On blind spots and losing one’s vision

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018
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During December 2016 I lost my vision. Perhaps it happened slowly and unnoticed prior to that December morning when I woke up with darkness shrouding my left eye and my right eye not quite able to focus as well as it did the day before. Perhaps I should have taken the symptoms experienced for several months leading up to that December morning more seriously instead of just chucking them in the basket of “too many long hours in front of computer screen, too many long-distance flights, not enough sleep”. Perhaps...

I can’t help but to draw parallels with sustainability issues that companies face as I reflect on my 2017 journey, which included not being allowed to travel and several eye operations, each operation bringing with it the hope that miraculously through the application of the latest medical science, the sight in my left eye will be restored.  Too often companies ignore the symptoms or the signs that something is amiss and too often it is only when there is an outcry, or a strike, or an outbreak of violence, that the issues are addressed. Like I did, many companies undergo several ‘operations’ to address the symptoms, using a variety of consultants to address the problems; and I am sure that like I sometimes wished I could gauge out my left eye and start from scratch, many companies wish they could start from scratch. Unfortunately that is not possible and one is forced to deal with the situation at hand in the best manner possible to yield the best possible result. 

Unfortunately my left eye remains unusable, but in the past four months I have put in an enormous effort in adapting and re-learning how to cope with those unexpected issues that appear when one (suddenly) only has one functioning eye, including discovering that one has no depth perception and if one does not want to stumble down slopes and stairs, one must learn other ways to deal with such limitations. And similarly companies can learn new skills and adjust to different ways of dealing with sustainability issues and even if the damage cannot be reversed, the application of the correct mitigation can result in an outcome that could be just as valuable as reversing the damage, and sometimes the outcome can be even more sustainable than the original state of affairs. All that is required is the will to do it and a corporate culture that is not tone deaf and one that is willing to embrace change.

Blind spots also plagued my beleaguered vision for a while. And when I read the following Facebook post late last year by a renowned and well-respected South African human rights lawyer, it made me think of how often we have blind spots when it comes to issues of power, patriarchy and institutional racism:

“I recognize the delicacy of the matter, but really.

Imagine I got very drunk in a hotel room with two female colleagues. Thus uninhibited and uninvited I undressed and masturbated in front of them.

In the sober light of day, I would be so ashamed and embarrassed I would be forced to emigrate.

Their scorn and laughter and that of their friends would be too much to bear.

Now imagine I was sober, I would not even have the excuse of drunkenness, I would be obliged to kill myself.

Louis C.K. is the person who comes across as a total doos. The women who were the witnesses to his shameful conduct as those who are doing the shaming.

I don’t understand the narrative of the spectators to his embarrassing and utterly inappropriate behavior as his victims.”

 

This professional works in the human rights arena in a country plagued with inequality, misogyny and racism, and yet appears not to understand (or perhaps he is unable to acknowledge?) the power relations that exist in industries, whether in Hollywood or at the Mining Indaba or on Capitol Hill.  Not to mention the victim blaming that is implicit (at least in my opinion) in his post.  If development and human rights professionals have such significant blind spots, what hope is there? And how does one address the situation? 

A medical procedure and several different eye-drops inserted several times a day for several weeks effectively dealt with my blind spots, and thus I would imagine that awareness-raising, calling out by others, and serious self-reflection would be a good start when it comes to addressing blind spots in the development fraternity. And as I had to unlearn and re-imagine my habits in order to adapt to my altered vision, whether when driving, walking or reading, hope rests on the belief that as development and human rights professionals we can also unlearn old habits and re-imagine what the world would be like without the blind spots that allow for patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and racism to continue.  We, who find ourselves in this position of building careers on the back of the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed, should certainly lead the charge to affect real change and to obliterate these blind spots.

After 11 months off field work, I returned to work full-steam and with enthusiasm a few weeks ago.  I have learned that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks, and that I have the ability to adjust and be even better at most tasks than before I lost the vision in my left eye, mainly because (I think) I am now acutely aware of the blessings that come with one’s ability to see, hear, smell, walk, talk, jump, run and apply one’s mind. And also because I needed to prove to myself that I can indeed still be an asset to society and hopefully be a catalyst for change in the future. 

 
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