Margo Cowan and Lupe Castillo forced me to rethink how I think about the border, and it’s been a struggle. I could easily go for weeks at a time without questioning why my political science and economics classes only frame questions in terms of territory and relative power in the global political economy. But for the second half of this semester, I’ve been questioning not my professors as much as myself. How can I reconcile the discourse of borders, treaties, and military power with the discourse of racism, sexism, prejudice–with the fact that racism hurts? As several classmates have brought up, our political actions that have to do with borders also have to do with empathy, with compassion. With feeling another’s pain.
Graduation is looming and I decided I had better have a clue who Leymah Gbowee, our commencement speaker, is, before sitting down in my black gown to hear her speak. I watched the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell (there are several film screenings on campus) about the civil war in Liberia–and its resolution–in which Leymah Gbowee played an important role.
She led a women’s peace movement in Liberia that urged all the factions to lay down their arms, because the women were tired of the constant hunger, fear, mutilation, shootings, rape, recruitment of their young sons and daughters to militias, the constant migration to flee the newest front in the war…
The politics of territory was a game for the male warlords to play: a struggle for power and position. All the parties involved in the peace talks knew that none could win it all. So throughout the process they continued to command their militias to take more territory, because body counts bring bargaining power, as Ms. Gbowee points out in the documentary.
While these men were at a conference center in Ghana, dividing up the territory and future government positions amongst themselves, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace – led by Leymah Gbowee – blockaded the men inside the building and refused to let them out until they had made a substantial peace agreement. These women made the issue not territory, position, or power, but pain and hurt. They brought suffering and oppression to the forefront of the discourse.
It struck me that the language of human rights is so often based on the positive–all humans have dreams, all humans have hope–but here was an effective case of appealing to all humanity, even humans at war with each other, on the basis of shared hurt and shared pain. If only such a language prevailed when we talk about the “border wars” (to use the National Geographic’s term) at the territorial limits — and, apparently, the limits of compassion — of the U.S.