Sunday, March 25, 2007

On Awareness

Aleksander Balos-Credo's 'Awareness'

I recently finished reading Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's 'A Human Being Died That Night: Forgiving Apertheid's Chief Killer'. Dr. Pumla is a clinical psychologist that was provoked by a mother of one of apartheid's many victims who had told her that she had forgiven, Eugene de Kock, commanding officer of the apartheid death squads, to seek him out and find out what made that mother forgive someone known infamously in South Africa as 'Prime Evil'. The thrust of the book is a meditation on forgivness, its nature, its meaning and its paremeters. Dr. Pumla in the course of her meditation throws open many issues both psychological and legal as well. One of the passages that found resonance with me was this:

"How much evidence is necessary for one to change perspective and for transformation in one's life to result? Is knowledge enough to change a person's heart? Is it sufficiently simply to know that the beliefs on which one has based one's behavior are wrong? Perhaps one doesn't need more knowledge; one needs the resolve to use the knowledge that one has. Moving from reflection to engagement requires a new way of seeing the old - the kind of shift in perspective that information rarely yields but spiritual conviction sometimes brings."

Although this passage relates to how the Christian religion in South Africa failed to 'create a moral climate in which soldiers could draw from the religious conviction and exercise moral restraint' and even interpreted the acts of suppression and repression of the blacks as 'divinely sanctioned acts', it finds application in other areas as well because it asks a fundamental problem. How do you persuade someone to change something fundamental about their way of life or personality? How do you inspire someone? The paragraph does not yield answers though it does one important thing - it points out what knowledge does not do. Knowledge doesn't simply change one. It gives one tools to do so, but it does not effect the change. That has to come from 'resolve' or interest or necessity. Knowledge is nothing more than a store of information.

More important is how to use that knowledge in a meaningful and productive manner not just for our own personal growth but also in our interactions with other people and our work. That is not to say technique is supreme to knowledge but they both require each other. There is synergy in a meaningful combination of one with the other. And that is why I am now opposed to these popular non-governmental organizations idea of merely raising awareness about issues, which the government has taken up for its own policies and procedures, without also instilling or making available just what to do once awareness has been achieved, and providing the necessary and attendant infrastructure to provide a foundation for that policy.

An illustration of this would be the 'Love Our River' Campaign organized by the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) and the Department of Environment (DOE) which was organized to 'promote public awareness of the importance of rivers and highlight the critical state of river pollution.' The Spotlight report in New Straits Times (NST) dated 20 October 2006 reported: 'DID section assistant river Ahmad Darus said the department had spent RM 10 million during the campaign on ‘site activities’ which included landscaping – building walkways and gazebos for the public. Between 1993 and 2003, an average of 35 rivers a year were monitored, and gotong-royong and landscaping activities were carried on an average of 23 rivers, he said. In 1993, RM 100,000 was spent on billboards. An additional RM 50,000 was spent in the subsequent years, said Ahmad. More than a thousand awareness seminars were also held in schools nationwide.'

But as Dr. Pumla has pointed out mere k
nowledge does not change a person's heart, and that is harder to change than one's mind. It goes the same for awareness. The NST understandably reported in euphemistic terms how it was a failure. And that was the problem with the campaign. It was more concerned with spending money, construction, and petty activities. How do these impersonal campaigns for the masses supposed to not just raise awareness but become an active dependable force in combating river pollution? How does it equip them with the relevant skill or abilities to assist in building an effective, meaningful community to assist in the fight against environment pollution?

That is not to say that awareness is not important, but its importance is limited temporally to a narrow area. It is that first step. But then the journey of a thousand miles does not end with the first step. It continues with many other steps which will be repetitive, dull, tiresome but no less important because all of them will take us to our destination. The question then is what would give us that resolve? Spiritual conviction may give us that. But I suspect that is a question that each of us has to answer in each of our own individual and unique way because we are similar as we are dissimilar. And in trying to find that answer are we able to transform awareness of humanity into human action.

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