Instead of an opening speech, the editorial staff of the portal ART AKTIVIST publishes Olga Shparaga’s text from the catalog for the exhibition “Opening the door? Belarusian Art Today”.
In 2008 71% of the Belarusians believed that either there is no clear bound between good and evil, or this bound exists, but sometimes deviations from it are justified. Thus in 2010 43.2% of the Belarusians fully supported and even 19.5% of them voted “rather for” the persecution of homosexuals, and 36.7% fully supported and 20.1% voted “rather for” the state regulation of the religious choice of citizens. At the same time the majority of the Belarusians respected academic freedoms and the right to express disagreement with governmental policy and stood for the freedom of business activity. Among the basic values of the Belarusians individual freedom and social order have the same weight: in 2000 they were chosen by 62% of the citizens, which is lower only than the weight of the family values selected by 78%.
Comparing this information with similar data from the sociological researches in other European countries, the first thing that becomes evident is the discrepancy of the Belarusians’ value preferences. First of all it concerns the equal evaluation of the importance of individual freedom and social order. The things the Belarusians consider from the position of complementarity, the citizens of other European countries oppose (that is, for our European neighbors personal independence and attitude towards authority oppose each other). In other words, the value of individualism in most European countries is supported by a critical attitude towards authority.
The Belarusians and other Europeans
However, as sociologists mention, European individualism doesn’t mean egoism, so far as authority in the understanding of the modern Europeans isn’t identical to society. As the researches have shown, in this case personal independence is combined with the spirit of community and readiness for personal sacrifices in order to preserve a common environment, which allows us to talk about such a phenomenon as European social liberalism.
As for the Belarusian society, its citizens have a specific understanding of both individual freedom and authority, and also its institutions. The Belarusians to a very large extent entrust the care of public benefit to the State, while the care of personal and family well-being they leave for themselves. At the same time the State, in their understanding, should be responsible not only for the functioning of public institutions, but it also should establish the boundaries between “good and evil” because these definitions are relative.
The unwillingness to participate in society governance and the closure in the family circle lead to intolerance towards homosexuals, who challenge the entrenched family relationships, and towards the representatives of other religious beliefs, frightening other people by their different way of life. Although the Belarusians stay critical towards the State policy aimed to the internalization of education, or labor relations policy based on the loyalty to the government, the trust to the public institutions and general lack of interest towards politics leave almost no chances to create the space for expression of such politics.
This situation brings the Belarusian society to the Soviet one. Entrusting the government institutions, the Belarusians, at the same time, are dissatisfied with their functioning, medical and other services provided for them, which makes such trust ephemeral. It seems that the state function to provide public order and security has rather abstract than positive nature. It can be assumed that the very Belarusian society regarded through its opposition to private interests and interests of the family is the same abstraction.
As a result, the notorious individual freedom and independence of the Belarusians are nothing more than a form of asociality, which most likely explains the high credibility to the government: since everyone feels responsible only for himself, the government should be responsible for the whole society. The citizens of other European countries understand that the responsibility for yourself is connected with the responsibility for your society, the fate of which cannot be blindly delegated to any authority.
Belarusian policy “above good and evil”
Such a picture of Belarusian society, without any doubt, is not only beneficial to the current political regime, but it’s also produced by it to a large extent. We can see it both in anti-European and anti-democratic rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities and in the pursued policy of depoliticization of citizens in our country.
Defining Belarus as European or even located in the heart of Europe, Belarusian authorities reduce the culture and the values of Europe to geography. Why do we need “human rights”, “autonomy” and “pluralism”, if we are “already in Europe?” Moreover, as we know, in Europe the situation with these (and other) elements of democracy is not so good. Is there pure democracy in other European countries? And if there is not, what can the convergence with these countries bring to Belarus?
Russia provokes not less reproaches and censures from the Belarusian authorities. In fact, everyone knows what disgrace and outrage is happen in Russia, and most importantly, what kind of “corruption and filth!” are going on there. Not like in Belarus – on this island of stability and purity. Meanwhile the Belarusian ideology, which is based on the profitable opposition of “the Belarusian model of democracy” both to the European and Russian models, is the formation without constant content. It means that its content is formed depending on the situation, through the opposition of “in-group” and a variety of “out-group” such as the Belarusian opposition, ЕU, USA, Russia and even “the whole civilized world”. This ideology allows the Belarusian authorities to relativize any values and put “the Belarusian miracle” sort of “above good and evil”. The authorities’ position in this sense is always true – though it’s elusive since it’s defined from the contrary – while all other positions are relative and therefore wrong.
If you look at the Belarusian authorities’ policy from within, in its core you can see the denial of the idea that the society is governed by its citizens (this idea was born in Europe in the modern era and, to a considerable degree, it refers to the experience of ancient Greek polis). The most important components of such society are the value and practice of individual economic and political freedom, the derivative of which is market economy, as well as state and social structure with clearly defined functions (including social policy).
Since its origin in the modern era, this model of social organization has become the subject of constant discussion, since the basis of its stability is the possibility of permanent pre- establishment, so far as it was created neither by God nor by a single ruler. This explains why democracy cannot have pure and complete form and leads to another important concept – the concept of social rules, which are established by citizens and equally important for everyone.
The denial of such a model of society and the ban on civil and political activity both lead to the fact that the society is alienated from its members, and the key values are deprived of the basis for their correlation and comparison. If freedom cannot be practiced, then it can only be hidden. If the society is an abstraction, it remains only to entrust the care of it to other people, removing any responsibility for what happens.
From relativism to personal affairs
Why are the public alienation and value relativism so dangerous? Because we don’t notice how deeply they penetrate into our lives. It’s so easy to blame the inconsistency of Western democracies rather than to understand their system which elements are not without ambivalence. This ambivalence is caused by the fact that the basis of all democracies is a conflict that cannot be overcome and needed to be solved through the compromise. We should untiringly interpret what is happening, which means constantly working on inevitable mistakes. Such regimes as the Belarusian one conceal the conflict’s presence, and it might look very attractive so far as it pacifies.
As a result, in the West we have different problems and various options to resolve them, while in our country there are “no problems” at all. Those who talk about problems – whether it’s influenza or corruption – are in the ranks of the “enemies” of Belarus. In this case relativism means equalization all of the various options of resolving social conflicts. All of them are equally bad since the conflict “doesn’t really exist”.
But do the citizens of Belarus give up under the pressure of politics of their alienation from the society too quickly and easily? And what is necessary for the return of this society first and foremost?
We need to understand the importance of the interaction based on mutual trust, but not in the form of re-assignment of your destiny to the state institutions or mutual care of the family members, but in the form of participation in a common business with other members of society. Such kind of confidence generates a different view on institutions that would provide the translation and consolidation of trust-based relations, but not the reproduction of the patterns of obedience and passive submission.
It is important for intellectuals, artists, political and civic activists – for all those who can imagine and suggest a different vision of society – to understand that the transition from casual and short-term actions to regular and long-term ones will be possible only through the creation of trust-based interactions’ networks. So that the text written by a critic would be not just a contribution to a creative biography of an artist or a politician, but at the same time – and first of all – would work for the translation and generation of new meanings at the level of the whole artistic or political field.
In other words, so that the written article could also give impetus for the thoughts of curators, journalists and representatives of the corresponding publics, who, therefore, could discuss it together, which requires special spaces (a gallery or a club, a magazine, a web portal) and an opportunity for professional growth. All complaints about its absence because of dictatorship in the country and the absence of art market would be true only if the efforts to establish rules, goals and forms of cooperation on the basis of mutual trust had already been made, but not vice versa. These efforts demand every potential participant to interact. Not just because the era of heroes and Titans has passed, but also because the common business is understood today as an open process, and only together people can confront the possibility of its restriction.
Note: The sociological data of the National Academy of Sciences in Belarus, International European Values Study, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (Vilnius) were used in preparation of the article.
The text from the exhibition catalog “Opening the door? Belarusian Art Today”.