On writing a poem – or not

2017-Badali JoelBy Joel Badali

I wanted to write a poem at first.

It’s been five years since my last excursion living abroad and I think I came at this opportunity with less of the wide-eyed enthusiasm I had in my early twenties, and more with the cynicism of law student instilled with a rote way of learning and thinking.

The socio-political and legal circumstances of Serbia seem ripe for an outsider, particularly a law student, to scrutinize in a human rights essay. International law has condemned the Serbian government for war crimes following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia continues today. Issues at the intersection of race, gender, sexual identity, and disability still pervade legal discourse not only here but are evident in Western media outlets that tout the purported elevated level of social stability found in countries such as Canada through comparisons to Serbia’s recent racist incidents at soccer matches and week-long protests in Belgrade.

“You must hate us” joke some my new friends in Belgrade when they find out I’m from Canada. But amidst all of the vilification the Serbian government from international bodies, the subtlety of personal relations belie the popular narratives of Serbia’s socio-political and cultural situation. The discourse around these issues are, and feel much more complex when you meet the people they affect, instead of reading about the government officials that effected Serbia’s precarious economic situation.

What would writing a poem about this experience have contributed to my understanding of these issues? I thought a poem would capture the emotions and lack of logic behind seeing the reality for what it is and consequently yet inexplicably developing the empathy that I – uncharacteristically for a law student— now have gained. On top of that, a poem might capture the romance and rhythm of Belgrade city life from the pounding basslines of Serbian turbo-folk to Euro-headbanger classics like Abba remixed meticulously to match the hypertrophic emotion of the local weight room I frequent. Meanwhile, emotion captures the confusion of gender dynamics from men acting like they thought Eminem lyrics were meant to be taken literally (you’ll have to ask me about it) to men and women resisting the patriarchy despite the rampant objectification of women on bus ads and billboards (again, ask me about it). My summer placement is with Disability Rights International’s Serbian chapter Mental Disability Rights Initiative-Serbia (MDRI-S) however has to do with forms of the patriarchy which manifest at the crossroads of disability rights and gender-based violence.

Much of MDRI-S’ work is in the area of human rights advocacy for women who are institutionalized in psychiatric facilities across Serbia. In contrast to international standards, provided for in the Convention for Rights for People with Disabilities for example, and legal precedents provided for by European tribunals for human rights, the situation of institutionalized women in Serbia verges on major human rights abuses, if not outright systemic psychological and physical torture. Institutionalized people with disabilities, particularly women are subject to maltreatment and unsafe living conditions as a result of under-staffing and lack of understanding of psychiatric illness. Most women remain institutionalized for life, with few opportunities to be released, a prospect that increases quickly once institutionalized. Women not only experience psychological violence, but physical violence and in some cases forced sterilization and unconsented abortions, effectively negating the legal capacity of women with disabilities.

My understanding of these human rights abuses resonated with the theoretical and historical practical issues in psychiatry made familiar to me in my post-undergraduate work in psychology, studying issues that were (until now) almost considered academic psychology folklore.

Psychiatric asylums, existent for centuries in medieval times originally institutionalized people who were considered to have literal internal demons, and also used for women who were considered to be witches. Although the rationale for the continuation of psychiatric institutions continued to evolve through the centuries, the lack of ethical integrity behind their unjustified use remained. In Canada, their use came to an end in the 1970’s, known as the psychiatric-consumer movement yielding new forms of mental health care, modern facilities such as CAMH in Toronto, and successful community programs such psychiatric peers support groups.

With regard to gender-based violence and depicted in movies such as Girl Interrupted, the effects of institutionalization not only worsens many womens’ conditions, but also prevents any reintegration or inclusion into mainstream society. The psychiatric-consumer movement that ushered in an era of client-centred service, enabling people afflicted by mental disabilities to take care of themselves, is merely an aspiration in Serbia, leaving the current state of psychiatric care something reminiscent of Brittany Murphy’s acting career at its early peak.

Interestingly, the psychiatric consumer revolution has been dubbed using a term emergent from one of the darkest periods of human history through the phrase “nothing about us without us”, a term which gained popularity during World War 2 not only in regard to the Nazi party’s draconian disability laws, but also with regard to the decision-making regarding Europe’s initially permissive attitude towards Germany’s annexation of parts of neighbouring countries.[1]

I was astonished to learn then, that Serbia was still in the midst of institutionalization, replete with apparently common issues of legal capacity deprivation and maltreatment made notorious in the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Tucked away in Serbia’s bucolic pastures, issues related to the rights and well-being of people with disabilities might have remained on the government’s back-burner without the tantalizing prospect of accession to the European Union.

But it’s difficult to reconcile the notion that human rights issues are predicated on political reforms, and not the compassion that one would assume catalyzes most human rights movements. However, from my experience working with counselling services and speaking to mental health service providers, psychologists, and psychiatrists both in Serbia and back home, the issue of institutionalization is still divisive even in Canada. Moreover, I’ve learned to understand that where someone stands on these issues related to human rights is more nuanced than right or wrong.

Morality is influenced by culture, history, economy, and lived experience, and so peoples’  understanding of the dilemma of institutionalization is understandably not uniform. Human rights are not  static, although we like to think they are, necessitating that human rights movements engender discussion from all levels of governance, but especially the groups affected. It seems obvious that decisions about people with disabilities’ rights ought not be made without them. But at the same time, someone’s morality ought not be judged on the basis of their political upbringing. Compassion is dynamic and often involves struggling with our own beliefs in understanding others. This struggle was poignantly real in a two-day training with staff from psychiatric institutions who themselves struggled to relay the efforts they take to provide adequate care and their desire for social reform, yet the issues of funding and systemic issues such as deeply-embedded societal sexism. The notion that people  working in these institutions display such compassionate attitudes drives me to understand what morals underlie the government’s continued, yet costly, belief in institutionalization. Ultimately, finding out what values guide these high-up decisions is the work of civil society organizations on the front lines of advocacy and cross-sectoral dialogue.

Compassion shows itself in not only between humans, but in our interactions with our environment, a life lesson I stress is key to building a prosperous and caring society.  Over the course of my three month visit, I noticed—rather, felt — the familiar conflicting feelings I harbour about my life-long  love for animals. Known among my peers for my free-ganism, or being a vegetarian unless the opportunity to eat  meat “free”ly presents itself, I generally espouse the values of vegetarianism not because of animal rights specifically but because of the impact that moderate meat consumption represents in terms of reducing excessive consumerism, unnecessary local environmental degradation, and increasing detachment of Westerners from mass food production and its effects  on climate change.

Weary of the sense of Western delusion and entitlement that this purported vegetarianism by convenience carries with it, I am open to “meat-eating” experiences when immersed in new cultures.  Meanwhile, my conflicting relationship with animals manifested itself in a second, and perhaps more unsettling, way. I found myself again faced with the familiar task of  balancing the Western stereotype of pandering to stray dogs’ needs while virtually appearing ignorant to the plight of people who are homeless or impoverished in Belgrade. Having lived in rural Korea where eating certain  types of dogs was acceptable (although also illegal), being seen petting dogs on the street looks as asinine as stopping to pet pigs on a Canadian highway (which would never happen, right?[2]). Despite this, my fear of revealing myself to be the naive Western tourist in Belgrade was not so certain of a fate as in Korea (issues of race notwithstanding— here I can pass for Serbian). Indeed, I noticed many people in Belgrade perhaps experienced the same cognitive dissonance that I did— the internal conflict of owning a dog and treating it well in spite of others’ socio-economic circumstances.

Ownership of canine companions is quite common, but strays are equally visible around town or in the city’s many parks. Nonetheless, it was not uncommon for locals to be friendly with stray dogs and cats, and meanwhile denizens’ lay understanding of Serbia’s human rights issues, political situation, and inequality among certain demographics was equally evident. I experienced the reality that some Serbians are equally conflicted about their love for dogs firsthand. Midway through my internship, my best friend, and dog —who I had for twelve years and was deemed perfectly healthy at his yearly check-up only a week before I left to Belgrade— suddenly became seriously ill and had to be put down. I didn’t speak about the event at work but posted a link of Facebook about all the lessons I learned from having my silly dog as a best friend.[3]

A few days later, at the end of the work day, one of my supervisors approached me once everyone had left and, like a scene from All Dogs Go to Heaven, said, “Hey, I saw about your dog on Facebook. And I want you to know I understand how hard it is. People think maybe it’s crazy, and selfish, but when I lost my dog, I went through the same thing.” Yes, I was heart-broken, but stunned by the outpouring I received from friends back home, friends who have owned dogs, friends from many different provinces (and territories), friends from different socio-economic backgrounds, all telling me that I was sane. True, although maybe not in the long term.

But my love for a dog was not as selfish as I had feared, even seven thousand kilometers away from home. All this to say that I truly felt less ridiculous for my lifelong belief that the way we treat dogs is important for the very reason  that the way we treat each other is reflected in the way we treat animals.  It’s been said in other tropes, like that a society is only as strong as its weakest member, but my personal and ‘normative’ assumption comes from my lived experience. My understanding is that a positive relationship to animals fosters compassionate communities, a respect for life, and a sense of humility knowing that we are not above anyone else. Writing this, I have no idea what the relationship between my love for my dog has to do with human rights, much less law. But I think by removing myself from the legal context and returning to my values that brought me to law school is a reminder of the purpose and foundation of law. Law is often predicated, albeit debatably, on normative values, and judges often make law based on values and not pure interpretation of law, as suggested by Justice Kirby, an Australian judge who has sat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.[4]

Human rights legal frameworks thus fundamentally emerge from peoples’ common understandings of justice, empathy, and compassion. Sharing stories of hardship, whether it’s the “pet”ty loss of an animal friend or the abuses facing institutionalized women with disabilities, forms the foundation a society that cares about change, whether merely normative or purportedly ‘strictly legal’. The way we treat each other is reflected not only in the law, but more concretely through societal norms. These reflections sum up my feelings, perhaps inadequately and only insofar as a paper can convey, on my up-close and personal experience working at the cross-sections of international law, human rights and disability.

I may be less jaded now, but I still didn’t write a poem.


[1] Braun, K. (2015). Nothing about Us without Us: The Legal Disenfranchisement of Voters with Disabilities in Germany and Its Compliance with International Human Rights Standards on Disabilities. Am. U. Int’l L. Rev.30, 315.

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/judge-acquits-woman-in-pigs-water-case/article34893404/

[3] The official eulogy: https://www.facebook.com/joel.badali/posts/10102111970846499

[4] “Yet it would also be wrong, and futile, for a judge to pretend that the solutions to all of the complex problems of the law today, unresolved by incontestably clear and applicable texts, can be answered by the application of nothing more than purely verbal reasoning and strict logic to words written by judges in earlier times about the problems they then faced […] Honesty that this is so helps to transform the debate that follows into a consideration not only of the elements of past authority but also of relevant considerations of principle and policy. […] So long as human language remains imprecise and human capacity to predict the future limited, it will fall to judges to fill the gaps in the law’s rules.” (p. 30)

Kirby, M. D. (2004). Judicial activism: authority, principle and policy in the judicial method. Toronto: Thomson Sweet & Maxwell. Retrieved from https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/schoolofhumanitiesandsocialsciences/law/pdfs/Judicial_Activism.pdf

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