‘Create Dangerously’ writes that it is impossible to escape the common misery, and that our only justification is ‘to speak up, in so far as we can, for those who cannot do so’. However, we all know that it is not always easy to speak up and sometimes, in a creative context, the question of whether we have the right to speak up about other people’s stories can be a difficult one. I would like voices that have been silenced to be loud, and I also want the silenced to speak for themselves. But what if, because of various factors, these silent people are unable to speak up and there is nobody to stand up for them? Standing up against oppression, regardless of whether you belong to the group that is being oppressed, is hard, but if it isn’t done there is a chance that the oppression might spread. If you don’t speak up for what you believe in, one day there might be nobody left to speak for you.