We Are Not Alone

 "You´ll never guess what happened on the plane"? Jake, my colleague laughed as we met, representing the Thinc team at Riga airport. "A fight broke out"!  This was the beginning of our ten day EU Youth in Action training course in Liepāja, Latvia with the Children and Youth Union 
    Having heard many stories about the KGB and even an email from our hosts Zigis and Liga saying "Welcome to our dangerous country" little did I know that they were jovially playing to the stereotypical images that had been projected into the world of Latvia.  With trepidation we took a nightly mini-bus ride over dark roads lit by minimal street lights, giving us only glimpses of flat wooded land, with just a smattering of Gothic Hitchcock style houses. 
     Stereotypes stay stubbornly in place, looking for constant reinforcement that are usually gratified.  Why? Because that is exactly what you are looking for.  Prejudices are the starting point of many accumulating disasters in this world.  As Sir Peter Ustinov said: "At first as innocuous as land mines, to which they (prejudices) bear a certain resemblance when inactive, they become lethal when children toy with them".  And he warned: "Beware stale opinions, dead opinions, inherited opinions, thoughtlessly adopted." Little was I to know that this was the beginning of realising my own prejudices, sense of false justice and misinformed ethics.  Not bad for a ten day training course.  It was a steep learning curve indeed.
   Arriving at Lenkas in Liepāja, even though it was the middle of the night, I could sense that this was far from some KGB prison.  Zigi warmly greeted us we were escorted us to our rooms.  We were shown the en-suite jacuzzi and our comfortable beds facing tall glass windows looking out onto vast emerald grounds. In the morning I was awoken by Timi`s (my room mate) soft alarm song.  Gradually, we made our way to a buffet breakfast in the other guest house near the sea.  After a spate of games and getting to know each other, with endless blue skies and 21 degrees we took our tea down to the unspoilt beach tentatively exploring the strong bond already developing between us.
  With the games developing at a fast rate, there was much hesitation from us all.  Participation was half and half, with many of us over thinking the tasks instead of opening fully to each other.  What followed made a crack open in our awareness so wide that no-one could remain on the side-lines.  
  Limit 20 is a complex game played through three teams and a three people jury that reveals the dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion through a series of games that seemingly encourage competition.  Once we had made our teams, and picked a name.  Ours was: "The Invincibles" and thought of our slogan which we in half comic and half serious way coined in our team as: "We are Invincible" the other teams picked their own and in each of these groups we could feel the team spirit grow, albeit against the other teams.  
     After the first  couple of rounds, we, The Invincibles felt like just that.  We were winning every round, easily.  Even though we had seemingly "lost" on the first round by getting the tail of our people-train dragon snatched away by the other team effortlessly.  Instead the other team, that was supposed to have won, were told by the jury that they were cheating. So, The Invinvibles were awarded double points based on this account.  The so called "cheating team" looked puzzled but not defeated. My first thought was to believe the jury instead of the puzzled looks on the other team member`s faces.  The jury MUST be right, after all they are the jury made up of the trainers in this ten day course, right?  Furthermore, they MUST be good because they recognise the underdogs (of which I am clearly a part) and that is exactly why the jury are awarding us extra points, because of the cheaters.  Oh dear.  How far had I rationalised this to justify winning and how wrong could I have been?! 
   The next rounds continued.  We were all stood in a circle.  One team member from The Invincibles was in the circle with the so called cheating team.  Both were blindfolded.  One person had to chase the other by listening firstly to the keys that they jangled and then trying to catch them, blindfolded.  Just with sound, no sight. Yet time and time again, The Invincibles were the ones that could chase the other blindfolded person in the circle. Each time, this increased our chances of winning.  As The Invincibles, we were, at first, so concentrated on winning that we didn`t realise the advantage we had and the disadvantage that the other teams were put in by the jury.
     However, that started to change.  After loosing for another time at a balloon game that was clearly won by the so called "cheating" team, we stopped slapping hi-fives with each other and started recognising that we were at a clear advantage.   My thoughts were still stubborn though.  I had convinced myself that we were being awarded double points based on our underdog position and I truly believed that the other team were cheating, every time and I just couldn`t see it.  I trusted the jury`s authority without question.  I mean, why would the jury lie?!  

   At a clear advantage, we were then asked to disable another team by tying their leg or arm against their bodies.  To think that we actually discussed accepting this from the jury and nearly disabled the so called cheating team so that we could keep ahead!  I remember walking up to the jury after getting a majority vote to disable the other team, with one team member disagreeing.  I was ready to take the rope, but getting a very bad feeling.  So, I suddenly changed my mind to the minority vote to not disable.  After turning round to my team and not making a decision until I got a team consensus where we all changed our minds to not disable the other team.  It was only then, that I gave the rope back.
   I realised how much I am swayed not only by authority and power but also by majority votes. I am often afraid to go with a decision unless I get a full group consensus.  Luckily my intuition kicked in at the last minute.  After this point I noticed that I started to become more argumentative with my team members, questioning what we were to put forward as a team, disagreeing and not being afraid to say so, but still allowing decisions to go forward even though I disagreed with them.  As my voice started to come out, my stomach started to turn in knots.  My anger and feelings always go to my stomach first and if there is something that I don`t think or feel is quite right, I feel it strongest there.  I wasn`t the only one in the team that felt like this.  Other´s were suffering, but like me, were afraid to speak up about how bad we felt, as it seemed in contradiction with our winning and advantaged position.
   Finally we, The Invincibles ended up with the highest points well above the limit of 20.  The other teams had resorted to inventive presentations and humble tactics to try and sway the jury but were faced with sneering and further disadvantages that knocked down their points.  On the final score, the loosing team refused to seem defeated and made hi-fives with congratulating each other on their team efforts despite the score.  We, the winning team based on the jury´s decision, were silent and uncomfortably shuffled into the circle in a sheepish manner.
  As we settled into a circle facing each other, the jury revealed the discrimination and exclusion to us.  We were told that the game had been manipulated and that from the start it had been decided that one team: The Invincibles, would win no matter what, another team would be in the middle and finally one team, the so called "cheaters" coined by the jury, could never win, no matter what they did. That the jury had decided from the outset that they would always find ways to mark them down and put them at a disadvantage.  The knots in my stomach grew tighter.  Others in my team had felt sick to the stomach as well, yet none of us had spoken fully against the authority that was discriminating the other teams.  We had even started turning on each other first, instead of the authority that was causing and deciding who should get excluded.  This game revealed the dynamics of discrimination, authority and power and how society reacts to these dynamics.  In a group of 20 we were indeed that microcosm of society.  I realised how my sense of justice was based upon the idea that if an authority figure, someone or a group of people I respect or admire, decide that a certain group of people are cheaters, based on little (or no evidence) I accept it, to a point.  I can feel and recognise that this is wrong, yet I realised that I am afraid to speak up.  I will go against this authorities rules and decisions, but only if I get a strong group consensus behind me.  I realised that I based my sense of justice on giving advantages to the underdogs a situation, no matter what.  This game alone shined a light on these assumptions and made me question my own values, ethics and reasoning.
    Luckily this game brought us closer together.  I felt that I could no longer operate on my assumptions and had to question the very basis of my values if I was to continue on this training course.  The very idea of what I thought inclusion and exclusion was all about was shaken to the core.  I realised I knew very little and would have to step into the unknown and challenge myself further by trusting fellow participants more and relying less on authority and traditional power structures and dynamics.  As the training continued the bonds with each other became more and more important, that in turn diminished competition between us as we all came together.  The reliance on the trainers, as the only source of knowledge and praise, vanished.