When I was 16 a Native Brazilian was burned to death in Brasilia, my hometown and capital of Brazil.
The victim, Galdino Jesus dos Santos, was in town for the celebrations of the 19th of April, the Day of the Native. Having arrived at the hostel after doors were closed, he was sleeping in a bus shelter in one of the busiest avenues in the city.
The perpetrators were 5 teenagers, upper middle class, well-educated. On being asked why they killed the Native, one of them replied: “We didn´t know he was Native, we thought he was just a beggar.” As if that made it ok.
I remember thinking at the time “what a horrible idea!” But my feeling wasn´t really indignation – I was too stoic at the time to get indignant about anything. It was more like intellectual disdain for the murderers (“what a stupid idea”), mixed with a resigned “such things happen”, and with a prayer for the soul of the victim, and for the murderers to get a bit more sense into their heads.
And that was all. No point worrying about what´s passed. Disdain, resignation, tranquility, that was what I felt. A Stoic thing really.
“Such things happen.” Oh, God, where, when, how do things like this just “happen”? My lack of sensitivity at the time now shocks me almost as much as that of the assassins. When you grow up seeing your hometown in the evening news only for political corruption and upper-middle-class teenage crime, you may become a bit anesthesised.
These were people my age, same town, same social class. The “Indian Busstop” was on my way to school. It got decorated, full of posthumous honours. I used to go by there twice a day. And twice a day shake my head in disapproval, Harvey Siegel style, as if the problem had only been an intellectual mistake, something wrong with their education.
Of course there was something wrong with their education. But, my goodness, the guys were rich, went to the best schools, they had everything they wanted. Which goes to show: 1) that quality of education is not determined solely by which school one attends and 2) that even at school education shouldn’t be solely “intellectual”.
The goal of education inside and outside the classroom should be to make humans more fully human. It’s not a matter of simply learning how to think. We should learn how to think with our hearts and feel with our minds.
But the tendency in academia generally, starting with schools, is to detach thinking from acting, theory from practice, causes from consequences, the subjective side of the object, and the objective side of the subject. Problems are formulated and solved “considering ideal the conditions” and “ignoring any friction”.
My stoic reaction is a consequence of this, as is the murderous attitude of the young men. One ends up thinking of people as if they were objects in the equation. One forgets that they are also subjects: subject agents and agent subjects, who create and are created by the “objective reality” of everyday.
Last week I started reading “Pedagogy of Indignation”, a collection of Paulo Freire’s last writings. The last thing he wrote about was the story of this Native Brazilian, and of our youngsters:
“What a strange thing, to kill Natives, to kill people, just for fun. I’m here thinking, sunk in an abyss of profound perplexity, amazed at the unbearable perversity of these young people, de-humanising themselves, in a place where they grew down instead of growing up.” (Pedagogy of Indignation, p. 66)
Paulo Freire died some ten days after the Native was killed. I’m not sure he understood that Galdino was killed but not because he was a Native: the boys had thought he was “just a beggar”. It was a cruel act of violence, of elitism, but it wasn’t racism.
At same time, of course Galdino was killed for being a Native: for being in an unknown urban jungle, for not having a chauffeur, for being put up at a hostel with no stars, that had no 24-hour receptionist waiting for the dear guest, or a thoughtful chaperone worried about the welfare of visitor from far away. And this is the 5-star treatment that he got as the envoy sent to the capital to receive the honours of the Day of the Native.
It wasn’t only the boys then that committed violence against Galdino. It was Brazilian society as a whole. Of course it was racism, as well as elitism, on the part of an entire society. This does not all of a sudden makes the five young men less guilty: it only makes the rest of us more, all of us innocent people who do not see that we play a part in this injustice.
A friend of mine is always saying that the opposite of love isn’t hatred, but indifference. And as Brazilian musician Renato Russo would say, “where does this indifference, tempered with iron and fire, come from?” Galdino’s story seems come from Renato Russo’s songs, a mixture of Metrópole with Faroeste Caboclo, Índios and Baader-Meinhof Blues. “Violence is so fascinating, and our lives are so ordinary…”
One of the most important trends in Paulo Freire’s legacy is a commitment to shaking off the indifference that seizes the “ordinary citizen”. An attempt to make people less passive, less patient, so that they can also be impatient agents. And this starts at school, and much before school starts.
But, as Renato Russo would say in “Índios”, how I wish I could, at least once, explain what nobody can understand…