Conferences exists to bring together a large group of people who think and live on the same page, or who would at least like to try and do so. The conference is like a warm, safe blanket around which they can hopefully surround their thoughts, their identities, or at minimum at least something where they can trust the space as safe and will not threaten or antagonize them in certain expected, but unwanted ways.
You could all have the same job, be of the same ethnicity or race, or have shared research, political or professional interests, but every conference tends to be a great big bubble. And in that bubble you can hang out, speak jargon, share the feeling of being in your own imagined community and feel safe and secure in the fact that this bubble exists to limit certain potential challenges or critiques. If you are at an Ethnic Studies conference, then it is unlikely that in the middle of your presentation, someone will stand up and defiantly call Ethnic Studies a useless pointless discipline and a disgusting example of the perniciousness of reverse racism!! That type of rhetoric might be connected, but it exists to support a different imagined bubble community and is the type of discourse that space exists to challenge often times through analysis or simple exclusion.
Or, if you are at a conference dealing with the abolition of nuclear weapons, you would not expect to hear anyone defending the existing or use of nuclear weapons. The conditions by which you choose to enter that space or are invited to it, are such that someone who believe that nuclear weapons have a positive purpose would not be present.
But every space holds the potential for falling apart, every space, even those based on peace and love and unity, can easily be deflated or dissolved with the sharp sting of reality, or some errant discourse which everyone present does not agree with, want to hear, or rather not have to address. Although much of the discussion at this conference fit smoothly or evenly together, where people agreed with each other or at least tacitly agreed to ignore the things that didn’t quite fit nicely, there were some moments where cold, unwelcome water was splashed on people. As I’ve already written about last week, some of it centered around South Korea or Koreans and their desire to be recognized as hibakusha as well as victims of US imperialism and Japanese colonialism.
So much of the conference was built upon things such as dialogue, trust, partnership, taking the role of structuring global politics that nuclear weapons now holds. So from this framework, the usual bad guys for the US and its allies, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, were not the focus. Instead, the bad guys were those countries who rely on nuclear weapons for their power and authority, or who block attempts to abolish them.
People would qualify themselves in certain, precise ways to make sure that it was clear that they didn’t support the regimes or some countries, but rather they didn’t seem them as the greatest threats to peace or humankind. For example, North Korea, a tiny nation of 24 million communists, is often represented to be the greatest threat to peace in the world. Yet if you look at this in the most objective way possible, South Korea is a far greater threat regionally and internationally. South Korea is a much richer, stronger country and is constantly being emboldened by the military and diplomatic support it receives from the United States. Between the two Koreas, the Southern half is far more likely to do more than talk tough, it is the far more likely one of the two to provoke a conflict or start a war, because of that feeling of superiority and having the world’s greatest military backing you up. Or, how do the nuclear aspirations of Iran compare with the existing nuclear arsenal of the United States? If Iran successfully creates a single nuclear weapon, how does that stack up against the more than 10,000 the US already has?
Speaking of North Korea, a very awkward and difficult moment took place in Nagasaki, during a forum where representatives of different foreign governments spoke about their countries support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. A Korean man, from South Korea stood up during the question and answer, and asked that in this discussion of get ridding of nuclear weapons, a special exemption be made for South Korea, because of the dangers of North Korea.
Up until that point, hundreds of speakers over more than a week, in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima had deconstructed different ideas of nuclear deterrence and nuclear umbrellas and represented them as being false, misleading or ways in which certain power defend their hegemony over regions. But now, a person appeared who was asking that just in his case, or in the case of his country, you either allow nuclear frameworks to exist or find another way to effectively guarantee their security. For most people, the fear of North Korea, or other would-be nuclear weapons states, the case is abstract. It is something you should simply accept because you don’t know much or care, or in truth, this lack of connection makes it something you could just as easily reject. You can say, “No Nukes, Nuclear Free World” because that threat is not “yours.” It is not local, and so I can imagine around that, because for me it is not primal or mortal. Based on whether or not you have a North Korea, a US, a Iran or an Israel in your immediate vicinity, your relationship to the possibility, value or danger of nuclear weapons can change, and that fear can easily take over your thinking. The rest of the world can get rid of nukes, but in my case, we need them. We are dealing with an enemy who cannot be negotiated with, and so we need the wrath of God, the biggest gun possible, just in case we need to defend ourselves.
This fear is often nothing close to reality, even though its presence can often feel as if reality is flooding into the room ala Inception, starring Leonardo Dicaprio.
The effectiveness of any particular discursive or conversational space, such as a conference or the ideas/politics it represents, is always determined by how that space relates to or is engaged or disengaged with that potential flooding, overwhelming reality. For those seeking to preserve their space, keeping that reality out is absolutely necessary, it has to be excluded in order for you to keep your identities, protect them and keep them safe. For those who want the message or politics of their space to expand further, to become a link in a chain or move to engulf others, such an expansion intimately connected to how well one is able to engage with those ugly truths, those nasty things which people detest because they have the ability to make a once safe space, suddenly unsafe. That ability to engage in the anathemas to your cause or your community is what holds the power in terms of your message growing and shifting and becoming larger than those who attend the conference alone. It is the secret to your message being not just for the “true believers” alone, but something that others with “less consciousness” or faith can also see themselves as belonging to as well.