by Paula Hollstein Barría

This article was written during the first days of November 2019, approximately two weeks after the so-called social unrest in Chile had been started. Numerical data have been updated until the date of issue. A Spanish version of this post is also available here.

The president declared a state of exception. Social media calls on us daily to march, and ‘cacerolear’. (bang pots). I see images of fires and looting. There are many photos of protestors knocked over by water cannons, their ammunition laced with tear gas, more than 350 eyes injured by police bullets. The death count, updated live, and gory accounts of something we thought was history: torture: 617 claims taken to the National Institute for Human Rights (INDH), 117 more for sexual violence. These images alternate with others pixelated with a more romantic view. Millions (literally) have gathered in the streets, Victor Jara is on the strings of countless guitars and the Mapuche flag flies high from the top of General Baquedano’s monument. It is a film scene. The statue no longer names the square, its de facto name today is “plaza de la dignidad” (Dignity’s Square).

Photo credit: Luis Bahamondes @luis_bahamondes

My anxiety thrives in Coventry, England where I live, but it is rooted some 12.000km away in Chile. I am a 38-year-old lawyer, who has been studying violence for the last three months. I am so white, the way white is understood in Chile, but I have enough Chilote in me that Brits cannot understand my English, learned from Ancud’s State school. Reading, which is what I must do, is a struggle, communicating (genuinely) with Chile is another. I am more ‘in-between’ now than ever. Confusion heightens my feelings as they clamour for information. My smartphone offers it up. I am emotional, overwhelmed. News is no longer trivial for Chile. Everything challenges me, engulfs me, traps me. The images seem unreal, that’s why I can’t stop staring at the screen. My mind, then my body is committed, almost intoxicated. At the same time, I worry and feel guilty. I am so far from Chile. This is a deceitful circumstance, even problematic in ‘offering me distance.’ There are others in Chile who may feel even further away than I do, others who always have been.

I should not just sit back to watch (tomar palco). At first, it seems obvious why: this is a human tragedy. Indifference is immoral. These are, after all, basic demands. To say that I support them doesn’t even come close. I think about my mother’s teacher pension, about health, mental health treatment that is not covered by the public health insurance, the mental health of the people in Chiloé. Intimate fears. And yet for some mysterious reason, what seems to be the first alternative: ‘participating’ or ‘taking sides’ is difficult. I don’t know what to do with all the knowledge I’ve acquired in the last few days from Chile. Why this need to intervene? And then, why the doubt that follows? I feel under arrest. It’s not exactly impotence, I have some options open to me: I could meet up with Chileans, collaborate from afar. Am I making excuses for myself? Fear and anger surface encrypted. It’s also possible that I’ve been floored, today’s palpitations are not as sharp as they were during the first days. Susan Sontag warns me: ‘Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.’

My discomfort begins to take shape of a question: How should you participate if you want to honour the questioning of inequality? Of course, privilege goes beyond an economic data or even one specific statistic. Some days after the social uprising, it becomes obvious that I, unlike others, do have various ways in which I can intervene: not just attending self-called town-hall type meetings or cabildos; but by participating in draft constitutions, supporting the judicial debate that is beginning to emerge, signing academic letters and even backing legal action. In fact, I’ve already signed an online document. You can guess my social position in Chilean society even though I’m not geographically there through the alternatives available to me. I wonder if the way I raise my voice is innocuous? I don’t think so. It’s a fact, I am not on the street. Accepting that might be in itself problematic. That is exactly the naturalisation of a fractured Chile.

Let’s add another annoying element to my anxiety: I am a feminist. As such, now is not the best time for my provincialism, decorum, or stepping aside. On the contrary, that would give power to patriarchy. No few female academics and professionals seem to have things surprisingly clearer. Academia is often accused of being slow to respond, not this time. These women have taken up their positions and are standing up for a new demand: a feminist constitution. Columns and ad hoc cabildos are set in motion (with territory and friendship as links). Disregarding vanities may be worthy, but power? It seems feminists cannot afford to lose opportunities. However, I don’t get out of the arrest I put myself in. It’s hard for me to just articulate a simple statement: ‘I believe…’ or ‘WE believe…’ Being true to other known values (also feminist), is also problematic if I don’t think about the voices – more diffuse but thunderous – of the women on the street. The anonymous marchers. Those who are wronged by the economic system and who are now being repressed by police forces (more than 1300 in police stations, INDH).

There is no shortage of WhatsApp groups, letters of support to newspapers, in short, privileged circles where the design of the new public policies will take place, and where the capacity for understanding those subterranean voices could well be overestimated. Women protestors (those who can only march) are not included in these circles. Survivors of state violence, those who won’t report it, those silenced by domestic violence and those whose poverty or death itself has caught up with, in their homes or on the streets. Adrienne Rich warns us: ‘I need to move outward from the base and center of my feelings, but with a corrective sense that my feelings are not the center of feminism.’

How could I react then, by extoling at least one of the most potent real reasons for this fight? Which value should I appeal to in order to respect what is being claimed: equality and dignity? Empathy? Appeals are directed at the elite, to exercise some of these principles: ‘is it really possible to have a dignified old age on $180 dollars a month?’, ‘you cannot possibly suffer repression, because you don’t live in Lo Hermida’, ‘Minister, put yourself in the shoes of those who take the bus to work at 6am’. Sontag rightfully sets out the impertinence of this request: ‘Empathy is too simple. Whilst we feel empathy, we feel we aren’t accomplices (partners) to what caused the suffering. Our empathy proclaims our innocence and our impotence.’ Our traditional way of confronting suffering is to think that the other is simply ‘other’, someone different, placed in another sphere, but deciding to be a spectator doesn’t emerge naturally. That I am not in the front line is not a decision completely out of my control. To suggest so would be dishonest. Let’s not put our privileges on the same map as this pain. As segmented as Santiago is, one line (not that sinuous) is possible to be traced. However, we prefer to not even imagine how our situation and that of others are implicated. The comfort of some, happiness itself, imply the destitution of others. The poster in Manchester quoted by Adrienne Rich: ‘we are here because you were there’ is revealing. So much so, that it puts the discomfort of my own voice back in its place, or that of the women who appear in the newspapers. Not in terms of voices to be heard, but in terms of voices that arise from ‘the centre’ from the ‘female WE’.

Cabildos of friends, influence, and the debate around a new constitution. This is the way set out to intervene, to look at ‘the other’. The axis has been moved towards the institutional. A tantalising formula, given that the Constitution has been the most concrete inheritance from the dictatorship and, of course, Law promises to be a civilizing tool (and ‘maker’) of social change. Overall, the framing is now technical, at times difficult. The analysis is now abstract (maybe too much!), not an intimate reflection. Today quorums, tomorrow government regimes, the subsidiarity principle, and if we’re lucky abortion. Not a damn for my life, nor yours. A silent swamp in the private, in the day-to-day, exactly what feminism calls to politicise. Pinochet’s constitution has various flaws, but it now carries several of our (other) sins. The sacrifice, even with ritual edging, may be welcome, let’s burn the Constitution! The points to bear in mind are to what extent we can trust this tool. I inherited this suspicion from the Feminist Theory of Law. (Martha Fineman, Carol Smart, Jane Flax, Heather Ruth Wishik, Mary Jane Mossman, etc). If the feminist horizon is reached by law (or not) exceeds this reflection. My call is not to have an excessive confidence in this perspective. We need to be acute and concrete in our reviews. If not, compassion and empathy become intellectualised, they fall sleep.

Something more precise, emerges from the personal. Is it even possible to think about looking at my own life? This is politics as well. It doesn’t seem impertinent to reflect on how I myself have played a role in the fragmentation of society. From evident participation: defenders of the model, corruption and bureaucracy of economic power: consultants, lawyers, lobbyists; to a complicity that seems trivial: the silence of State professionals, normalisation: ‘others took the decision.’ Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, capable of corroding everything. None of this can be compensated by voluntary work, nor going to the biggest march ever in Chile, nor being one of the many that overthrow Pinochet’s constitution. The awakening could offer a type of a starting point. Members of Parliament dropped their salaries and some business people raised the wages of their lowest paid. However, part of the elite is still unwilling to take the cold shower. They are successful at camouflage. They may well be the majority: successful professionals and academics. The ways of self-deluding, of persisting are less excusable. Uncomfortable questions are already there in our minds. There is no other way to explain the obsession with being seen ‘supporting the cause’ (especially the love affair with a long constitutional process). Lies. The economic reforms under normal legal tools: tax and pension system reforms, labour law and improvements in economic regulation wait their turn. The social agenda trickles.

The first days of the awakening, normality seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces. The street gave us back our sanity, says Mónica González. However, as the days passed, the same slippery workings of power appeared, the snake charmers, the snakes themselves. They seem to do anything to avoid being moved. They would try hysterical reactions, rhetoric, even publicized interventions, so as not to be truly broken, nor touched socially or economically. My intuition tells me that the personal, ‘the uncomfortable’ could offer us an opportunity. Risk more, even at the risk of being rude. Where exactly does my wellbeing and my opportunities in life come from? Who has financed them, and at whose cost? To what extent have my own complicities left others out? Money, but above all advantages. Concretely: working for school mates, for relatives, accessing institutions: think tanks, the State and universities, etc. These questions are so as not to live in deceit. It’s a mere defence of the reality. This is the kind of enquiring that people on the streets will not have the opportunity to ask directly to the newspapers and cabildos’ elites.

I don’t want to, nor can I give a course in clear action. But thinking from a personal perspective is a good start. Long tradition since the second feminist wave and the essay written by Carol Hanisch (‘the personal is political’) proclaimed it. And yes, as Sontag says many of us still watch the suffering from afar. But looking closely, without mediating through an image, is still just a mere observation. It is a perceiving action; it is not jumping into action. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with it, ‘nobody can think and hit at the same time’. Thinking in the personal is still a pillar of reality. Sobriety, doubt, at least they offer a genuine problematisation. Recognising our contradictions could be the first step.

Paula Hollstein Barría. PhD student in Law from the University of Warwick, UK. Paula has an LLB from the University of Chile, a MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the LSE and an LLM in human rights from the UCL. Having worked almost exclusively in economic regulatory bodies of the Chilean State, her current academic interests lie in the intersections of the law with gender, psychological violence and human rights.


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