But I’m Keeping My Mind
Time plays terrible tricks on rhetoric. A statement that might once have seemed self-evident or deeply insightful can, with passing years and changing circumstances, become stale, then dated and eventually ludicrous. The slogans of the seventies and the formulas of the fifties don’t always work in the here and now. They retreat from understanding, with social cues and passing references no longer able to carry the intended meaning. But they persist in a kind of Twilight Zone, uttered by those who want change yet don’t really know how to achieve it, or are relatively powerless to do so in one way or another.
If you think the rhetoric of revolution is dead in the developed world, you’ll need to think again. It’s alive, though barely, in some migrant worker organisations, and it surfaced here in Hong Kong recently.
Attending the opening session of an international migrant worker conference on the weekend I was in turn bewildered, amused, annoyed and finally, almost inevitably in hindsight, stunned by a barrage of rhetoric that I thought no longer had a place in political discourse. Raised voices, thumping on the lectern, fingers stabbing at the air, all these things shouted indignity at the capitalist world system, the ‘imperialist’ agenda of multinational business, the sins of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the relentless ‘toil’ of comrades in struggle.
Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very much supportive of migrant worker groups, and write often about the virtual commodification of domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. An image that will never leave me is my wife, crouched on the floor at 4 o’clock the Monday morning after we married, crying because she had to be back at work in an hour. That, and worse, is the constant outlook for the domestic helper in Hong Kong – few escape it and most are items to be used, and discarded when no longer needed.
Such is the exploitation inherent in the wage differentials between developed areas and those like my wife’s native Philippines, which is in the chronic grip of underdevelopment, mismanagement and the sheer avarice of massive corruption. When you move from the glare of poverty to the shadow of wealth your situation obviously improves, but we should never under-estimate the capacity of employers to sense vulnerability and exploit it.
So, am I calling for a ‘socialist revolution’ as the keynote speaker at the conference did? Will I damn capitalist ‘colonialism’ and rail against the horrid injustice of ‘persecuting’ undocumented immigrants because that seems to be part of the same agenda? No, of course not. I’ll try to speak in a voice that explains – if only in snippets, stretched out over weeks and years – why situations need to change. The trick is to know you have an audience, to learn their language, and not to speak to yourself.
An audience of one, or at least an audience of one mind, will never want much more than fears confirmed and prejudices strengthened. During the conference one delegate read a paper that was so cinematic in its Stalinist dogma, so utterly forceful in its rhetoric of the oppressed but ill-defined ‘proletariat’ with barely a supportive example, that I recalled the Australian comedy Children of the Revolution – in which Old Joe himself (perhaps) fathers a future leader of the antipodean labour movement. The idea is at once ludicrous and seductive, a classic ‘what if?’ situation. But like the delegate’s, speech there’s no mistaking the displacement of credibility and the happy entrance of fantasy.
The terrible irony of this situation, so self-serving in its refusal to consider context, is that it speaks nothing of the migrant worker experience. One of the delegates in the opening session spoke of injury, rape and death amongst illegal Mexican workers in the US. Now these are important concerns, stretched tight in the contingent relations between farm subcontractors and undocumented labourers, but the conference quickly bounced back to time-worn slogans.
Why can’t we speak clearly about forms of injustice such as these? Do we need to appeal to ‘comrades’ in thought before anyone else? I’m reminded of another movie, Stephen Frear’s entirely unsentimental Dirty Pretty Things. Senay, a Turkish immigrant in London forced into sex with her supervisor, teams with Okwe, a Nigerian doctor working by day as a taxi driver and by night on a hotel’s front desk. The pair uncover an organ harvesting scam in the seedy establishment. Confronting the ‘legitimate’ doctor who has been performing the operations, they’re asked “how come I’ve never seen you before?” Okwe replies:
Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks.
The harshest words, and the most true, carry the least rhetoric. To be heard the voice must be direct, uncompromising but understandable, and thrown outward to make an audience think.
So next time I attend a conference at which rhetoric over-rides explanation, I’ll chant my equally simple mantra: ‘they can have my support, but I’m keeping my mind’. I have better uses for it yet.