The other night I went to see The Missing Picture, a film by Rithy Panh about growing up under the Khmer Rouge regime of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) in the 1970s. The film used handmade clay models of people and miniature sets, as well as historical film footage, video montage and a poetic narrative in voiceover, to portray the horror of those bleak years of forced labour and starvation.
The cuteness of the little models and sets, like a kind of DIY Legoland, was grotesque, and underlined the brutality and inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge experiment. It seemed that the peasants were nothing more than a resource to achieve their vision of the future. The Khmer Rouge leaders put people at the service of ideology, and could not allow for individuality. For me, this struck at the heart of the project, and explained why it was such a bleak, cold endeavour – and could never be anything else.
People are messy: we aren’t ‘rational actors’, but emotional beings. We respond and react to the things that happen to us because we are emotionally attached to each other, and to the world that we live in. Our social relationships drive, determine and describe the actions we take and the motivations for taking action.
We know that people are more likely to take action on an issue that has affected themselves or a loved one – or at least which stirs their emotions. That’s why charities fundraise by portraying their beneficiaries as ‘just like you’, with narratives about good neighbourliness, or, more negatively, as needing pity, with heart-string-tugging photos.
And because people are messy, campaigning and activism is a slower process than it would otherwise be. If only we didn’t have to deal with people’s changing relationships with each other (within or outside groups and movements!), or people’s different needs to be heard and valued, or different styles of communication and taking action, it would be so much easier to achieve our visions, surely? Or perhaps not.
I can see two possible outcomes. Either expecting people to conform and behave as necessary to achieve the vision at all costs is doomed to failure (because we won’t do it!). Or, we get totalitarian experiments and their legacy of hurt and loss and despair. Rithy Panh points the finger at ‘ideology’ as the cause of the problem: the appeal of putting ideology first is its simplistic offering of a pure, clean vision of a new social order, with simple solutions to what in reality are complex problems.
For me, a profound part of growing up has involved putting aside ideological frameworks and rules that inspired me when I was younger and had no life experience, and instead trying to work out my core values, and live by them. Starting with a grounded, ‘heart first’ approach, as opposed to the intellectual approach of putting an ideology first and making everything fit it.
Articulating ideals out of observation and experience of the world, I’ve ended up in somewhat the same place as I found myself by going ‘head first’: I’m still committed to equality and ending oppression and exploitation, I’m still against militarism and for nonviolent revolution.
But living by my values is often less easy. Loving people and putting people at the heart of our campaigns and visions means that activism involves difficult compromises, it means working through our differences even when that’s painful, it means trying to feel compassion for each other even through the fog of fear that our own needs won’t be met.
In the poetry of the ancient Chinese ‘five elements’ theory, compassion is the antidote to frustration, and trust is the antidote to fear. Through practice – trying, getting it sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and learning – I’m learning that activism without trust and compassion is a spiral of erosion. We’ll never achieve anything if we give in to fear and anger, or if we fail to put loving each other, and ourselves, at the heart of our dreams and our actions.