I stand accused
Have you ever uttered these words out loud or to yourself ?
If I asked you to reflect on an incident where you failed somebody or something – could you find that incident and could you say this phrase?
What does this statement arouse in you?
I feel discomfort, shame, and yet oddly also some relief, a sense of congruence. Whatever the affect, can you stay with the feeling long enough to know it more fully? Or even longer to allow it to pass without you disappearing down a rabbit hole of self judgment and harsh criticism.
I am reading the Friday Essay in the Conversation (Nov.17th) titled Raimond Gaita and the moral power of conversation. This phrase ‘I stand accused’ is dotted throughout this piece; written by academics and long time proponents of Gaita’s work Maria Tumarkin and Juliet Rogers.
Rewind a week to November 9th and I am at the Purpose ‘23 Conference at Carriageworks in Sydney facilitating a session entitled Reimagining Leadership – a fresh and inclusive approach organised by Kate Walsh from WELA (Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia). Larissa Minniecon (a Kabi Kabi, Gureng Gureng, Zenadth Kes and Australian South Sea Islander woman) begins to speak – in a gentle and non accusatory tone she notes that in her two days here, amongst some of the brightest changemakers and cutting edge businesses built on Purpose for a changing world, no white folks have approached her or her black sisters, her mob – not one of youse!
Her words envelope us all in a stony silence. Could this be true? Yes it was true for me. I’d made a connection because of this session but beyond that I had not.
I stand accused.
Shame is not just an emotion or an affect it can be a form of understanding the moral reality we are caught in.
Raimond Gaita Friday essay: Rai Gaita and the moral power of conversation. Nov 17th 2023
After Larissa speaks a woman from the audience asks for the microphone.
We had begun as a panel of 4 people (Larissa Minniecon, Victoria Mckenzie McHarg, Garry Williams and Mele-Ane Havea). The panelists were asked to sit in the round amongst the audience. As a Wicked Elephant (WE) we have our wicked ways. WE disrupt, where possible, the idea that wisdom comes from a stage and is delivered one way to the audience in neat consumable sound bites. Instead WE seek to create a Social Ecology. The panelists and the audience were invited to write the questions they wanted answered. I scattered these questions on the ground between us and invited the panelists to stand up, pick up a question and speak to it. I asked them to not pick the most obvious question but one that made them curious.
As Gaita says
…to converse – not when you have done your thinking but in order to think.
So would I include the audience member who wished to speak now? Of course I would.
The circle widened its gaze. Our audience member spoke of her own involvement and support of Indigenous peoples. What I was hearing had a daunting familiarity. Is this what we do I thought ? Is this really what we do?
Could people be so afraid of bearing shame they’d do almost anything not to feel it? Maria Tumarkin.
Have you done this? Responded with a justification, your why, your excuse, your out, why you are not the accused?
We are in a 90 min conversation to re-imagine leadership to develop a fresh and inclusive approach. There are 50 people in this big vacuous outdoor space, the conversation is real and it is alive with dissonance. We are in this and we must stay in this. This is a quality we need to value. By choice nobody leaves.
I stand to bring the mic (the talking stick) back into the circle. I ask the audience to pause and then address the last speaker “this may sound tough – you have just justified your own position in a conversation that was inviting you to listen to an Indigenous woman’s experience”.
In hindsight it would have been more skilful to connect this woman to all of us – all of us have done or thought similarity “what you say doesn’t apply to me – maybe to those others over there but not me. I won’t take that on” and yet (IMHO) this is just the space in which we need to step in, stand up and stand accused.
I was not there when my great, great grandfather was creating laws in Tasmania in 1874 with direct jurisdiction over the traditional unceded Country of Truganini. I was not there when my grandfather as a regional magistrate in Taree NSW sent a disproportionate number of black fellas to prison.
I wasn’t there but every day and in every way I benefit from the current and past race relations of Australia. My education, my property rights, my fair skin and blue eyes, my ways of being in every way, and on every day, give me privilege! To turn away from this reality is to not be part of the conversation of truth telling. I have to stand accused because of this moral reality we are caught up in. All of us! To do anything other than this is an attempt to exonerate myself and accuse others.
Then Larissa spoke again and in her mild mannered yet clear incisive way she also spoke of a familiarity. “This is what happens” she said, “this is what happens time and time again”.
As I took in the atmosphere of the crowd I noticed a separating off, as if each individual was encased in themselves. Even people who had come together now appeared to be isolated, alone. Our assumed cohesion was being severely tested. In a move that came from using a sense based approach, I asked everyone to place a hand on the shoulder of the person next to them or in front of them. This simple extension of gentle touch broke the frozen landscape, the stony separation erupted into movement, voice and connection.
Could I have asked people to note the sensations in their bodies before and after the touch so that next time they can say I’ve been here before and I/we recovered? YES! Could I have bought in the concept of white fragility and how our own discomfort, in standing accused, is the very muscle we need to grow to be willing participants in any truth telling? YES!
Instead I asked people to talk to each other about WHAT NOW? What happens next for you now that you have been part of this experience, this conversation?
The light of another person’s presence turned towards you will almost always illuminate something you couldn’t see or find thinkable before. Maria Tumarkin
The landscape was now so alive. After the session people stayed on and talked, approached Larissa and her mum who had also spoken so eloquently of her life’s experience.
We touched a nerve that day, flexed a lazy muscle, and we gleaned a sense that through disrupting a few simple norms, opening a space, allowing an unfolding and staying with whatever arises while attending principally to our social ecology we can as Raimond Gaita invites us to –
Let’s stand and keep standing and let’s talk