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A mile in his shoes – learning from Monet

Categories: Australian Aborigines, Culture, Discrimination, Discrimination/Racism, Education, Human Rights, Indigenous People, Racism, Respect, Shared humanity

by: Watershedd
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Chocolate is the panacea of woe, but in more recent years, I’ve found my palette appreciating much more of the citrus tones that cleanse and refresh, even if some do bite. Perhaps orange is a symbol, a marker of age. When glaucoma takes hold, the vision can develop an orange tinge; same too with cataracts. Perception of the world changes and we see with, in the most literal sense, different eyes.

Claude-Monet-Painting-Sunset-in-VeniceI spent a lovely few hours with my father not so long ago viewing the Monet exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. The water lilies and paintings of Rouen Cathedral have long captured my eye. My own father, like Monet, has had cataracts treated. We discussed the change in tone in the paintings as the great artist’s vision deteriorated, how the treatment suddenly brought blues back into the vision of one eye and yet he found it necessary to wear glasses with a green tinted lens over the right eye and a translucent lens obscuring the other to correct his colour perception even after the surgeries. Monet was purportedly appalled when he realized that his colour perception had altered so dramatically, that his appreciation of light was so affected and had to be stopped from destroying many of his paintings that demonstrated the orange-red hues of his filtered vision. Perhaps in the afterlife, he can appreciate what a gift he has in fact left the world, one by which we all can perceive a little of the world through the eyes of those who have aged.

Claude Monet left much more than a simple rendition of the deterioration of visual acuity; what he did, was provide a metaphor for how experience affects perception and hence translation. What I see, may not be what you see. I may describe blue, what what is blue to you? What if you are blue-green colour blind? I may be able to see quite clearly at two metres the large “C” of the clearway sign, but you may not perceive the break in the form and instead see an “O”. Don’t laugh – I know a man who at the age of eight on receiving his first pair of glasses stood to stare at such a sign because he’d never really “seen” it. His whole trip home that day with his mother was punctuated by such revelations.

What Monet (and Degas) demonstrates, is that years of exposure to our environment leave significant impacts upon our perception that inevitably alter the manner in which we respond to the modern world. Filters begin to be constructed from the moment of birth, possibly earlier if you accept the impact of what the mother experiences or consumes before the infant is born. Every experience, positive or negative, shapes our response to the environment in which we live. The layers of experience become perception, with differences so vast and of such varying degree that it is impossible to be entirely sure that any of us truly completely understand what the other has experienced or is endeavouring to express. It is this sense that the Indian Prayer reminding us to walk a mile in our neighbours shoes before we pass any judgment, becomes so poignant. The wear and tear on the shoes, just as that on the eyes of the elderly, cannot ever be exactly the same. Rather than judge my fellow man, I should instead be sympathetic to the uniqueness of his experiences and empathize with his struggle to be understood.

I was watching a program about a week ago; David Attenborough was comparing man to apes. He was looking at how they learn and made the stunningly simple comment that two groups of apes may each be able to crack a nut, but develop a method to do so via different means. It is in the differences to achieve the same outcome that culture is developed. Differences in understanding, because how we learned a particular “fact” came with a different baseline experience. I have no fear of snakes; actually, they’re kind of fascinating. But my perception and lack of fear possibly has more to do with my urban upbringing and would be entirely different had I been raised on a farm. Then there’s the little boys I watched skipping down a Belfast street many years ago chanting a highly politically divisive slogan at the tops of their voices. Little boys too young to realize that what they sang at the tops of their voices demonstrated the bigotry of their parents, undoubtedly expressed on a daily basis building a filter that would hound the children into adulthood. The whole scene, when one of the mothers charged down the road to drag both boys home chastising them all the way about being caught saying such things in public, was comical in a black humour kind of way. I wonder, in this era after “the Troubles” if those two little boys have grown out of the filters built for them, or whether they remain the next generation of oppression marked by hatred.

There are endless examples of how we influence the perception of others. We must do two things in life; first, we must be the positive demonstration to others, especially our youth, of inclusion and empathy, showing that we understand that each person’s experiences are unique to them; second, we must interrogate our perceptions for validity, forcing ourselves to examine the filters that have developed over time and making efforts to remove them through taking a moment to consider the experience of the Other in our society. It is not acceptable to simply say that I’ve had a bad experience and hence, marginalize anyone who appears similar. It is not acceptable to blindly accept the precepts laid down by our forebears without question. In a comment a couple of years ago by ‘Sam’, purportedly a police officer, Bakchos was warned that there was no place for dissention in the Australian psyche, with which I strongly disagreed. The recent electoral result in the seat of Indi is a quite civil expression of dissention expressed in a free society.

In the past few days, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has highlighted the appalling educational infrastructure available to Australian Indigenous children. Whether he has genuinely become aware of the poor facilities or is playing a political card, the positive response to this is to implement the necessary changes to correct the situation. The consequences of failing to address inequality impact most severely on our children; disengagement begins early, due in part to the realization that they are not worth the same political dollar for schools and public housing as those in the cities, or simply on the other side of town.

People keep saying that education is the corrective answer to any form of discrimination, and we are extolled to never stop learning; but knowledge without a consequential change in attitude reflected as apology, change in public policy and sincere efforts to compensate for past harms is nothing more than rhetoric. Once the filters of bigotry are removed, the culpability for injustice is all the more damning. I have little sympathy for those who know they have been wrong, but choose to continue with the same attitudes. Such pride and greed of spirit are the mechanisms by which true inclusion and community is destroyed. That is why dissention is so important. And that’s why I try to walk a mile in my neighbours’ shoes, bearing in mind that I can only ever glimpse a small piece of life as they do. I want to build and inclusive society and I will continue to interrogate my own filters and to voice my dissent to do so.

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