Be what?  Be human? | Belfast and Beyond | 30 Nov 2008 | Amnesty International UK

Be what?  Be human?

 The new 'Bs' of Belfast got me reflecting on what it is to 'be'.

I'm afraid that this alliterative campaign first brought to my mind an anecdote I learnt as a child growing up on the edge of the damp dump (sorry, picturesque Victorian seaside resort!), Bognor Regis. The story went that royal aides were trying to cheer up the sick King George V, and in their attempts to console him suggested he would soon be well enough to visit Bognor again. His reply: 'Buggar Bognor!'

For some reason, the gutsy punchline of this old joke helped me to laugh, at first, at the somewhat forced politeness of the new Belfast slogans: 'Be welcome', 'Be inspired', 'Be vibrant', 'Be determined'. (I'm no King, but am I not sometimes allowed to curse 'Buggar Belfast?'!  To 'Be ragin'?!)

I noticed I wasn't quite entering into the spirit of this again when I noticed the disconcerting clash between the lights hanging across Royal Avenue: 'Be Festive' and the tragic bunches of flowers where Ciara Parks was struck down by a bus in the Avenue earlier this month. I did not feel festive; I felt sad, angry too, particularly because, if there's any time of life dedicated to being and becoming, it's the teenage years that were so sadly cut short for this Belfast girl.

My instinctive reactions helped me to trace why I resent the 'Be Festive' and other 'Be…' signs. It's not just resistance to the commercial injunction to 'Buy, Buy, Buy' that underpins many of these messages, although that's part of it. It is  because these injunctions try to take away my freedom to be just want I am in any given moment.   Being something, anything, is a personal choice for me to make – it's not something to be dictated to me as I make my way about the city. Not even in the impersonal form of council banners and fairy lights because it's hard not to take such injunctions personally.

So what's this got to do with human rights, you may well ask? Amnesty's slogan is 'Protect the human'. I think it comes down to 'being human' with the freedom that that entails, rather than being told to be X, Y or Z.

During Belfast's Outburst festival, I was lucky to go with a friend to a performed reading of the play 'Ecce Homo' at Queen's University.

This was a great play written by Belfast Community Theatre, a radical theatre collective twenty years ago, directed and performed by founder members and members of the original cast. The focus of the play was the 'coming out' of a young, gay man in West Belfast at that time, at the height of the Troubles. The man's father, despite beliefs in freedom that had landed him in 'the Kesh', deferred to the social views of the men around him that being queer was unacceptable, and his mother, despite wanting the best for her son, deferred to the judgemental and homophobic attitudes of the family's priest. His workmates wouldn't let him be, either.

Ultimately, this brilliant play was not so much about being gay as it was about being human: it portrayed very powerfully the struggle for this true freedom, the quest for the authentic self-determination of being yourself, rather than giving your personal power away by doing what you're told or taking away the power of others by telling them what to do.

Belfast: be what?  Be human, be ourselves…

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