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CONTEXT, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE AND INTEGRITY

The following text is an adapted, modified version of the speech I wrote for the closing conference of the NHLP-EU Program in Riga on the 20th of June 2024. 


Hi, I am Majo. I am what used to be called high-functioning autistic, or having Asperger syndrome. It means, among other things, that I don’t naturally function like most people, so I am very good at observation and analysis in order to adapt my speech and behaviour and appear “normal”. Born to be a performer! I am also good at recognising patterns and drawing connections. Apparently, it is also likely to be the source of my inconveniently high justice sensitivity. 


I do not vibe with the “authenticity, honesty and spontaneity” motto, because if I guide myself by that, I weird everyone out, and typically embarrass myself. I also believe that spontaneous reactions are not always the noblest, and that there is value to reading the room and assessing before reacting.


So, today I bring you some lessons I gathered through these months through my autie prisms. Buckle up.


By the way, Hans Asperger, for whom Asperger syndrome was named, was a doctor who collaborated with the Nazis and helped create a euthanasia program for children with disabilities. That is why we don’t say Asperger syndrome anymore.


First, there is a game I like to call “Who am I in this room?”. It consists of asking myself “What kind of room is this? Who else is in here? What is the context? What are the codes? What are the most common lived experiences here? Who makes the rules? Who has the power? How should I shift my attitude according to that?”


Let me give you an example; we might all agree that we live in an imperialistic heteronormative capitalistic patriarchy, a system of society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. In that context, if you are a masculine, straight or straight-passing body-abled cisgender man with stable employment and a good salary, you’re supposed to be on top of the food chain. But is that always true?


Let’s look around us for a moment. 


[Author’s note: the conference’s attendance had a strong majority of cisgender women and fem-presenting people, primarily circus professionals predominantly from the Nordic and Baltic regions, in roles ranging from artistic and acrobatic, to directorial and administrative, including the organizers, fellows and mentors from the NHLP-EU Leadership program.]


Yeah. 


We are indeed in a very special room. I am gonna be very non-binary and assume I can’t know someone’s gender identity from their gender expression. However, I do not think I have to do so to make my point.


I am a fellow from the NHLP-EU Leadership program led by Cirkus Syd (Sweden), DYNAMO (Denmark) and Rigas Cirks (Latvia). Did you know that Sweden, Denmark and Latvia have 5.69% of MEPs at the EU Parliament, while France, Germany and Italy have 35%? This event might also be the very circus event labeled as “European/International” rather than, say, Nordic or Baltic circus event where France is not the overrepresented heavyweight and center (for further reading please refer to Circostrada, CircusNext, FEDEC, Circa, etc).


So this is not your typical circus room. 


 Who are you in this room?

(That is your homework. Write in a notebook and discuss in little groups.) 


Everyone’s experience and truth are partial and subjective. They’re what is called situated; Situated in terms of geography, age, class, socioeconomic background and status, family situation, gender, race, religion, culture, ability, migration, history, and more. Let me give you another example: by North American understanding of race and power, you would think any fair skinned person with a Swedish passport would be extremely privileged… But would you say that of a Sami person, particularly in the Nordics?


Social categories are contextual. Context and nuance are essential to understanding power. Hardly anything is universal in this regard, even in our hyper-globalized times. Understanding this allows you to not only be situation-appropriate, but to perceive differences while drawing connections.


Another example: I care a lot about LGBTQ+ rights and liberation. Most of my friends are queer, immigrants, sex workers, racialised people, otherwise precarious, mix and match. I was born in a region of the world that is experiencing increasingly extreme and deadly weather events. Those are some of my priorities and realities.


At 23.97%, Latvia is number 37 out of 49 in the ILGA Rainbow Map that ranks European countries on a scale between 0% and 100% on the basis of laws and policies that have a direct impact on LGBTQ+ people’s human rights. 

You could say that LGBTQ+ liberation is not a priority for most Latvian people. I would tend to think that is bad, because queer liberation urgently matters to me.

Then again, my lived experience is in many ways different from that of most Latvians. War has always been a distant concept for me; it has never loomed over my head. Here, in this country that has been occupied multiple times just in the past century, and that has been independent for less time than I have been alive, I see the fear. Compulsory military service was brought back last year. 


The fear of losing one’s right to safety and self-determination is shared by many one way or another.

So here we are, in our little international gatherings, trying to find common ground and build partnerships, coalitions and networks across systems, priorities, agendas, cultures and circumstances.

Let me tell you a secret: Everyone has an agenda. Agendas are not always explicitly stated. They are sometimes not even acknowledged or known by individuals themselves. That is where it gets really interesting. 

Understanding who you are talking to is fundamental in creating rapport, collaboration and dialogue. It is step number 1 of persuasion. Because sure, sure, ideas are great, but at the end of the day, we are dealing with messy, multilayered, emotional human beings.

Who is in front of me? What do they want? What do they need? What do they fear? Who do they want to be?

Who am I? What do I want? What do I need? What do I fear? Who do I want to be? 

How do these two sets of needs interact with each other?

What do I, Majo, want? I want to shake this room, I want to open doors for others, I want to make circus move while someday also having a home of my own. I need resources, which means I also want you to like me, because you can give me gigs, money, and maybe name me your successor when you retire. [look at the audience] It is true, the immigrants came for your jobs! HA! [wink]

I fear that if I am too frontal, come across as burdensome and a “troublemaker”, I will not only close doors for myself but for anyone that looks and sounds like me, because there are so few of us in this field. I want to be someone who has a positive effect in the world and who is considered fair, and capable.

Who is in front of me? What do they want? What do they need? What do they fear? Who do they want to be?

Who am I? What do I want? What do I need? What do I fear? Who do I want to be? 

Answers to these questions of course vary according to time and context. A while back, I was in a circus event in the Nordics. There, among a strong majority of northerners who knew each other and spoke in seamless English, were two very important people from the French-speaking sector. They looked uncomfortable, and slightly terrified. You see, French-speakers aren’t known for being fluent English speakers (hashtag NotAllFrenchSpeakers), and in this scenario, these major players were clearly the outsiders rather than the kingmakers. When they heard me speak French, they came to me, chatted me out, inquired about me and my projects, and asked me for help in understanding the conferences and instructions. One even offered me a gig. In a French festival, I would have had to put together a three act opera with at least four elephants to get 30 seconds of their attention, but here, feeling perhaps very out of place, they wanted to feel the comfort and familiarity of a language they mastered and could be articulate in, and the acknowledgment of their own relevance and value. Suddenly, these two powerful people were small and fragile.

Thinking about these questions doesn’t make you dishonest, but rather, aware of many of the unspoken complexities and nuances at play in human interactions. Context, again and again.

Emotional intelligence is something you can learn, develop and strengthen, and I encourage it. Ideally, because you are selflessly invested in others’ wellbeing. Worst case scenario, because you are a ruthless manipulator. Realistically, because you are likely a complex human who sits somewhere in the middle of those two extremes and who is trying to make things work for yourself, preferably without hurting anyone in the process.

Reading others, and calibrating oneself from room to room also takes a lot of energy. I am good at it, but ask my therapist at what cost. Becoming emotionally literate, adaptable, patient, understanding, flexible and strategic is not a given; Asking for people with the least resources, the least power, in the most precarious positions, doing already the majority of the invisibilized, unpaid emotional labor to further increase their load in collective responsibilities is violent, inappropriate and entitled… as any woman dealing with the majority of the invisibilized unpaid emotional labor in their professional, social and intimate relationships with the men in their lives knows.

So it is important to develop this capacity to not only read, understand and calibrate, but to do it constantly, generously, intentionally and intelligently, as you strive to make a habit of analyzing and being critical of your own beliefs, certitudes, biases, prejudices and assumptions.

To quote writer, political scientist and activist Fatima Ouassak in her book La Puissance des mères [The power of mothers. Original quotation in French]  : “It is even less necessary to lock ourselves into identities as everything pushes us into the traps of this reasoning which consists of seeking cultural causes to explain the difficulties and inequalities suffered by an individual or a social group. Culturalism results in a triple operation: representing cultures as being homogeneous and static, reading these cultures through a stigmatizing prism, and over-mobilizing the cultural factor thus constructed to explain social facts. We will say for example that in “African culture”, parents never show gestures of affection and love towards their children, and that this is why young people from the inner cities become violent, criminal and try to burn everything.” 

So how do we go from here? How do we make the right decisions and follow our moral compass when it might make things harder for ourselves? I imagine everyone in this room agrees with a vision of the world where there is equal opportunity and rights for everyone, where nobody suffers and everyone can follow their dreams; and yet, we are only in this room because of those very same inequalities, injustices and oppressions we denounce.

I will tell you another secret: we are not that good. It is just that the smarter, more talented people than us were browner, queerer, poorer, more disabled, less “western”, had the wrong paperwork and were less well-spoken than us.

We are international, we are “diverse”, we are all very cute and very nice… and yet this room, and our industry more largely, still embodies the demographic vision of Europe championed by the likes of Le Pen, Meloni, Van Grieken and Åkesson.

And how many of our parents are teachers, scientists, doctors or otherwise belong to professions that have both an openness towards the arts and the capital to nurture their children’s artistic inclinations?


We want equality and opportunity, but we are already fighting tooth and nail for a handful of opportunities. Our principles are in direct conflict with our personal interests, and that is what makes this a very juicy moral situation. We would have solved the world a long time ago if it was all easy peasy lemon squeezy, wouldn’t we?

But hey, aren’t we creative multitaskers by excellence?

I would like to end with a quote by writer, mediator and educator Kai Cheng Thom: “In moving towards collective liberation, it is absolutely essential that we develop the capacity to hold nuance without surrendering the basic principle of adhering to integrity. Nuance is acknowledging that there are complex historic and cultural factors that make Zionism compelling to many Jewish people, and that anti-Semitism is alive and real today. Integrity is remaining firm that these reasons do not justify the genocide we are witnessing in Palestine today. Integrity is remaining firm that Palestine must be freed”.

 Thank you.




*


Postscript: I was told that this speech touched, made uncomfortable and moved many people, and I am glad. Whether you heard it at the original conference or read it here, if these words made an impression on you, I hope they also give you the élan to act in the concrete and much needed ways both our field and our world need for it to radically change. I wish you courage as much as I do for myself in order to make the right choices, however inconvenient, uncomfortable or difficult, in building the world we want. I would like to thank Xenia Bannuscher, Aurélie Disasi, Ris Schortinghuis, Misha Verdonck, Gaia Vimercati and Léah Wolff for their help in reading and giving feedback (some on the speech's original draft and some on its posterior adaptation into this essay), as well as their words of encouragement, their support and their friendship.



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