It’s Friday 4 March 2016. At Declaration, a new festival about health and human rights (at CCA in Glasgow), a Kenyan woman called Jaan is describing the long term effects of living as an asylum seeker. For 22 years now – a length of time even she can’t quite believe – she hasn’t been allowed to work, and has been living with the constant fear that she could suddenly be thrown out of the country. The result, as she puts it, is that she has given up on dreaming. She cannot plan a future, a career, or even any sort of stable existence.
The following day, the festival hosts a workshop by Psychologists Against Austerity, a campaign run by psychologists who believe, as they put it, that “it is our public and professional duty to be speaking out against the further implementation of austerity policies”. It is one of the busiest events at Declaration, and full of human stories about the personal cost of the government’s recent welfare cuts – a schizophrenic woman hounded by the DWP even after she had been sectioned; a woman waiting all winter for her boiler, which she couldn’t afford to insure, to fail and leave her in a freezing cold flat.
When I and my Mental Health Foundation colleagues were programming Declaration, there was some concern about making sure we focussed enough on health, not just human rights. I understood this concern – the event was, after all, led by health organisations – but I didn’t share it. If you’re being denied your human rights, of course your health is affected. One thing logically follows the other, so the subject of health was bound to come up, and it did, in almost every event.
And what came across – as we worked our way through every single article in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, over the course of 30 events (an idea that seemed inspired when we thought of it, then ridiculously impractical, and then, finally, just about workable by the skin of our teeth) – was a frightening picture of how modern society wears down our health by undermining those rights in dozens of different ways, often simultaneously.
At times, the number of battles that need fought in order to achieve ‘the right to health’ – the festival’s central theme – felt overwhelming. Throughout the weekend we explored how the legal system discriminates against poor people; society’s failure to address the problem of homelessness in the 50 years since Ken Loach’s landmark TV drama Cathy Come Home; the dangers inherent in the potential abolition of the human rights act; and how modern working practices are eroding our right to leisure and leaving us feeling demoralised, belittled and exhausted. One of my strongest memories from the weekend is watching my Scotsman colleague Joyce McMillan, about as angry and frustrated as I have ever seen her, condemning the obscene levels of economic inequality that now exist in society, as highlighted in The Divide, a new film adaptation of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s international best-seller The Spirit Level. How, she asked, can CEOs of major companies possibly justify being paid hundreds of times as much as most of their employees? They can’t, is the simple answer; as the Observer revealed just two days later, even corporate headhunters think it’s excessive.
I fear I’m not selling the festival very well here. It was also an uplifting, galvanising experience – for every breach of our human rights that was highlighted, there was also a platform for a passionate, dedicated person or organisation doing their best to understand and confront the problem, from Interfaith Scotland, working to bring different religious communities together, to Amnesty International and the Anti-Slavery Alliance.
Transgender rights activist Nathan Gale was an inspiration on Saturday, a bundle of energy and optimism, good-natured in the face of a health and legal system that often treats them like a non-person. Law lecturer and blogger Andrew Tickell, aka Lallands Peat Worrier, was a charismatic, generous host, letting a young generation of law students do most of the talking at an event exploring the obstacles those without money face when asserting their right to a fair public hearing. And Norma Mackinnon of Freedom from Torture was a revelation, leading us gently through a role-playing workshop which put us in the shoes of each member of a family affected by arrest and torture in Syria, asking us to imagine what a husband, wife, daughter and son might each be feeling at each moment in the horrific journey Norma was describing – a husband arrested and tortured, a wife raped by security forces, two children traumatised, a whole family displaced first to Lebanon and eventually to Scotland. It was, in many ways, like an intense, intimate piece of theatre.
Elsewhere in the festival there was actual theatre – or rather eloquent, powerful, very personal spoken word performances from artists including Rose Ruane, Jenny Lindsay, Harry Giles, Jen McGregor, Rachel McCrum, Theresa Munoz, Ghazi Hussein and, on screen, Agnes Torok. I particularly enjoyed the story Jenny Lindsay told, inspired by her time working in education, about a secondary school teacher caught between a pedantic, disciplinarian boss and a troubled, self-harming teenager for whom a telling off about uniform is likely to be the last straw.
Watching these performances, having just come out of a panel discussion about legal aid, homelessness, or executive pay, was to be reminded what a curious hybrid of a festival Declaration was – partly an arts festival, partly a political debate, partly a health conference. But what linked all these things together, in the end, was storytelling and empathy. If you want to deny people their human rights, the first thing you do is dehumanise them – transform them in the public imagination from fully rounded individuals into a caricature, a cartoon, whether it be greedy Jews, lazy benefit scroungers, or a ‘swarm’ of migrants. In other words, you other them.
For me, if Declaration was about anything it was about reversing that process, asserting the complex humanity of a broad range of people, loudly and proudly. So for our Right to Asylum event, we simply gathered together three asylum seekers and asked them to tell their personal stories. They spoke, of course, about the horrific treatment they’ve had from the media, but they also chatted about the Scottish weather, about volunteering and friendship and community. And for our Right to Marriage and Family discussion – one of my favourite events at the whole festival – rather than bring together lawyers we brought together a group of LGBT parents: Liam, who recently adopted a young son with his husband; Claire, who is raising a son with her female partner; and Kate; who is raising her two children with a transgender partner and their fathers (who are also a couple), to share their stories and compare notes.
There was, as you’d expect, still lots of fascinating insight into legal rights – and the particular issues Kate faces because of her complex family set-up – but the moment in the discussion that stayed with me was Claire talking about the problem of invisibility, describing the experience of taking her dog for a walk in the park and a confused woman asking her ‘do you share that dog with someone else?’ It hadn’t occurred to the woman, who had seen Claire’s partner walking the same dog, that the two of them might be together. The same thing, she said, frequently happens on buses with their children – it is assumed that she and her partner are friends, or travelling separately, or anything other than two women raising a child together. This, in its small way, is a breach of human rights – a denial of someone’s right to be acknowledged and accepted as who they are.
Artists are particularly good at highlighting this sort of thing – finding the small details that describe a life, or the dozens of little indignities that, cumulatively, add up to oppression. The best artists understand that storytelling is about more than broad brush strokes, it is about the little details. These are the things that make your characters feel like fully rounded human creatures rather than stereotypes – and, often, the things we empathise with. This is perhaps why Norma Mackinnon’s Freedom From Torture workshop felt like a piece of theatre – it was all about telling a big, global story through a series of small, very human details.
Something similar happened at TYCI’s event on Friday. We’d asked the Glasgow-based women’s collective to create something in response to Article 3: the Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security – on the basis that women’s liberty and personal security is so often threatened or undermined by misogyny, whether it’s being being stalked or harassed on the street, or shouted down on the internet. TYCI could have created something angry and political, but they didn’t, at least not explicitly. What they created was joyous, positive, celebratory – or ‘reflective and raucous’ as TYCI put it. The night ended with a brilliant set by singer-songwriter Chrissy Barnacle, an extraordinary performer – eccentric, vulnerable yet defiantly herself and very funny, a woman asserting her right to life and liberty just by standing on a stage, talking and singing.
If I had to describe that night in one short sentence, I’d say it was full of humanity. And that was Declaration in a nutshell, I reckon. A festival of humans. I hope we get to do it again next year.