THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT: IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS

Neil Scotton reflects on the Magna Carta principle that all of us are equal. Using gratitude habits will help us appreciate and shape how we act in the future

Runnymede is famous for Magna Carta, the first enshrining in law of the principle that everyone, including the monarch, is subject to the rule of law.

This simple principle, obvious now, was radical in its time. The best known clause is the one that goes:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Together with my friend David, we had come to see the art installation, ‘The Jurors’, by Hew Locke – 12 metal chairs, alone in an expanse of field beside the river, marking 800 years since that statement.

Each has unique sculptured panels on the front and rear of the seat back. They include representations of Lillie Lenton and the activism of suffragettes. There’s one for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There’s Cornelia Sorabji – the first woman to practise law in India who advocated on behalf of women prevented from speaking with men outside the family. There’s the 1920 blind trade unionists’ marches whose actions led to disability rights as a fundamental principle of British society.

There’s panels depicting governments destroying or redacting evidence to hide their acts, the Exxon Valdez, which spilled at least 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pure Alaskan sea, and panels relating to slavery, serfdom, resistance against empire and more.

As we looked at them, the chairs seem to invite questions. Why did we (do we?) even need to be arguing over the rights of a child, or whether someone is human and subject to the protection of law depending on their skin colour? Why were (are) we even thinking that people should be treated in a lesser way or even imprisoned because of their gender, sexuality, parentage, religion or culture?

And perhaps more deeply, and personally, do I have the courage to challenge injustices, large or small? When have I held back, or gone with the flow, to side-step upset or conflict, to protect income or to avoid criticism and ridicule?

My fear of loss. I know I’m not alone. Being blessed with a life, and country (and ethnicity, gender and upbringing) where encounters with such things are not on a daily basis – what more might I do, professionally and personally, to support those who experience injustices?

As we looked, the traffic flowed on the nearby road, oblivious to the installation and its messages. We go about our work and lives thanks to freedoms and protections won by these people, movements and actions. Preoccupied by the cares of our day, we enjoy blissful ignorance. Unless of course we are on the receiving end of inequity.

And this struck home. It can feel like these events are far away in time and/or geography. But really? With the equal pay scandal at the BBC and others, the Presidents Club scandal in London, all sorts of abuse scandals appearing from coaching in sport, and what’s emerging in realisations around unconscious bias (BBC Radio 4 recently airing a programme on women’s unconscious bias against women), when is it time for us to wake up to in how we are being with each other?

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