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LOEWEN: 'The need to let suffering speak is a condition for all truth'

Image Credit: Contributed/Jeffrey Loewen
December 03, 2014 - 7:31 AM

The impossibly slow, shuffling pace of the man with the walking stick, and the tattered cloth coat, way too large ordinarily, but accommodating enough for an indeterminate number of layers beneath, marked the individual across the street from me as decidedly different from all the other busy pedestrians. They were dressed in the season’s finest fashions, and scurrying to get out of the bitter January wind and into more comfortable surroundings.

I was younger then, and jettisoning a lucrative and mostly satisfying career for the unknown abyss that would engulf me in due course. And to catapult myself out of said career, I had taken a leave-of-absence to South Beach, Florida and was now returning to Winnipeg by way of Toronto, where a necessary stop-over found me on the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road.

It was bitterly cold, and the anomalous figure of the homeless guy across the street stood in stark contrast to the rest — after all, the tony boutiques of Yorkville were a couple blocks away, and the shopping bags bearing the names of the world’s most expensive brands were swirling in the wind like over-sized confetti.

The homeless guy stopped short at a sign positioned outside of The Church Of The Redeemer, an historic Anglican edifice that had managed to stick around lo these many years, amidst the condos and office towers now dwarfing it.

The words posted on that sign floored me then, and they continue to haunt me now, nearly twenty years later. The sign said:

“The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.”

In an instant, the sign became a bulwark against whose metallic frame the homeless guy was now loudly bashing with his stick. He was screaming for all to hear, “Can you hear me NOW? Can you HEAR me now?” The wind was howling, snow was slashing horizontally, it was bloody icy cold, and the other pedestrians scattered like leaves long gone.

The author of the sign’s adage was, of course, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, the great modern German philosopher and sociologist whose scathing critiques of society made him a darling for many of us on the Left (as it once was). But I don’t think I appreciated this particular key to the man’s thinking until that day in Toronto; and as the years have passed, I don’t think I have come across a critical gesture more profound:

“The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.”

Justice, whether it is sought within conflicted families, or in courts of law, or whether it is the goal of a society that thinks towards the greater good for all, cannot exist without the truth. And the truth, as so many post-modernists would have it, is uniquely perspectival; it depends who is deciding what the truth is from their subjective corners. Truth can be a slippery thing, sliding out of our grasp almost as quickly as we think we have arrived at it.

So, one might reasonably ask, how can we overcome the subjective narratives that compete against each other for primacy in the battle to establish truth and justice in a time that is so complicated, during an epoch when there is so much obvious inequality and injustice all around.

Adorno, I believe, points us all in the right direction by starting at the most basic of human needs: the need to be recognized, the need to be heard, the need moreover to be heeded.

Think of the most recent headlines and reflect on what you may have felt confronted by them.

Pleas from our First Nations brothers and sisters for a government inquiry into the many murdered and missing women on our various “highways of tears” have gone unheeded by our governing masters. Why?

We have witnessed, south of the border in Ferguson, Missouri, the looting and carnage following a state judiciary unwilling to take a police officer to court over the tragic death of a black teenager. Will we insist on condemning our black brothers and sisters as somehow genetically predisposed to civil disobedience and violence in the streets? Or will we finally recognize the truth: That these are symptoms of what happens when a huge swath of citizens are ignored and silenced by law enforcement and the courts, by business interests, by government itself?

The widening gulf in our own country and other economically “advanced” democracies, between the ultra-wealthy and the rest: Is this condition to be seen as second nature and the way the game is supposed to be played, or is the truth a little closer to the fact that, again, those in positions of power are too eager to keep the power and resources to themselves and damn the rest?

The veterans, homeless in our streets, or afraid to leave home due to post-traumatic stress disorder suffered as a direct result of doing our country’s bidding in theatres of conflict too gruesome for anyone who has never been there to appreciate: do these brave souls deserve the protracted delays and denials to their appeals for understanding and assistance from a government only too happy to cozy up to them at Remembrance Day services but to hang them out to dry (or die) the rest of the year?

I appeal to you all to remember Adorno’s adage when it comes to discerning the issues of the day.

Some notable Canadians have understood these words intuitively, and they are the ones who have done great things that have ennobled our Canada. Folks like Tommy Douglas whose recognition for universal health care won the day; Madame Justice Louise Arbour whose work in The Hague has set new standards for bringing war criminals to account; marvelous Stephen Lewis, whose entire life’s work can be summed up in a word, compassion; tragic Romeo Dallaire, continuing the fight to bring justice and help to his injured brethren, all the way fighting past his own terrible mental anguish; and finally, Dr. Gabor Mate who for years has been tending to the broken lives of his addicted and broken First Nations patients in the heart of East Vancouver.

“The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.”

Indeed. If only our elected officials had the capacity to think the same way.

— Having lost his 2,500 volume library in the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, Jeffrey is beginning to fill the void by writing his own. Reach him at jeff.loewen(at)

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2014
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