… AND THE PERILS OF TRYING TO HELP THEM (PART 2)
This is the second part of a two-part blog post. Scroll down for Part 1
‘Any more questions?’ asked the warm and welcoming matriarch who had led the tour of Tamera. Tired feet shuffled and eyes wandered towards the swimming lake. ‘Yes’, a scratchy Portuguese accent piped up, and without another word the middle-aged woman who owned the voice meandered her way to the front of the pack and homed in with indiscriminate accuracy on the breast of our tour guide. Finger extended, eyes fixed on her prey, she pointed at a small metal badge that was pinned to the guide’s t-shirt – a conspicuous silver logo. ‘What is THAT?’
The woman’s question was a valid one. The answer can be found in the photo above. It is the symbol of Terra Nova, a faction of Tamera who are committed to promoting the views of the community all around the globe. I will not go into the details of this project, I will focus only on the symbol.
But first, I want to reiterate the feelings I expressed in the first part of this blog post: Tamera has a deep desire to re-imagine human society in the name of creating and sustaining peace. It investigates this question with honesty, ambition and such a positive energy that any criticisms I make below are all about the ‘how’ and not about the ‘what’.
So back to the symbol. Symbols have been used for millennia to unite people under a common goal. From the crucifix to the swastika, they have led people to work together for better or for worse. The simple fact that Tamera had created a symbol worried me. Why did some members of the community wear it and some did not? Could I wear one if I liked? It was this question of the symbol that fuelled my interrogation of Tamera’s outreach policy, and my ensuing disappointment.
Tamera believes in total system change. They believe that the ‘old world’ is corrupt and impossible to fix, and only by creating a ‘new world’ can humanity live in harmony. Despite this noble aim, the community still uses the structures of the ‘old world’ to promote themselves and communicate their message. They have built a lecture hall which they call a sacred space: it looks like a modern Christian church in Africa (see below). They hold lectures in which one individual talks about their experience and others listen. Eight hundred ears, one voice. The seminars are led by group leaders who are so committed to their belief that they leave no room for other members of the circle to feed in their experience – if you want to speak, you wait till they sanction you. Students of the Summer University are asked to express their feelings on the morning lecture, but are forbidden from questioning how the lecture was delivered or how the seminar is run. Naturally, some of the Tamera group leaders broke the rules a.k.a. fostered more honest debate, but it was clear they moved against the party line.
The great contradiction here is that Tamera puts so much emphasis on transparency, honesty and self-awareness, and yet isn’t willing to accept criticism from the outside. The Summer University was full of excited, intelligent, motivated people who are interested in ‘saving the world’ and who all have experience in different fields – be that psychology, music, business or engineering. Instead of embracing this knowledge and experience, the ‘professors’ preferred to ‘teach’ rather than discuss. This structure made sense for the first five or six days when us newcomers were so stunned that all we could do was listen, but the final four days were the perfect time to draw out the ambition of the ‘students’ – a task which wasn’t accomplished.
An example of Tamera’s failure to understand and engage the wider world came in their (the community’s) experiment for the funding the Summer University. Instead of asking for a fee for the course, they asked each potential student to raise €1000 for Tamera. They explained that this was an experiment in the ‘humanising of money’, in ‘redirecting the flow of money out of the war economy into the peace economy’. These are radical and noble aims. The problem is that people will not raise money for an organisation that they know nothing about. Asking for money is awkward, sensitive and emotionally draining. It can only be done when the asker is so moved by their chosen project that they have the confidence and energy to ask for money in a suitable way. Tamera failed to understand this, and were then disappointed when over 50% of the students didn’t offer a donation. Once again their philosophy didn’t match. It would have been more honest to ask the students to ‘pay what they can’, rather than setting the bar astronomically high. It is much easier to raise €1000 if you are an extrovert, if you have rich friends, if you have rich parents, if you have access to good social media, if you live in a rich city or rich country. Tamera’s attempt at the egalitarian was actually deeply elitist.
For me, Tamera’s biggest failure was their lack of diversity in communication channels. By juxtaposing choral sing-a-longs with philosophical lectures on morphogenetic fields (when I know, I’ll tell you), they succeeded in engaging their audience’s heart and mind. What was missing was art forms which bridge that gap. Music hits the heart, logic hits the mind. Art, theatre and comedy touch a space in-between where our emotions engage us in a story and our mind works out ‘what it’s about’. Art ‘shows’ and doesn’t ‘tell’. It is essential in the communication between people and communities who want to understand how they are like what they are, and why they are like what they are. It would be very difficult for the organisers of the Summer University to curate such artistic content in preparation for such a 10-day program, so the trick would be to let the students make the art. And they almost did.
The Summer University was split into different seminar groups e.g. Autonomy for people who wanted to learn about self-sufficiency in food and water, Media and Activism for those who wanted to learn how Tamera engaged with international politics. Students had come with the idea that they would learn about Tamera, then investigate how they could use their skills to interact with the community’s aims. As the week went on, more and more stories sprouted. Stories of how the groups were more despotic than democratic. Those in the God, Art and Community group were amazed when I told them I’d walked into their camp one night and painted a picture. I said I didn’t see the problem: the paints were all left out, there was blank paper and the Tamera philosophy is all about fulfilling your desires. They agreed, but said they’d spent the previous five days waiting for their group to make art. They’d not been introduced to the materials, and didn’t feel the atmosphere was right to just go up and use them. One could say that these members of the Art group were being timid, but – despite my own brashness – you don’t usually use things in someone’s home until you’ve been invited to. Eventually, it was the dissent of some members of the Theatre group which gave voice to the frustration of the students.
On the last night of the Summer University a group of students presented a theatre piece (see below). Nervously introduced as work by an ‘autonomous’ theatre group – not in any way sanctioned by the Theatre group of the Summer University – the piece was a light-hearted satire on the structures of the ten-day course. The german obsession with timeliness (Tamera was set up by Germans), the fact that no-one was told where they could and couldn’t go, and what they could and couldn’t do, the awkwardness of the group meetings when students were pressed to say what they felt about a Tamerian philosophy they simply didn’t understand – all were mocked with grace. The students were in tears. Finally the silence had been broken and everyone had a chance to laugh at themselves – we were all part of the course and the play wasn’t so much an attack on Tamera’s beliefs as it was on how we had spent the last ten days. The residents were divided: some saw the need for reflective criticism in art, others felt offended and abused.
The point is, you don’t make satire about something you don’t care about. Everyone on the course had invested their time and money into Tamera and had learnt something. They all wanted human beings to live in peace as much as the residents did. They made a piece of theatre to express themselves, to give voice to the pent up feelings of confusion and resentment that spawned from a ‘university’ atmosphere that felt more like a boot camp.
I want to be clear. The ten days I spent at Tamera was one of the most joyous experiences of my life. The energy, spirit, determination, imagination and love that drives the community is infectious, and the opportunity to debate my questions about how to deal with a world of suffering was invaluable. I was excited and motivated and full of desire to act with honesty in my personal relationships and life choices. I have criticised Tamera in this blog because I believe that the work they do is of huge value to imagining other ways human beings can live together, to realising utopia. I offer my opinion because for me it is essential that such communities are open to criticism, avoid inflating their own ego, and are intelligent in searching for ways to engage the wider public in their work.