The Price of Being Neutral

Wednesday 11 August 202112:56 pm

The diversity and the differing identities that weave the Lebanese social fabric have always been a point of pride and seeming strength. “The intersections in Lebanon that are most commonly given attention are those of religion and sect, geographical location, class, gender, and ethnicity. Other more taboo intersections include sexual orientation and identity, disability, and race.” Thus, we may sometimes tend to ignore various aspects of our identity in an attempt to avoid conflict or crisis, which results in crucial topics being left behind, ignored, or not dealt with properly. This is also not necessarily an effective method of promoting social cohesion, as it can result in undermining the importance of identity in social movements, and disregarding important elements when it comes to legislation, services, and emergency response. Ultimately, this heavily impacts the daily lives of people in all their intersecting identities.

In Lebanon, the intersections that are most commonly given attention are those of religion and sect, geographical location, class, gender, and ethnicity. More taboo intersections, including sexual orientation and identity, disability, and race are sidelined

Intersectionality takes place where various aspects of individual identity, our collective work, and social interaction overlap. It provides us with a tool or an approach to help us understand how the different layers of our identity can compounded to create greater challenges (discrimination; marginalization) or greater opportunities (coalition-building; access to support groups) for us as individuals.

Thinking of the impact of two recent historical events, 17 October 2019 and 4 August 2020, on the Lebanese social fabric, some perspectives emerge that we should consider.

“Improved respect for our rights and improvement of our services is only possible with structural change.” Media coverage of the 17 October 2019 national uprising, or ‘thawra’, portrayed a common Lebanese canvas upon which fear was vanquished and identity politics conquered by the slogan “Kellon Ya’aneh Kellon” (“Everyone means everyone,” a statement implying the rejection of all ruling parties with no exception). United by huge demonstrations, mass meetings, and teach-ins throughout the country over a period of several months, people in the streets called for a battle against corruption and for reform across sectarian lines. This road less travelled was feminist, revolutionary, promoting social justice for all. Focus on urgent social and economic issues weakened established sectarian arguments. It remained neutral, however, towards many other forms of identity, which were to become more than evident the following year.

“We need to see diversity as being geographic, ethnic, racial, gendered, religious, and based on age, disabilities and socio-economic status.”

On 4 August 2020, in a few seconds, the Lebanese capital, Beirut, was transformed. The city’s port area was totally destroyed, many heavily populated areas in the city devastated by an explosion the equivalent of 1500 tons of TNT. More than 250 people were killed, around 7,500 were injured and 300,000 were left homeless. Media reports mentioned that the explosion was felt in neighboring Syria and Palestine, and even all the way to Cyprus and Turkey. It seemed, however, that the magnitude of this blast was not strong enough to break through the sound-proof barriers surrounding the Lebanese power elite, popularly referred to as the ‘sulta’.

“We are totally overwhelmed by the situation and on survival mode. It is hard to focus on issues other than our own.” Referring back to the revolutionary slogan “Everyone Means Everyone”, its well-intentioned inclusivity did not provide us with the intersectional perspective necessary to establish a diverse reconstruction coalition in the summer of 2020. By papering over differences, as well as inherent conflicting interests, the corrupt Lebanese ‘sulta’ was able to easily rebound from this tragic disaster. After the port blast, the country appears more divided than before, between the capital and the periphery, those with power, ready cash and those on the social margins; the promises of the 17 October ‘thawra’ seemingly more distant than ever.

In a 2004 documentary titled “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” Zinn explains: “History is important. If you don’t know history, it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.” Zinn’s history train analogy seems to be speaking directly to our ongoing malaise. The Beirut blast exposed the power structures and abuse perpetuated by the ‘sulta’. It also showed us how they are the masters of disaster: women, men, children, elderly, disabled, foreign domestic workers, refugees, residents… we were all left by the wayside. Under these dire circumstances, can we still afford to be neutral? “It will be difficult, but we need to work on building the skills necessary for real solidarity, compromise, and accepting others.”

The tragedy of 4 August 2020, and the disasters that followed, highlighted the perils of attempting to be neutral, of merely being a fair but uninvolved observer on the sidelines of Lebanon’s multiple identity crises. The fabric of our society is made up of many strands, consisting of needs related to education, healthcare, mobility, housing, employment, as well as reliable and affordable access to water, energy and waste management; these all intersecting with the mosaic of our various and perhaps sometimes conflicting identities.

“We already have leaders from women’s groups, differently-abled organizations, LGBTQI persons, and people with different ethnicities working together. We need to build on this.” In Lebanon, we are female and male, we are disabled and abled, we are heterosexual and homosexual, we are affluent and impoverished, we are blue and white collar, we are refugees, immigrants, and citizens of this country. We are different in many ways but none of us is ‘deviant’. Worldwide, intersectionality has lifted discourse on gender to a higher plain to include issues of poverty, disabilities, sexual orientation, and other crucial matters which were often underrepresented - or even censored.

“Today’s political and economic crisis shows the intersections within Lebanese society. But what unites us also divides us – even though we share the same land, beliefs divide us. This is why our work as civil society organizations is more important now than ever before.” In Lebanon, this challenging concept offers a glimpse of hope for advocates of an intersectional rights coalition. By building on our own experiences with the power of inclusion and diversity, the invigorating struggle for the rights of women, men, youth, people with disabilities, refugees, the LGBTQ community, and foreign domestic workers, sectarian neutrality towards the needs of others can be vanquished. We can start a meaningful, inclusive movement through engaging people of all diversities in leadership, decision-making, planning, and implementation, and working towards an impact that would last beyond our individual organizations and identities.

By building on our own experiences with the power of inclusion and diversity, the invigorating struggle for the rights of women, men, youth, people with disabilities, refugees, the LGBTQ community, and foreign domestic workers, sectarian neutrality towards the needs of others can be vanquished

“Our communities can only be helped though awareness raising, teaching, learning, and a collective sense of responsibility.” Coalitions built on the solid rock of intersectionality will enable us to overcome the assumption that equality and diversity are mutually exclusive. By recognizing our differences, and sometimes conflicting interests, an intersectional coalition might finally break through the sound barrier separating us from the power elites.

This op-ed is written from a subjective perspective - voices emanating from the Lebanese social fabric, which have long been calling for the right to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. The author is not neutral and did not avoid writing about conflicts. The intersectional voices presented here are part of an ongoing movement to bring the various strands of the Lebanese canvas together, while maintaining their uniqueness. They are real, political and personal. El Helou facilitated a session on intersectional advocacy, which engaged activists and representatives from the following 18 organizations in actively participating and sharing their personal and professional experiences: : the project co-leads, ABAAD and the Lebanese Union of People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), as well as the Arab Network for Democratic Elections (ANDE), Darb Al Wafaa, Development and Relief Association (DRA), Fe-Male, Justice without Frontiers (JWF), Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA), Learning Centre for the Deaf (LCD), Lebanese Down Syndrome Association (LDSA), Lebanese Federation of the Deaf (LFD), Markaz Adel (Justice Centre), Palestinian Women's Humanitarian Organization (PWHO), Riders' Rights, SIDC, the Social Workers’ Syndicate in Lebanon, and Vivre Positif. These organizations are all part of the Path Coalition: Power in Inclusion and Diversity, an inclusive collective of Lebanese CSOs, supported by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

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