“the lady doth protest too much, methinks” Hamlet
A recent illegal vigil. Women saying what we all know: this happens to us all, all the time, every one of us. The police heavy handedly break up the party. Not that it was a party by the way, unless you count deep anger and frustration and sorrow as a party. It was a vigil, and it was also a protest.
Take a look at the first picture. This is by Banksy and was made in 2007 according to one website in response to “the ‘stop and search’ policy allowing police to search any young people they deemed may be up to no good”. The typical Banksesque imaginative outplaying of this policy is shocking yet we saw women being treated in an equally degrading manner at Clapham Common, and as any protestor for whichever cause will tell you, this is not an isolated incident or behaviour. But now things are getting worse. We are potentially moving on from a sometimes disrespectful and often threatening attitude towards protestors to a law which effectively bans protesting altogether: The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has already passed its first hearing in parliament.
The second picture is of my artist’s book ‘Gag’ which I have made for a forthcoming exhibition Then I’ll Begin. The show, which has been planned for over two years, examines mourning and lament in all its forms. When the pandemic hit, I knew I would need to create a new piece in response as part of this exhibition. I had many ideas and concerns regarding the increase of poverty, mental health issues and civil liberty; but I decided that I needed to wait and see how the situation developed. By September last year I had an idea. I made the book by collaboration, inviting people I know to write about their experiences of the pandemic with reference to a set of questions based on the ‘stages of grief’ as posseted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. I felt that I alone could not speak for the collective experiences of this time. I deliberately did not only ask those people that I agree with or share an ethical world view with, and I chose not to edit but to include everyone. I took a risk, in fact some contributions I find very uncomfortable indeed. I will not and could not go into the details of what people have shared with me, (you will have to come to my exhibition to find out!) but it is sufficient to say that certain common themes emerged, including anger about injustice, concern for those most affected by what is happening and a deep-seated anxiety with regard to the apparent erosion of our civil liberties. The book is called Gag as a reference to the literal masking up that we have all had to do this last year, but it also talks about the fear of not having a voice, or not being allowed to have a voice. As my introduction says “To gag someone is to keep them controlled and quiet. A gagging order allows a government or court to restrict information from becoming public. We gag when we feel sickened”
Freedom of speech is fundamental to our ideas of democracy. Most of us uphold this idea, even if it means we have to listen to those whose opinions we do not agree with or even find abhorrent. In a way, my book was an exercise in democracy. As I have mentioned before, through my life and artworks, I try to listen, which is what Henri Nouwen calls ‘the ultimate hospitality’. By listening to each other we learn to understand each other, and we also understand that we can learn from each other. This is why protest is so important. And sometimes it also changes things for the better. If you feel as strongly as I do about our right to protest, please follow this link to find out more and, if you want, sign the petition.
Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:
- What makes you angry or sad in our society?
- What stops you (or gags you) from speaking out?
- How can you listen to others?
You will need a piece of cardboard and a thick felt tip or marker pen
- What do you want to protest about?
- What would you like to change in our society?
- Use your pen to write a message about this
- Take your cardboard for a walk in your area. Hold it up so other people can see it.
This meditation is commissioned by Leeds Methodist Mission