First published in 365
When will we bite the hand that feeds us?
Last winter, whilst undertaking research for an article, I sat and listened to a local internally displaced refugee called Zinaida inside the dimly lit garage that she sold fruit in. After she fled from the war in Abkhazia, the state offered Zinaida an apartment in my neighbourhood to live in, only to renege on their promise and threaten to evict her if she didn’t pay for it. Every day, she accumulates heavier and heavier debt from the high-interest loan that she was forced to take out in order to remain housed. The war never ended, and people like her are unable to heal from their losses. Their wounds are bashed open as they continue to pay — many times over, in the meagre currency of apples and pears — for the things that have been taken from them.
Huddled by the gas heater, Zinaida showed me scars on her legs from the self-harm attempts that she made after her son was killed. Listening as she imparted these things to me, I thought about the burden of knowledge: how knowledge, decoupled from action, becomes weight. How heavy is life, paralysed by inaction, inebriated by screens, deferred by fear, distraction. Action relieves us of knowledge, whilst affirming its veracity. Knowledge left stolid begins to reek of our own duplicity. These days, it’s easy to waste away on the glut of cheap information; like fast food, our minds accumulate it. It’s quick, addictive, and unsatisfying. Better to know less, I think, and to meet knowledge with eye contact and reciprocity. Witnessing the pain of Zinaida and of others around me — like the shaky old lady who scrounges for a couple of meek, insufficient lari to purchase the egregiously priced medication that she needs from our local pharmacy — I was rankled by the injustice; I felt a social debt to her that I was unsure of how to pay. Weakly, I promised myself to make a special effort to buy fruit from her.
It’s discouraging to witness the ways in which the most powerful, regressive institutions in Georgia present a dignified, culturally progressive front. These profiteers are slippery, laundering their profits from debt peonage into techno parties; shifting the coins they’ve pried from desperate gamblers into sophisticated hotels and cultural event sponsorship. It’s not hard to see that they’re trading in the business of silence and complicity. Are we willing to bite the hand that feeds us? The limited amount that those of us gain has been taken from others. The clubs have been bought. The exhibitions have been bought. The votes have been bought. I think of my neighbour who sells fruit, and I think of what justice might look like, and I think of my position in this society. I also think of all the kind, vibrant, and creative people I know who are complicit — who could be doing greater work, less comfortable work, more fulfilling work, unboundedly. The system touches so many shoulders, it’s difficult for me to address it. We say we don’t have the privilege to choose exactly who we get in bed with. But do we have the privilege to continue as we are, quiet and castrated? At some point, we have to point fingers. I know I’m not exempt from my own critique, but by sharing this, I hope to at least hold my own actions to account — as someone who I believe, has the choice — to align my actions more credibly with my values, and with the knowledge that I find myself burdened with.