Daniel Kleinsman: Playing by the Rules

On our last day in Paris, we attended the International Economic Forum on Latin America and the Caribbean. We were tired, we were already in transit (with bags in tow), and the forum was in every language but English (although it was translated); all of which made it rather difficult to engage. Yet we couldn’t help but pay attention when a member of the audience interrupted the Brazilian Minister of Finance, who was describing cuts to public spending and social security in Brazil.

She spoke in Portuguese and wasn’t translated (in fact she was acknowledged only by smirks and scoffs), so we don’t know what she said. But we could see that she was upset, and that she passionately disagreed with what the minister had so calmly and confidently presented. She began walking down the isle as she spoke, voluntarily moving towards the security guard who approached her, but she continued shouting at the minister as she was escorted out of the conference room. It was clear that she wanted to get a point across, but it was also clear that she knew her demonstration disqualified her from further participation in the forum. Why then did she do this? Surely she could have got a point across more effectively if she had played by the rules?

I’m reminded of a conversation around Israel and Palestine, with another participant at the OECD forum. He suggested that Palestine persistently rejected settlement, and instead mobilised rebel groups, because they had nothing to lose. I insisted rather that the proposed terms of settlement failed to meet the needs and interests of Palestine in a fair and feasible way, and that rebel groups were not representative of the Palestinian cause. Of course, we sat at very different points along the political spectrum, but I think his interpretation is an interesting one nonetheless.

Indeed, people rebel, or reject the rules, when they feel that their voices and interests are not accommodated. I do not refer to people’s power, organised protest or collective bargaining, which are themselves strategic and sophisticated means of participating in politics. Nor do I equate the actions of rebel groups in Palestine to the demonstration of this woman at the forum. I admire her courage and her commitment to the cause. I only suggest that the format of the forum perhaps failed to accommodate her interests, such that playing by the rules would have meant abandoning her position. She had nothing to lose, or rather, nothing to gain by following the rules.

Political and institutional authorities have subtle ways of silencing subversive voices. Recently, at the opening ceremony of the He Tohu Exhibition, secondary school student Hana Olds gave a stirring speech in which she criticised the government for failing to serve the needs and interests of Maori and minority groups. Acting Prime Minister Paula Bennett’s response was to condescendingly congratulate Hana, and sanctimoniously describe her as fierce and idealistic. If Hana was to have clarified her message at this point, which condemned the very complacency that Bennett here demonstrated, she would have been required to abandon the rules and risk alienation. 

I think also of an upcoming synod, for the church that I belong to. The invitation letter for this synod explains that the church wants to hear the views of the congregation, but hastens to add that there are teachings that cannot be changed or challenged and that we should not waste time talking about such matters when there are other important things that we can do. Again, such thinly veiled censorship sets up a situation where to challenge certain ideas is to alienate oneself, and this is not an environment conducive to problem solving or community building.

Guy Standing who spoke at the OECD forum in favour of the Universal Basic Income, observed that he has been advocating the UBI for years, but has never have been invited to speak at such events, until now. He explained that he is now made welcome because people are being forced to listen to those left behind, in light of Trump and Brexit. Other discussions at the forum drew links between economic inequalities and extremism.

These issues are indeed connected, as are we as human beings, and we need to be able to listen to the voices of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, and face the growing inequalities. We fail to do so at our own peril. This means further broadening the scope of what is discussed and how it is discussed, and broadening the scope of what is politically possible. It also means taking each other seriously, and attempting to hear each other out, especially when we don't see eye to eye. (A heartening example of this is conservative libertarian Kristin Tate's recent interview of Muslim feminist Blair Imani.)

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on June 12, 2017 and filed under OECD Forum 2017.