top of page
  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

Co-witnessing and presencing as preconditions to meaningful solidarity (an early draft)

If you see with your mind wide open, that seeing holds the seeds for sensing.

If you sense with your mind and heart wide open, that sensing

holds the seeds for acting - Antoinette Klatzky

Witnessing is a key concept to activism and social change. The role of being present and purposefully and intentionally sharing what you witness is very important. We have all witnessed injustice, whether it is social, cultural, moral, economic, or environmental; this list can go on, including witnessing the catastrophic injustice inflicted on our life-giving planet.

You cannot not see. Injustice, with its multiple manifestations, is all around us. When I go to the supermarket in my affluent neighborhood, I cannot not notice which ethnic groups are represented in the shop’s employees and who the shoppers are. It’s also in daily conversations, like one I had some time ago with an older white male who suggested we might need to have first and second-class seats in buses, like in trains in England in the old days, because the Pacific people, who are mostly doing construction work (his words) and come into the city and use public transport with dirty clothes (his words) make it difficult for the middle classes, the people who go to work in their suits, to use it. And that was his excuse for why white men prefer using their cars and not public transport. And that’s just some examples of many.

It was the second time that I was invited to speak to the participants of the “Race, Culture, and Identity” workshop series run by the “Well,” and I remembered the first time Makanaka Tuwe, the founder of the program, asked me to share my thoughts on solidarity. As I looked into it, my attention was caught by the fact that solidarity was often paired with witnessing, and witnessing was perceived as a form or part of solidarity, a precondition to solidarity or complementing solidarity, or, in some cases, a more exalted form of solidarity.

This prompted me to reflect on the nature of witnessing, shared here along with some concepts and definitions, as well as some diagrams from MIT’s uLab and the Presensing Institute that aptly illustrate where I stand as a mentor for social change in regards to witnessing for social justice.

I will start with some of the key elements of witnessing by quoting from Witness the classic definition of witnessing which emphasizes the following:

  • The direct act of seeing (and thus not witnessing through someone else) and subsequently sharing purposefully, not accidentally, with intentionality.

  • There is also a connection between witnessing and embodied presence when violation or injustice occurs. When you are witnessing, you're using your senses. It's an embodied experience. How does your body absorb that very act of injustice taking place in front of you? It's a deeply embodied experience. And what do you do with that assault on your senses? Do you act? Do you freeze? Or do you flee? It's something that we experience not only in our minds but in our hearts and physically in our bodies.

  • Another important element in witnessing is the possibility of risk and trauma. And because of these, witnessing often becomes an inactive experience. What do I mean by that? Imagine you're on the street, and the police are choking a fellow human being to death. You cannot unsee what you have witnessed. It's an embodied experience. Either you fear for your own life, or you feel you have to do something, which comes with a risk, because that policeman, if you're in the US in particular, carries a gun, and he's not going to hesitate in using it. Either way, you experience trauma that you carry with you, knowingly or not.

I started thinking about witnessing as solidarity. And in the end, after all the digging, I arrived at a point of considering solidarity as a form of co-witnessing. Let me elaborate a bit more about this co-witnessing concept. It came from listening to a presentation by Pat McCabe, a Canadian First Nation activist. McCabe was talking about co-witnessing in reference to the Canadian First Nation residential schools where genocide was perpetrated against First Nation people with thousands of unmarked graves of children recently found. She was asking, “How is it possible that people are so surprised and shocked now about this as if they didn't know what was happening”? It came up in the news a couple of years ago, and the whole Canadian nation was in deep shock. Pat was asking how they could be so shocked now. People around at the time must have noticed the earth being dug out, indicating fresh grades, even if they were not marked. The parents of these children could have told you, she said, what was happening to them, having their children taken away against their will. Some of these parents were putting their tepees outside the schools across the street to be a little closer to their children. There must have been people passing by who didn't see any of that. The police, to start with, were there because they were the enforcers of that law that made possible that genocide. Others also knew what was happening, but they were all witnessing the genocide as a stand-alone witness. As bystanders, they were not co-witnessing this with the First Nation people. Thus, there was no possibility of solidarity building up, no possibility of feeling the trauma of the injustice through the eyes of the people who experienced the genocide because they didn't share that witnessing openly and bravely.

I address further below the impact that this kind of witnessing also has on the person who does the witnessing and doesn't act. It's a trauma that we store in us and manifests collectively, because, aren’t we all cells of a bigger whole?

I started then seeing co-witnessing as a key contributor to solidarity or rather a precondition. Solidarity does not just happen. It requires a few things to be in place in order to happen and to lead to action. Witnessing without action is spectatorship and not different from being a bystander. It's not enough to see injustice. There are some key requirements for co-witnessing to take place. The first is understanding what is happening, and why is it happening. This requires an open mind. Co-witnessing and meaningful solidarity require an open mind that opens up your curiosity and enables you to find out the facts about what is happening and why is it happening. The second element is compassion. I'm not talking about empathy here, a lot of people confuse the two. Compassion means open heart, you start feeling and then you go into solidarity, which leads then to action and action means open will, the willingness to do something.

So, true solidarity can take place when we have an understanding of what is happening and have developed compassion, only then solidarity can lead to action. Here, compassion is the capacity to see, observe and feel, employing all our senses. We are not simply seeing, we are observing. Observation is not simple. Observation brings that element of analysis of “what's going on here”, so you can feel it, and then step back so you can then take reasoned action. Add anger for social justice, as the fuel to solidarity and as the follow up to true-co-witnessing and follow it up with the necessary act of stepping back before taking reasoned action, not to let anger to blind us….

We need to pay closer attention to this process of stepping back before taking reasoned action. This is not just, “Something terrible is happening and I'm just going to dive in and save the world”. The world, unfortunately, will not be saved in such a manner. We have had plenty of revolutions, but it takes a lot more to change meaningfully long-term systems of injustice. In taking reasoned action in the interest of another, solidarity becomes the ability to walk alongside someone else, to act with them, and yet recognize your ability to both know and not know their struggle. Nobody needs saviors!

This is where Otto Scharmer’s uLab presensing theory becomes very useful. He argues that we have multiple ways of listening, which are essential to witnessing and solidarity for social justice. You can either do it from habitual listening, listening just to the sound of the other person speaking we are all so accustomed to while using your own opinions to filter and interpret what the other person says. The other type of listening is factual listening and this is what he calls an open mind listening. When you listen with an open mind, you start paying attention to the differences. You become more open to discomfiting your old ways and opinions. Often, when we engage in conversations, this is the first thing we are imploring the other to do, “please be open-minded”.

Scharmer says that's a good start but there is more that we can do, that’s where another, deeper level of listening comes in. If an open mind involves listening to facts coming from an outside source with an open mind and noticing the differences, the third level of listening is from within. That's where we make an empathic compassionate and emotional connection. That's where we come in with an open heart. Not only I am open to listening to what you say, which is different from what I think, but also, I'm open to feeling you because I see you're upset, I see that something is happening to you, and I am bringing my heart into it to feel you. And so, you go into this other level of listening, which is not from you or from me, but from the common source. The way I understand this is that there is no division, there is no separation between you and me, we are all part of one entity. So, when we are actually listening, we're not listening to ourselves or the other person, we are listening to all that is happening, to what is affecting us all. When we understand that, when we engage in that kind of listening, then we are better prepared to take action because we know that what is affecting the other is also affecting the collective and there is a lot more at stake.

Scharmer speaks of the architectures of disruption and distraction. But he also speaks of the architectures of connection. These architectures have their own social grammars. The diagram above shows that you can either operate out of ignorance caused by fear, because you are completely frozen, both in your mind and in your heart and in your capacity to take action, which leads to absolute denial.

Scharmer is inviting us to start applying a different grammar, a social grammar that will lead us to create societies that are more just. The only way we can do that is through presencing, which is the opposite of absencing. Presencing is the composition of two words, being present and also sensing. It's not enough, in other words, to just be there, you need to also be connected to the feeling field. He created this beautiful world of presencing, which involves an open mind and an open heart and an open will, which enables us to reach out and invite both us the other to be curious, to express compassion and courage. Because so often, we operate out of fear and fear is incapacitating. But essentially, you are only fearful because you have closed your mind and your heart.

What happens then when solidarity is absent? I'll quote here, Stanley Cohen, who is the author of Moral Panic, a classic in this literature. He wrote about how people deny human rights, suffering, and other people's experiences of injustice, which can manifest in different ways. One way is when we engage in literal denial. The Russians might be telling you right now, “But there is no war, it’s just a military operation,” because this is what their media is telling them but also because they choose to believe they do not live in an evil society that kills its brotherly neighbors. Or perhaps the more benign, “Oh, but there is no homelessness in my town”, which sounds true if you live in the affluent neighborhoods of your town. This literal denial is the total lack of understanding of what is happening elsewhere. I don't see it, therefore it doesn't exist.

There is also this other type of denial which Cohen calls interpretive. Those people who made a purposeful choice to come to live in Auckland, without the financial capacity to buy their own overpriced houses, well, you know, bad luck, they know that housing is expensive in this city. So why don’t you go somewhere else? They should stop eating avocado for brunch in the city cafes, so they save for a mortgage, to quote the famous advice by those richer people outraged at seeing students eating avocado (classic capitalism value). You are interpreting and often in this type of denial, we witness a lack of compassion. And I remember in my own home country, Greece, the number one joke when I was growing up was about this group of people, Pontius, who were refugees from the Black Sea. Displaced people who were forcibly moved to the motherland after hundreds of years, speaking their own dialect and with their own distinctive customs. And we made jokes about them, we scapegoated them. Imagine, they had the trauma of being uprooted, going into what they consider to be their motherland, only to be turned into a national joke.

Another manifestation of denial is what he calls implicatory denial. “Well, it's got nothing to do with me!” This can be done in a very light way but also can be done in a pretty serious way because it's tough to carry the responsibility. Fear comes into it; who wants to take full responsibility for their ancestors’ colonial behavior? As a British colleague said to me, “I don't feel guilty that my British ancestors colonized the world. Why should I? My parents didn't do it, I didn’t do it!” He had not yet processed the white privilege coming into it.

Those denial responses (i.e. holocaust and genocide deniers) can be seen in terms of cognition, as they do not acknowledge the facts. And this is where all these conspiracy theories and misinformation are breeding wildly. A process that creates a whole new set of facts to serve our positions. And we see this happening right now. Is it because we are so gullible? No, we are actively, consciously, or subconsciously, seeking to justify who we are. Why while we are witnessing injustice, we are not doing anything about it? This happens in terms of cognition, in terms of emotion, not feeling, not being disturbed. But essentially what comes as the price is that you go numb. That's what Otto Sharma calls absencing, when you freeze you absence your humanity from the collective.

Absencing can also be seen in terms of morality, not recognizing wrongness or responsibility, as well as in inaction, not taking active steps in response to what you know is happening. Because once you know, you cannot undo the knowing. Can you say, "Oh, I just heard that there was a massacre, but if I ignore it, it will go away?". You can't, it's still there. And if you choose to do nothing, then what happens to you? How do you internalize this? How do you process it internally? This is where we start talking about the trauma of witnessing injustice. So here, we make a distinction between witnessing as being present in other people's lives and in their experience of injustice versus co-witnessing, as co-presencing, being there with the other.

Co-witnessing then is standing with, being present, but also sensing the pain of injustice the other experiences and allowing this to become a deeply embodied experience. We need to think about shifting our hearts/mindsets from being present in other people's lives to co-presence, from “being there” to “being there together”, and what it means in terms of action with impact. That is going to make a difference between witnessing and spectatorship. The latter is linked to these mediated witnessing that we are experiencing today because of social media. The Christchurch Mosque terrorism attack is a good example. The terrorist very cleverly tried to co-opt us by fitting a camera on his headset while he was shooting people enabling him to broadcast live on social media. A well-calculated act because, in doing so, he turned us into his collaborator, because you're seeing it. And if you're seeing it, and you're not doing anything, then you're agreeing. But what happens is that when you're witnessing on social media, and that's what we do now, we constantly witness these things on social media. How? How do we refrain from being simply spectators?

The challenge for us is how to distinguish self-expressing spectating from witnessing and solidarity. You would have seen by now all the media appeals to the Ukraine war. Often what happens with all these disasters, wars and everything that is happening around the world, what they are trying to do is not to solicit your action on behalf of the other. In fact, what they must do, and we are so used to it that we don't really know that we are doing it, is that they are tapping into our emotionality as donors because they want you, or money to help rather than the vulnerability of the distant other is the key motivation for solidarity. And I pay attention to these, there's a big difference between eliciting new solidarity because someone else is vulnerable somewhere else, and eliciting new solidarity because you feel really sensitive and emotional.

Witnessing is a concept key to activism, as I mentioned above, the difference is that in witnessing you choose, you can choose to see and not act and you see from your standpoint, while in co-witnessing, you choose to co-presence with someone else. Witnessing doesn't necessitate action, we often witness but also we are choosing to remain bystanders. At a social level, it's not only the direct victim of social injustice that is affected, but also those witnessing by not acting in solidarity with compassion. In other words, once you witness, you cannot turn a blind eye because you know that someone else is seeing the crime being perpetrated along with you. And you cannot deny what you have seen. In co-witnessing you build up solidarity with the people that have experienced the injustice because you are giving a testimony to what is happening to them alongside them.

There are, I believe, two dimensions to co-witnessing: an outer/external and an inner/internal. In the external manifestation, we are witnessing the injustice that is taking place on someone else. In the internal manifestation, the act of witnessing has an impact on your homeostasis, on your physiology. Once you dare to do that, it's good for you because it's active. And in being active, the energy of co-witnessing is shifting the energy of suppression, of repression, not just for the other, who is all the obvious victim of injustice, but also for you, because you can't call yourself safe in a society that experiences social injustice. We are all victims otherwise, recipients of and influenced by any injustice happening in society. An unjust society is unjust for all.

Joanna Macy’s deep ecology approach, The Work That Reconnects, speaks to the concept of presencing and co-witnessing as it is an invitation to reconnect and deeply feel the life around us. A few months ago, I attended a seminar about racism from where the following anti-racism work diagram is borrowed. Solidarity is seen as the basic element in the ladder of taking active steps towards justice, social justice.

The next step is Allyship, and a lot of people stop here. It recognizes the privilege and motivates us to speak up on behalf of others. But that's not enough. You need to go a step further, which is becoming a co-conspirator, which means that I'm going to challenge with you the people of the global majority, the systems and structures that create inequalities. But you can do a lot more than that, you can go a step further, into the core liberation zone, which says that it's not possible for me to be fully human, as long as Blacks, Maori, Asian, Pacific, gay and everyone that is in the peripheries of our societies is dehumanized.

So, we started with solidarity, but now the invitation is to step it up to co-liberation.

We keep saying that capitalism has created these little boxes and put us in, and we have this little window through social media and that's what we see. But we have a choice. We choose to take certain facts because they confirm our fears or insecurities or our frozen inaction and absences. But we have a choice, we always have a choice.

(Note: this is an early attempt on reflecting on co-witnessing and solidarity based on the transcript of the recorded seminar presentation, this piece will be edited further as my thoughts develop)


Recent Posts
bottom of page