This cafe has its own rhythm – earlier in the day, it tends to be quieter, the customers are either working or, like the four women who just came in, stopping for a coffee after walking their dogs. As the day progresses, the atmosphere changes – it’s a popular place for parents and their children, and the noise level tends to increase the closer it gets to lunchtime. It’s not the children that disturb me most, however, it’s the parents, most often mothers, who are with them. What I find most distracting is the tone that many of them adopt , particularly when they are talking to their children but not always exclusively. I often has the ring of a children’s TV presenter aiming to be engaged, jolly and entertaining and they frequently speak quite loudly, but the ring of insincerity irks me most. I wonder if this is a voice reserved for public places, and if it’s not, is there a risk that children never get to hear adults talk in any other way. As a child, I used to be fascinated by the conversations of the adults around me, but my impression that parents often adopt the same tone when talking to each other leaves me wondering about the implications if they grow up hearing only child-centred language. The curious sense of performance, the impression they give that they are performing not only for their children, but for those around them, is in strange juxtaposition to Simone Weil’s lauding of those words “which express nothing but good, in its pure state” in the anthology I’m reading.
Often I have the sense that there are many words, but little meaning in the world around me. I know this is part of a more general shutdown – in recently months my serious news habit has almost dwindled out – and that unplugging from the churn of 24-hour news only adds to my sense that the truly important tends to filter through the limited channels I’ve kept open, while so much of what would have otherwise demanded my attention is shown to be flotsam.
Simone Weil places great importance on language in Human Personality,in which she focuses on those she defines as ‘afflicted’ as well as the need to “find the words which express the truth of their affliction, the words which can give resonance, through the crust of external circumstances, to the cry, which is always inaudible: ‘Why am I being hurt?’”
The experience as grief doesn’t appear to fall into the category of suffering that Weil describes as affliction – she regards it as suffering and oppression brought about as a result of oppression and injustice. Grief is a particular suffering when the perpetrator is death itself – in many cases, of course, loss is the result of the violence of others, be it individuals, the state or other institutions. In such cases the suffering of those who mourn must surely meet Wei’ls criterion for the afflicted whose cry of ‘Why am I being hurt?’ goes unheard.
Whether the bewilderment I feel at times about the level of pain and grief I have to endure at times meets Weil’s criterion for affliction or not, my hope is ultimately my suffering will enable me to be more attentive to the “silent cry, which sounds only in the secret heart” of the afflicted. Weil emphasises the need for a particular kind of attention as there “is a natural alliance between truth and affliction, because both of them are supplicants, eternally condemned to stand speechless in our presence.”
Weil’s focus on affliction and the attention it requires goes beyond the demand for rights and instead appeals to justice, which she believes carries more weight. Her definition of affliction means that much of the clamour around rights is judged irrelevant, and instead something more honest and vulnerable needs to be expressed. She also gives thought to the way that the dominant discourse in society can prevent us hearing the cry of the afflicted:
“Truth,” Weil writes, “stands before an intelligence which is concerned with the elegant manipulation of opinions” in the same way that a “vagrant” accused of stealing a carrot being brought before a “comfortably seated judge who keeps up an elegant flow of queries, comments and witticisms while the accused is unable to stammer a word”.
Weil prescribes “a system of public education capable of providing it, so far is as possible, with means of expression; and next, a regime in which the public freedom of expression is characterized not so much by freedom, as by an attentive silence in which this faint and inept cry can be heard.” Lastly, institutions are needed which will “put power into the hands of men who are able and anxious to hear and understand” such cries.
Such a radical positioning of justice in our social organisation is inspiring, great deal of detail would need filling in about how her ideas could be applied within today’s context. One example I’ve experienced of the “afflicted” being listened to is the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge, which I went to the launch of in February 2014. Based on the principle that decisions about poverty must involve people who directly face poverty, the Truth Challenge has brought together people with first-hand experience of poverty, and the city’s civic and business leaders in order to change in the way poverty is tackled in the city.
At the launch, 15 men and women told their stories and experiences of poverty to an audience that included the city’s leaders. They were given training beforehand, and used drama, poetry and song, as well as the spoken word, to express how they felt going hungry as a result of benefits sanctions, deciding how much money to spend on a son who is a talented gymnast when it means having less to spend on food, the knowledge that chances of getting a job are hampered if you’re looking underfed and unwell compared to someone who is physically thriving.
Interestingly, a number of the leaders – local councillors, police chiefs among them, began, after listening to the men and women, to open up about their own experiences of poverty. This suggests that if the ability to hear the voice of the afflicted is lost as an individual’s life becomes more comfortable, it can also be regained when people find the words to express their suffering:
If you say to someone who has ears to hear; ‘What you are doing to me is not just’, you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like ‘I have the right…’ or ‘you have no right to…’ They evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention.