Archive for the ‘Thoughts and philosophical attempts’ Category

Before I started my research three months ago, I visited a sociologist based in Rio de Janeiro, Bernardo Sorj. We discussed my research topic and he warned me not to focus too much on the misery. “You Europeans have the tendency to focus on the bad things, making the favela seem like a miserable place”. In the past three months I have thought about his comment a lot. It’s being a struggle not to write about the misery, and simultaneously not to be too positive, or rather, naïve. In the case of the “pacification” – I still can’t write this word without parenthesis – there’s a lot of problems to report about, while the media only highlight the success of the initiative. Someone has to tell the truth, but.. Which truth?

My friend Eddugrau always says “negativity attracts negativity, and positivity attracts positivity”. Therefore it’s dangerous to always criticise the current situation. Currently I am participating in a cinema course in Complexo do Alemão, organised by Cine TeleBrasil, and with a group of 7 adolescents we have to produce a short film. When we were discussing the topic of our film, one of the girls proposed to make a documentary on “Violence after the Pacification”, referring to the decrease of gunfire and homicides, but the simultaneous increase of burglary and domestic violence (violence against women and robbery used to be prohibited in the past, when the drugs gangs held power. This law functioned at the time, but today the soldiers don’t solve these kind of problems). This is something that hasn’t been disseminated by the media, and therefore an interesting and important story to tell. At the same time, however, the favela again is framed negatively. The media – who likes to scapegoat the favela – will pick this up and, perhaps, even distort the argument, causing more damage instead.

An example in this respect is a news item by Dutch correspondent Marjon van Royen on the abusive behaviour of the UPP police (Pacification Police Unit) in the pacified community Cidade de Deus. She interviews two girls that tell how the police have inspected them, demanding them to take off their shirts and touching their intimate places looking for any drugs. I know that the cases she reports on do occur, as I have heard of similar stories in Complexo do Alemão (abusive behaviour of the soldiers in the case), and Providencia (UPP as well). However, rather than providing a constructive criticism, the video is very sensationalist. Such criticism is very dangerous. Not only does it put the girls, who openly and explicitly wish that the drugs gangs would return, at risk. The criticism is very ill-founded, offered without any contextual background. The Dutch audience now has this very negative vision about the situation, but who are the girls who express such criticism? What is their relation with the drugs gangs? Why would they tell such a story to a journalist they don’t know? Why not communicating a more nuanced story about the situation, offering several perspectives? Journalism is business and negativity sells..

The favela is framed as a dangerous, disorganised and barbarous place. Even today, after the “pacification”, people are scared to visit the community. On of the participants of the cinema course told me that when he got off the bus the first day in front of the community, he had doubted for a second. Shall I? Only when he saw the soldiers he took the courage to enter (after all he admitted that his fear wasn’t necessary at all). It’s the media that constructs this distorted image, stigmatizing the favela. Partly it is precisely this stigma that creates this imaginary wall around the favela, segregating the residents. The word “segregating” is rather radical, but I have experienced myself how you are not so much only physically, but also ideologically, excluded from the outside world. The friends I used to go out with in Lapa, Glória, Botafogo and Santa Teresa haven’t visited me once even though I have invited them several times. Not only because they are afraid, but also because this place I live is not seen as an attractive place to go (there aren’t any “good” parties, there isn’t any qualitative good music, etc.). The favela is never sold as a serious opportunity to go out or spend time. It’s this vicious circle of a division between the favela and the outside world hampering any interaction that reinforces the stigma. It’s in this way that negativity harms the favela. Negativity attracts negativity.

This topic keeps me thinking a lot, and I don’t know the answer (yet?). Because we can’t simply neglect the inequality and discrimination, and the fact that the “pacification project” is lacking in many aspects. There’s a lot of “bad” things in the favela that deserve attention, but often the focus is too much on the favela rather than the cause of this misery. Instead of simply reporting on increased domestic violence, the victims and the perpetrators (those criminals!!), it would be more interesting to focus on the ill-functioning of law and the absence of any juridical body inside the favela for the people to consult. In this way would the criticism more constructive?

I’m about 5 weeks coming and going to “my favela” to talk with people, observe their behaviour, interview people and to try to understand the complexity of the Complex, the conjoint of the 14 communities that have been occupied by the army since November 2010.

I have learned a lot about the local reality and the changes that are occurring in the last couple of months. I have also found a couple of interesting and urgent issues relevant to my research. Issues that help me to focus, and issues I wasn’t aware of before going there. However, there’s a huge barrier, a boundary, physical and mental, that hampers my “immersion” in the community. I feel that I have to live their lives in order to make sense of their reality. That’s why I’ve decided to move there.

I am not really sure why I haven’t moved there in the first place. Not so much a question of not wanting to live there, but I didn’t realize at the time the necessity. And most of my friends who live in Lapa, Santa Teresa, Glória, lively and bohemian neighbourhoods, offered me plenty of rooms to rent. I am also partly working at the consulate, near to those neighbourhoods, which justified my choice to stay here, in this area. But over the weeks I am realizing that it doesn’t work as well as I had hoped. The physical boundary is the distance. It takes me about one hour to get to the community. Also, I depend on a handful op people that know about my research and see the benefit of it for their community (and therefore help me to talk to people, arrange interviews, etc.). People work very hard to make a living so usually they don’t have much time to talk to me. Simply going there and talk to people is much more complicated than I thought. Arranging visits is a very time consuming process, as my handful of people also work.

The mental boundary is what bothers me even more. When talking to people they soon ask me where I live. “In Glória”. “Ahh, Glória.. Nice..” Yeah, why would I want to live there? I’m a Gringa, why would I prefer their community over the bohemian Lapa? And that is precisely what hampers my research. When I discussed this with my Brazilian roommate, she told me that she and her friend have a theory about foreign researchers. They have this obsession with the favela (and I guess so do I), but only for research purposes. When it comes to living, they prefer samba instead of funk. This is a real loss, because especially night life learns you so much about the day to day life of the people. Over a beer you really get to know someone and his or her stories. And in the bakery you see how people interact with each other.

Suddenly this research project didn’t feel so good anymore. I felt not only the need, but also the obligation to move there. It doesn’t feel just to go their, acquire my data, and leave again. As you might have noticed in older posts, I write a lot about the divided city, the conception of the favelas as a different or separated society. Don’t I replicate this idea by living in “one part” and travelling to “the other part” of the city, thus indeed treating the communities as a different place? The idea that living there is “better” or “less exploitative” than not living there might be just a feeling rather than a well grounded scientific argument, as one might argue that I won’t be offering much in return. What will my research  mean for the community residents? What will it change? Nevertheless, the least I can do is immerse myself as much as I can in their lives in order to write something that makes sense.

I am very excited to move. The moment I told people I wanted to live in their community, most people react very enthusiastically. Everyone started to look for places to rent. They called all their friends and a couple offered me to stay in their house (their 12 year old son would temporarily sleep in their room). People are so warm, open and helpful. They wish you a good morning or a good afternoon. I can’t wait to buy bread in the nearby bakery. Especially at night and in the weekends the community awakes. Although life has become much more calm after the occupation (the army maintains order and prohibits parties and big gatherings of people), people gather on the streets, in bars, chat, play music and have fun. Kids play soccer and old men drink beer. And the view is amazing.

A common reaction when I talk about drugs trafficking and the involvement of teenagers in these criminal activities is something like “Unlike hardworking people they prefer easy money” or “They prefer earning 1000 Reais a week rather than 500 a month”. Especially when I tell about those youngsters that complain about the “pacifying forces” and wish that the bandidos would return. It’s dangerous to think that bandidos or people involved in trafficking are lazy, prefer fast and easy money. This reinforces the discriminatory discourse framing those kids as the causes of the criminality in the favelas, the parallel economies and the problem of drugs trafficking and consumption, while in fact it is the other way around. Aren’t they in fact the result of the state’s absence in these areas?

Please keep in mind that the following is the opinion of a particular group and not a representation of the entire community, although this doesn’t diminish the importance of this opinion.

Yesterday night I talked with a group of adolescents in one of the communities of Complexo do Alemão. They got a couple of chairs from the bar around the corner and put them in a circle on the recently paved square. In no time about 15 boys of about 15-20 years old had gathered to talk with this gringa. “Wow, haven’t there been any gringos here before??” “No, they never enter the favela this deep. They always stay near the asphalt… Ah, unless that group of Japanese that came here the other day to take photos.” At first they would only ask me about my country. Holanda is very liberal, right? Is it true that “everything” is liberated? But then we started to talk about their reality. And how it has changed after the occupation. They tell me that is hasn’t been any good.

They have lost their liberty in their community. “We feel locked in our own favela! Before the occupation we used to sit here, smoke weed, listen to music and chat. But now they (the soldiers) tell us to turn off the music and go home after one o’clock. They treat us badly, without respect.” One of them tries to explain: “Imagine that you would be taken out of the Netherlands and are thrown somewhere you don’t know the rules, you don’t understand the local reality, the language. That’s how I feel here today. I don’t belong to this society.”

I was shocked to hear these radical criticisms about the current situation. Those boys unanimously agreed that it was much better before the occupation, when the drugs gangs used to rule. I asked them if the occupation, and the entrance of the state and the market constructing squares, the cable car for public transport, a cinema and a heath centre, haven’t brought anything good in their community. Or if they would perhaps think more positively about the situation if the state would create opportunities for them to study or find a job? “Ellen, lets be honest here. We liked the trafico and we won’t prefer anything but the situation before the occupation.”

I realized that these words “praising” crime (praising crime or a criminal, or apologia ao crime ou criminoso, is considered a crime in Brazil) weren’t a matter of choice. Besides a serious distrust and wariness towards the state and its interests, as it has never done anything to benefit their community before, people don’t see the opportunities of this other reality in which they study and find a job. Even though education is seriously lacking, in theory they could create a way out of this life. However, in practice this turns out to be much more complicated. Crime has been their reality as long as they can remember, and seems like the only opportunity. It looks like those words praising crime camouflage this idea that those opportunities don’t exist for them.

The lack of confidence in themselves being able to change their reality might also be a consequence of a lack of freedom. While these boys talk about the liberty they experience in those past times, they had to follow certain rules and obey the leaders. Today they are dominated by another armed force. Both societies are repressive. Although they might not experience the former as repressive, isn’t there a link with their incapacity to fight for their own future and change their reality?

I am writing this after one (though very long) conversation with these boys. That’s why I would like to elaborate more on these topics with them. I also realize that group pressure might have played a role in the radicalness of their arguments. Therefore I think it’s important to talk with them individually as well, to have a better understanding of this complex situation. One thing that many people have assured me over the last weeks is that precisely this group of youngsters between 13-20 are having major problems of adaptation to the “pacification forces”. The ideological issue – seeing those leaders as examples, heros – is important, and not only for children actually involved in trafficking. Also, I imagine that they now lack a feeling of inclusion, recognition and respect by their leaders. Hopefully I will be discussing these issues with them in the next couple of weeks.

A question that keeps me thinking is why some people manage to create opportunities and others not. I think it’s an experience that chances one’s mind, that changes the thought that some opportunities are out of their reach. A cultural activity, getting to know this person that switches a button, something that increases one’s self-esteem. Because that’s something fundamental. As the boy said: “I don’t belong to this society”.  How can we tear down the imaginary walls dividing these two societies?

Graffiti / street art in Rio – commissioned by the municipality. Usually NGOs working with art projects or graffiti artists paint these walls.

It looks really nice and I like the way in which this form of art is used to liven up the street view. Brazil has a very rich graffiti scene especially in São Paulo and Rio.

Wikipedia states that “poverty and unemployment … [and] the epic struggles and conditions of the country’s marginalised peoples,” and […] “Brazil’s chronic poverty, [are] the main engines that “have fuelled a vibrant graffiti culture.” In world terms, Brazil has “one of the most uneven distributions of income. Laws and taxes change frequently.” Such factors […] contribute to a very fluid society, riven with those economic divisions and social tensions that underpin and feed the “folkloric vandalism and an urban sport for the disenfranchised…”

NGOs and social inclusion projects respond to this tradition offering graffiti courses and workshops, especially for the less privileged. Intersting is the fact that in the poorest neighbourhoods you don’t see much graffiti. I asked an artist living in Complexo do Alemão why there isn’t much graffiti in their community. “People have other things on their mind than painting walls. They need money to eat.” Also, once regulated and stimulated by the government and NGOs, an interesting discussion is what this means for the socio-political (and underground) character of graffiti.

However, the popularity of graffiti by NGOs and social projects doesn’t counter the fact that in general the Brazilian street art/graffiti scene is very inspiring and rich (and political).


Ellen: Did you know that there is animal rennet involved while making cheese?

Fei An: No had no idea. So actually, vegetarians shouldn’t be allowed to eat cheese then either?

Ellen: Not necessarily, I’m done with the whole idea of people having to hang on one ideology. The fact that they are not eating meat proves that they are already thinking of how live their lives more consciously.

This is the conversation Ellen and I had before hopping on the wrong bus in Bologna and which kept me thinking since then. Can we really be idealistic without being hypocrite?

While talking about vegetarians, I claimed that when they would know animal products are used in the production process, the would have to stop eating cheese and all the products containing any form of gelatin. On the other (Ellen’s) hand, there is without doubt something noble in their actions of not eating meat and the fact that they have thought about more sustainable ways of living is at the least admirable. Why are we hypocrites if we are doing the best we can and sometimes turn a blind eye? I agreed and our discussion ended once we realized that we were on the wrong bus.

I couldn’t get rid of the idea though and something inside me kept bugging me about the idea that something about our reasoning was not right. This evening it struck me! It is not the fact that we are hypocrites by not completely living up to our ideals, it is the fact that we as humans, cannot suppress the need to label everything. YOU ARE A VEGETARIAN, does not mean that you’re considered eating less meat, we made up that the term “vegetarian” implies that you cannot eat any meat at all.  And in our heads, that means that you are a hypocrite If you do.

By doing that we often miss the most important point about the whole thing, that we try to live a better life; that we try to help improve life standards for the people around us. I was as well tricked into the idea of the concept of vegetarianism and realized that what we, society made up this term. Apparently, we automatically think within the boxes we ourselves create and find it hard to define things that fall in a grey area. Sectarianism is the rotten apple in the basket, and at the same time, we cannot live without it.

Now isn’t that hypocrite?

I have only been there once, but still, when I hear the name Israel my senses are set sharp. There is something addictive about it and I haven’t figured out yet what it is; the food, or the people, or the climate, or maybe it’s just because it’s in the news all the time. Of course, having many Israeli friends certainly helps you getting interested in the cause, but the last year I had the feeling that something was pulling me over to the other side more and more.

The conflict has caught me since I was 18, but the remarkable thing is that my opinion was never solid. I started off as very Pro-Israel, but over the years, I have also realized what impact the media has had on my perception. It is then that I started to digg deeper into the matter. And it was only after reading Joris Luyendijks book that my interest for the Palestinian cause was triggered as well. Before, I had only seen them as ‘the other’ bluntly said, all making the Arabic conspiracy complete. After reading the book ‘het zijn net mensen‘, I realized the incredible difficult position the Palestinians are facing, living under a double dictatorship without having a clearly defined peace of land. And maybe this sounds rather obvious nowadays, but I wonder how many people have thought the same with me 2 years ago…

The next question is: what can we do about it? The first time I heard about youth media was when one of my friends went to Israel with a program called Holyswitch. Joyce went to Jerusalem to increase mutual understanding between Israeli and Palestinian youth through blogging. Teenagers from both sides were asked to take up the dialogue and try to understand more of each others’ culture. Although this sort of projects might be done regularly, hearing the experiences of a friend always makes it more compelling. At the same time, it makes me feel hopelessly powerless. The amount of projects must be quite numerous, and still, what have they reached? The average Israeli still sees the Palestinian as a terrorist and the Palestinians just think of Israeli’s of the suppressor that stole their land. But I start to see the use of smaller scale projects more and more.

Grassroots projects are often trying to make a difference in communities rather than on a national level. Can smaller media projects then offer a solution? Does Internet provide a new way of understanding and offering dialogue where both parties can carefully explore enemy’s terrain? Maybe we should all stop to aim for the bigger crowd, but rather focus on small scale levels. Then again, I guess we need organizations such as the UN as an overlooking organ and that can also get on the government level.

I feel lost. Should we go top-down or bottom up? Is there a way to meet in the middle? Or do we keep missing each other? SOS, how do we save the world?

As students enrolled in the conflict studies program we were privileged to assist and participate in a masterclass by Frans Timmerman, a Dutch politician for the PvdA (labour party) and the Minister for European Affairs in the Fourth Balkenende cabinet (2007). He has also been the private secretary to Max van der Stoel, the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE). Although I do not directly pursue such a career, I was curious to know more about his experiences.

Frustrated with his party’s shift to opposition he was very urged to talk about the current political situation in the Netherlands. Polarization, populism and Geert Wilders. “Do you think voters are rational?”

According to Timmerman we Europeans are spoiled. Naturally, our problem today is not that we’re still the most wealthy and that others are in fact very poor. What is at stake, instead, is that there’s no longer an improvement of our wealthiness and that there is a decline. Thus, feelings of fear and resentment arise. Our secure position – access to healthcare, education, employment – is under threat and we need to find a scapegoat. It’s so easy to turn against an ethnic other…

Timmermans made a remark about the distribution of the votes for the PVV (Wilder’s party) in relation to the multiculturality of a city. It appeared that in the “whitest” cities the number of PVV votes was much higher compared to the bigger cities and multicultural neighbourhoods. He has done a small research by interviewing a couple of hundreds of people that voted for the PVV in these cities and apparently people seek for someone that shows empathy with their fears. These fears are fundamentally social (health, employment, welfare), but are threatened by this other that appears to be around.

But that is nothing very new. We know that this is exactly what is happening in an increasing number of western countries. What hasn’t been discussed, however, is the way in which we tend to counter this problem of different ethnicities by multiculturalizing our society, but more importantly, with our integration policy. The latter forces the ethnic other to “stop being who they are” and become more like us. Can you expect someone to become someone else? To do away with the foundations of your self? Does our expectatio of them to adapt and their difficulty to do this results in frustration from both sides (they don’t want to adapt – they don’t respect us for who we are)?

From immigrants we moved to our role as citizens in society. Although the state’s role to exercise control is decreasing, we still tend to outsource everything to the state and, as a consequence, we expect that this higher force can resolve all our problems. We have rights, and they have obligations. But what if we subvert these roles? What if they have rights, and we have obligations? Have we become so individualised that we lost our feeling, or rather, obligation to be solidary? Have we lost the patience to understand the other and thus build a community? Timmermans gave an example of a man that bumped into him on the street. The man reacted very aggressive, because his way was blocked. I experience this so often when biking through Amsterdam; people who curse you when you accidentally bike in their way. Do we focus too much on ourselves, on what we want, and on our freedom? Could one perhaps argue that the “freedom” we claim is becoming competitive, as in “my freedom is better when it takes your freedom”?

Finally, this anti-solidary tension in our society recalls that deeply buried and vague memory of community life and group-feeling, and the guaranty it used to provide for the basic physical and material needs. Smartly, the populist parties in western Europe focus precisely on this aspect. Zizek already explained the rise of the extreme right by claiming that the liberal left has focused so much on multiculturality, tolerance, ethnic equality and environmental issues that the social classes have been forgotten. The extreme right can give these people exactly what they want, and creates an enemy in order to enforce this feeling. Having an enemy fuels the system. And that’s where we come back where we started at. Now the circle is round and the question remains: how to break it open?