Tag Archives: Indigenous Knowledge

Endgame:  Enhancing Trust in the UN’s Complex Strands of Truth, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May

Brands

At the least, we should leave flowers; at the least we should leave songs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The Dreaming is now. The Dreaming is always; forever.  Kate Constable

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.  Philip Pullman

We live in a fragmented civilization with fragmented indoctrinations.  Talismanist Giebra

This was another breathtaking week at the UN.  From nuclear weapons and Syrian reconciliation to depleted fish stocks and the “re-deployment” of the UN development system, seemingly every available conference room was tied up with one policy urgency or another.

There were three other events this week that might seem disparate on the surface, but which are related to questions about means and ends regarding how the UN both communicates its own messages and also allows those who communicate differently to “have their say” in an appropriate and respectful manner.

These events were the plenary of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Committee on Information and the annual event promoting safety and protection for what has become (at least beyond the celebrity journalists who now fill our airwaves) a largely besieged journalistic community.

The Indigenous Forum took up a number of issues that have dominated prior events and that still resist resolution, including inclusion of indigenous languages at national level, modalities for full participation in the work of UN entities, land and water rights (including protection for those who defend those rights), health care (including attention to youth suicide rates) and respect for what many referred to as “indigenous knowledge.” Such knowledge highlights a way of relating to our decreasingly-biodiverse natural order that is more intimate and more interactive than our data-driven and abstracted policymaking. Our UN policy spaces have conferred on us the option of simultaneously “branding” our urgency regarding theis current “extinction moment” while turning at least a partial blind eye to the “business as usual” that props up our own lifestyles but endangers all that deign to come after us.

In the Committee on Information, the issue of languages was again front-and-center.   There has been a movement afoot for some time to within the UN to ensure both the full use of all six “official languages” and to increase sensitivity to those forced to learn one of these languages (primarily English) in order to be able to communicate in a wide range of diplomatic functions and participate fully in UN deliberations.

We fully support this movement.  An English-obsessive environment such as exists at UN Headquarters places undue pressure on UN interpreters but also opens undeserved pathways to participation for essentially monolingual persons such as myself who can barely order meals in another language let alone function without interpretive earphones in the complex policy environment of the UN.  And the commitment to function in all of the official languages of the UN is more than a matter of national or regional pride, more even than upholding the UN Charter.  It is about making space for different ways of knowing the world, the nuances of reality that are largely couched (and sometimes obscured) in the English that dominates this policy space; nuances which bear potential in all languages (certainly including indigenous ones) to cut through our measured bureaucracy-speak and give people stories and metaphors that are suggestive rather than definitive, that enable dialogue rather than merely instruct or even coerce.

This brings us to another core agenda of the Committee related to how the UN “sells itself” and its activities to governments and global constituencies.  While not all delegations are comfortable with what often seems like nothing more than a sophisticated UN branding exercise, few are willing to make the case for truth-telling, for communicating not only what the UN does (which is considerable to be sure), but also what it does not do, what it fails to do and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not well equipped to do.  Here we advocate again contextualizing our narrow “truth zones” to identify the promises made and not kept, but also to highlight the (too many) times we have willfully raised expectations beyond what the system is prepared to fulfill.

A cursory review of US (and now most other cultures) reveals that our current  obsession with branding ourselves, our products and our corporate and career interests has abandoned a more balanced and context-responsible outreach to a veritable feeding frenzy of (at best) half-truths designed to win followers and cultivate “rooting interests.”  What is true, as we have said before, is essentially what you can convince others to be true, obsessing on “facts” at one level but mostly only the “facts” that help make our cases.  And we cleverly avoid context, including the “context” that implicates us in the illusions that have given rise to our current crises.  Indeed, our many hours each week in UN conference rooms indicates that a failure to acknowledge the “contributions” we make to the very ills we are mandated to resolve constitutes a major impediment to the fulfillment of globally-essential tasks that no amount of positive branding can erase.

Collectively, we mostly now assume that we are being manipulated in the public sector to such a degree that it no longer piques our interest, at least on the surface.   We trust less and less of what we are told, but the implications of a so-called “information environment” that at its best now “informs” with willful selectivity remains largely unexamined.  Information, more and more, is a subset of our addiction to entertainment, often celebrating individual and corporate self-promotion, certainly enabling the epidemic need to have our biases and limitations confirmed rather than challenged.  To the extent that any of this is part of what the call for better UN “branding” implies, we need to study the implications for trust and truth more carefully.

And finally, we were present (as in years past) in the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, a time to recall the many journalists worldwide who face harassment, prison, even death for sticking their noses (and their cameras) in the middle of illicit activity that people in power are all-too-willing to punish in order to keep private.  While the president of the General Assembly rightly lauded journalists for “holding up the mirror” to society, for telling the stories that no one else will tell, and for confounding the rumors that proliferate in this world, Lebanon’s Ambassador also lamented the “hyper-partisan” environment that we have created for ourselves, an environment that turns mirror-holding into a potential capital offense and provides cover for agendas that only barely (if at all) reference the “public interest.”

Perhaps the best address at this event came from the African Union’s Ambassador Mohammed, who advocated for “conflict-sensitive” journalism supported by international efforts to pursue the truth that can keep our policies on a steady and humane path.  The key here for me is the “pursue the truth” aspect, which I understand as the best available information set in the broadest possible human and policy contexts.  If we at the UN cannot achieve this level of truth-telling, if we cannot find the means to issue statements and tell stories that seek to enhance and inspire rather than recruit and isolate, we will in the end only strike more blows to our own credibility. As Warren Hoge noted at the same event, part of our essential (and courageous) task in this time of threat from authorities of all stripes remains to “debunk falsehoods.”  A good place to start, for we in the media and policy communities alike, would be with our own.

As many of you know, Avengers: Endgame (which I likely won’t see) has been breaking the internet for weeks complete with its staggering box office success in the US and in other countries.   For those who chalk this up to our endless search for the next big distraction, you might be missing half the point. It is also, I suspect, part of a deep and largely unfulfilled yearning for stories, stories that compel attention and invite people to dream, stories that connect people to larger realities than their ordinary lives ordinarily permit, stories that bridge the ever-widening gap between “our cosmos and us.”

I would prefer to have more of those stories coming from places like the UN.  But do we know how to tell them? And do we have the courage to ensure that the UN plays its part as an antidote to the “fragmented indoctrination” that defines our times?

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