- On the Matter of Trees
You know of course the philosophical question I am punning on – the tree that falls in the forest. If no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Apparently if we take the question outside of the discipline of philosophy and place it, instead, within the discipline of Physics, then the answer is possibly No — It does not make a sound. The scientific community is now split on this, but one argument as proffered by the journal Scientific American, goes: sound is what happens when various stimuli and vibrations reach to the ear. The ear translates these things into sound. But if there is no ear to receive such stimuli and vibration, then the sound, technically, isn’t made. The same might be said of an image: if someone wears a bright red shirt, and no one opens their eyes to see it, has it still created an image? Perhaps technically, it hasn’t – which is not to say the shirt isn’t red and bright and being worn, which is not to say the tree hasn’t fallen, hasn’t crashed to the earth creating ripples and vibrations and its own small calamity – hasn’t caused the frantic flight of insects and the scurry of rodents.
Of course this is semantics. For all intent and purpose, the tree has made a sound. But recently this old philosophical question has become an uncomfortable one for me. The question raises other questions – what lives matter, and what lives don’t? The question tells us how little we value the lives of trees. If a tree falls – not in the city, but in its own environment, among its own kind – and if someone from another world and environment isn’t around to witness this – did it make a sound. No. More than that. Did it matter?
I don’t think I’m an environmentalist. Not really. And yet, I’ve annoyed friends recently because I cannot work up any outrage or concern or even a modicum of sadness when a famous building, for instance, is going to be demolished. My friends sign petitions and they join heritage societies. But it’s such a historic building, my friends might tell me – its architecture, its detailing, its craftsmanship – this is something that ought to be preserved! We can’t just throw away history for the sake of progress! And I always think, but why not? For always in the back of my mind, I think of trees. I think that almost every building has already caused a displacement. They have displaced trees and whole communities we never thought to give a damn about. So what about the intricate nests and burrows that were on the land before the building came? What about that architecture – that history – that detailing? Did anyone stop to think – we can’t put a building on this spot, because already there is history here that should be preserved? We are only in the business of preserving history and heritage when it is our own. The lives of trees do not matter. On almost any building site, there once were trees. Those trees were fallen. And did anyone here these sounds – the sounds of their dying? Probably not. These days bulldozers go in with ear muffs over their ears – sound cancellers. The trees fall. They cause ripple and vibration. This is a fact. Communities are torn apart. But we do not hear.
- On the Matter of Witness
But of course, I am not just talking about trees. I’m talking about the business of witness and whose witness is important. For it must be obvious that that old philosophical question presents us with an impossibility. The tree in the forest lives in a dynamic ecosystem. It is its own life, but it also contributes to the lives of others – to bugs and tree frogs and mice. Of the hundreds of thousands of lives that must be in any forest, how could there be no one to hear it fall?
But of course, by ‘no one’ we mean, no human. The ears of frogs and snakes are different from the ears of humans – but they do have ears. They hear. The ears of insects are also quite different – but they too receive vibrations. The ears of mice or foxes or rabbits – these are much more like our own ears. They hear sound in much the way that we hear sounds. Sometimes more intensely. Think of a parcel of deer grazing in a field who all look up suddenly, at once, as if they were in a choreographed dance, and who then run off into the trees. What did they all hear? It is possible that they heard the soft step of a hunter, kneeling behind a bush and pointing a rifle at them. Or else a tree, somewhere in the distance, falling. And yet, they too are dismissed. They are ‘no one’. Their hearing – their witness does not matter. It seems to me that this question must then have particular resonance for those of us who grew up in places often considered to be jungle – the heart of darkness – we who grew up in our own forests making our own wild sounds. Can we give notice that the forest is not empty, and in fact it has never been? It is full of witnesses. Can we witness our own lives? Can we say that in these forests, you will not hear every sound – every tree that falls – but that we who live here, we hear. We bear witness. And it matters. The question that is the title of this small essay could in fact be asked in many other ways, in many other situations. If a great book is published in the Caribbean, or in Africa, or in India – and it doesn’t win an international prize or an international readership – did it still make a sound? Was it still good? But of course I am not just talking about witness in general. I am talking about how we bear witness to a particular kind of life and subjectivity within the forest of the Caribbean.
- On the Matter of Gay Lives
Let us not beat around the bushes – or the forest for that matter. It is very obvious that several well-meaning white North Americans would like (ever so earnestly) to bear witness to the suffering that LGBT people experience in the Caribbean. They would like to amplify these hurts – to give an international sound to these poor, hapless trees and saplings falling about in the Caribbean with ‘no one’ at all to hear them. And this kind of advocacy is deeply problematic.
But let us use an actual example to talk this through. Between 2008 and 2009 a campaign called Boycott Jamaica was started in San Francisco by a man called Michael Petrelis. The launch of the campaign saw people gathered in Stonewall New York to throw bottles of Redstripe Beer and rum down into the sewers. The symbolism could not be lost anyone – Jamaica was such a repulsive place that anything coming out of it rightfully belonged in the sewers. The campaign created the unfortunate image of mostly white Americans who had possibly never been to Jamaica pretending to know and understand what was happening there.
From the beginning Petrelis’s campaign was a controversial one – wrapped in so many layers of self-righteousness, white-privilege, and the absolute inability to hear what forest-dwellers are saying. JFLAG was the first to write an open letter condemning the boycott and the text of that letter is worth quoting extensively:
Dear Friends and Supporters: We thank our international allies for their continued interest in the state of LGBT affairs in Jamaica. Your support over the years has strengthened our voice and made it possible for us to make progress where we hardly thought it possible. One of the most significant ventures in which our international allies have collaborated with us was the SMM campaign that started in 2004, and which culminated in a local debate about the appropriateness of violence and hate in Jamaican music played in public places. Despite the occasionally homophobic rant by rogue deejays, we have seen a general decline in the level of homophobia coming from new Jamaican artistes and in new music from Jamaica. We have also seen corporate sponsors withdrawing their support from music that promotes violence or discrimination against any group. It with this in mind that we find it unfortunate that a campaign has been launched calling for the boycott of two Jamaican products, one marketed by a company that unequivocally distanced itself from the hostility and violence typical of Jamaican music towards members of the LGBT community. In April 2008, Red Stripe took the brave and principled stance to cease sponsorship of music festivals that promoted hate and intolerance, including that against members of the LGBT community. The naming of Red Stripe, therefore, as a target of this boycott is extremely damaging to the cause of LGBT activists in Jamaica. In the global arena in which we operate today, events in one place can and do have repercussions in another. Concomitantly, information about occurrences in different places across the globe is easily accessible everywhere. We believe that any overseas entity or organisation seeking to agitate for change in a context with which it has only passing familiarity should first do its homework to ensure that it does not do harm to its credibility and ultimately to the cause of the local community whose interest it seeks to defend. It is unfortunate that the organisers of the current campaign to boycott Jamaica have failed in the key area of fact finding. The misguided targeting of Red Stripe does tremendous damage to a process of change that we began almost 11 years ago. The boycott call has now left us not only with our persistent day to day challenges but with a need to engage Red Stripe and attempt damage control as a result of actions that we did not take. Against this background, we would like to reiterate that while we appreciate the support given by our international allies, and understand their impatience for change, we who live in Jamaica best know and understand the dynamics of our situation. We also know that change is a slow and tedious process and those engage in it must be patient. … It is important that our international allies understand the nature of our struggle and engage us in a respectful way about it. Unless they are willing and able to lead the struggle in the trenches as we have done, it is important that they be guided by us. To do otherwise would be to act in a manner that destroys the space for dialogue that we have managed to create over the past decade and to set back our struggle. It is for this reason that we urge those in the international arena who seek to act in our name and on our behalf to do so not only with the utmost care and responsibility but also with due consideration for our efforts and concerns as members of the local activist community.
Michael Petrelis read this letter. He then summarily dismissed it. He first asked if this letter could have even come from Jamaica. It was too intelligent, and sounded as if it had been penned by another hand. As well, being so discriminated against (and implicitly, being so poor and black and ignorant) these Jamaicans could not possibly know what was actually good for them. He was a man with a cause – with outrage and righteousness firing his engines. He could not be pulled away from his course. He proceeded with the boycott. He ignored the many voices of reason that tried to show him how his boycott was insensitive if not wholly morally reprehensible and instead he republished two letters from Jamaican asylum seekers and recounted a phone call from another Jamaica – because these three voices gave a kind of legitimacy to his campaign.
In the end, Petrelis’s campaign did not amplify the voices of LGBT people in Jamaica. In fact, when those voices came, Petrelis ignored them, or at least he was selective in what voices to use. Petrelis only amplified a world of ironies that are often lost in these human rights campaigns. For did it not occur to this man that his campaign was not just a campaign – but a crusade, and that black people across the world were all too familiar with crusades? That they made us uncomfortable? Did it not occur to him that such campaigns, full of moral conviction, had already changed countries like Jamaica – had already given us colonial laws that outlawed particular ways of being and living? Had already outlawed buggery and created a staunch religiosity and culture which daily endangers the lives of LGBT people? It is not that LGBT advocacy should not happen in countries like Jamaica or Trinidad or Kenya or Ghana or Nigeria, but where it comes from, how it is directed, and what lies at the heart of such advocacy is important. Michael Petrelis is the white man who arrives late to the edge of the forest, hears the trees fallings, and thinks they have not been making these sounds before. But dude – these trees have been falling a long time. And we’ve been hearing them. We know how to hear them. Why don’t you sit for just a moment, and listen?