Our Common Ground

by Pedro Hartung

Navigating in peace through the turmoil of our complex and ever-evolving world is becoming increasingly difficult. The internet has given us access to the production and dispersion of diverse information which amplified and democratized voices, but also produced a loud cacophony of languages, messages and even realities.

Opposite narratives and readings of facts are walking side by side within families, communities and among political decision-makers, some of them defying hitherto rock-solid human rights oriented understandings: “The earth is flat,” “the vaccine doesn’t work,” “immigrants are not welcome,” “the Bible recommends the use of a rod in educating children,” “feminism and critical race theory are dangerous,” “LGBT+ is a sin and a disease.” It feels as though our rocks are liquefying.

For us human rights activists, it is a frightening scenario of irrationalities, polarizations, disagreements and animosities, in which it has never been more difficult to agree or shape a debate and a common public agenda.

This large-scale cacophony occurs precisely when we face urgent challenges, from the climate emergency, to systematic and massive violations of human rights by corporations and states, to the new rise of authoritarian regimes, which deftly spread fear and disbelief in institutions and people.

It is clear that rationality alone can no longer create consensus through dialogues and reflections. Assumptions such as scientific method, human rights and democracy are no longer able to pacify interpersonal and social conflicts. Reason, as developed by the Eurocentric Western thought which separated ethics from aesthetics, has lost its hegemony. However, it is not the purpose of this piece to try to understand why, despite the evident inability of ‘enlightened’ people and groups to communicate with different audiences and their historical entrenchment in the academies and economic elites.

The desire here is to investigate what other paths might be available to face this cacophony, in order to create new amalgams and again mend the social fabric for a more peaceful and harmonious coexistence. How can we merge horizons again and find a common language, as proposed by Hans Georg Gadamer? How do we restore the bonds of acknowledgment and belonging? How do we connect with people, beyond what they say and appear to think?

In contemplating these questions, I remembered always being drawn to crowds, mass meetings, and agglomerations; there is something transcendent to me about them. There, the whole always seems to be greater than just the sum of its parts. There, I feel oceanic, outside of myself, rested from myself, unself-absorbed! I remember being small, being just one. And that always brings me peace. 

The last time I felt like that was at a pre-pandemic concert by the Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia in Salvador, Bahia. Bethânia, the sister of another Brazilian giant Caetano Veloso, is a master at interpreting and bringing to life the compositions of others. Known as the queen of Brazilian Popular Music (BPM), she mixes traditions and styles, in a religious and aesthetic syncretism, subverting the songs best known to Brazilians in unforgettable poetic moments, able to silence certainties about life and the world, but also enabling the shared and certain experience of wonder.

When I think about overcoming interrupted dialogues, I always think about public gatherings and music concerts. Here in Brazil, I see music not as an individual art form, but as an immaterial space for countless encounters, for crowds dragged by musical trios in the streets during carnival, in samba circles or forró dances on weekends, when what matters most is the feeling of shared happiness and when everyday ills are suspended for a few moments.

I’m not suggesting that the world is anesthetized by an endless carnival, rather that music, like other collectively experienced art forms, can bring together paradoxical narratives, thoughts and feelings, generating a connection where there seemed to be none. I believe it is a force capable of mending what is broken between us, just like the Japanese art of Kintsugi. 

Information can enlighten people; but it is the emotions that mobilize them to transform their own reality. And it is the positive emotions that renew the feeling of hope, recognition and happiness. Fear can be effective in the short term, but beauty is what drives human beings on their most significant and lasting adventures.

My surprise is how late we are in valuing collective-experienced art, including its entertainment dimension, in advocacy strategies in defense of human rights, the climate, the environment and democracy itself. People do not read international treaties or want to hear about human rights violations on a daily basis. They do not know about the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nor are they always emotionally available to be sensitized about the climate catastrophe, heralded as armageddon in movies, or at their local public hearings, with rites and words that have little to do with their realities. 

This strategy is far from being innovative. Religious movements used, and still use, collective artistic expressions to convey their messages and translate them into music, parables and images immortalized and shared by great artists in common spaces, such as a Choral work by J.S. Bach or the Michelangelo Sistine Chapel frescoes. This created an aesthetic experience generating amazement and wonder, something that usually does not occur when we enter an academic, legal or policy panel on a given human rights topic. 

While we might be more digitally connected, we are more spatially distant from concerts, movie theaters and clubs, which intensified the artistic experience. And while we may be able to watch a video collectively on twitter/twitch or play games with international friends, being together physically in the same space has the strength to remind us of our own fragility and, therefore, of our humanity. As humans, especially children, we need sensory experiences to find our humanity. 

Certainly, it won’t be a single concert from Billie Eilish or from DJ Alok with indigenous people, or a movie debate about Aruanas series that will draw crowds to tackle the climate crisis or uncompromisingly defend human rights; but it is with that mentality and the creation of a broad and unrestricted common ground through arts that we can slowly modify the myths, symbols and languages ​​of our communities and, therefore, our common desires and political decisions. Let’s make even more space in activism for the arts, so that the arts open up new spaces for all of us, no matter how separate our worlds may appear to be.

Here is the paradox; some of my thoughts above could be summarized in Bethânia’s brother’s song named “It’s a Long Way:” 

“I hear my voice among others
In the break of day
Hey, brothers
Say, brothers
It’s a long, long, long, long way
It’s a long way
It’s a long, it’s a long, long, long
It’s a long way
It’s a long, long, long way
It’s a long, long, long
It’s a long way, it’s a long
Os olhos da cobra verde
Hoje foi que arreparei
Se arreparasse há mais tempo
Não amava quem amei

(…)

It’s a long and winding road
It’s a long and winding road
It’s a long and winding, long and winding road”

Pedro Hartung is a lawyer and activist for human and children’s rights. He is Legal and Policy Director at Alana, Brazil. He is passionate about music and people.


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