Journal page 25 April 2007, after a week in which 200 Iraqis were killed in one terrible day.
I hold an almost Kantian view that any human rights violation anywhere in the world affects everyone everywhere.
Near the end of my time living and working in the Gaza Strip the Al Aqsa Intifada started, at which point the rules of engagement for the Israeli Army seemed to shift slightly so that internationals in the line of fire (as I often was in my role of monitoring the impact on civilians of the clashes each day) seemed to be at more risk of being shot.
I became more acutely aware of the possibility that I wouldn't make it home and so I wrote a letter to my nephew for his first birthday explaining why I was in Gaza. I believed then and I believe now that defending the international standards agreed upon by nations as the minimum means of protecting human life and dignity is a duty that has no borders. I told my nephew that if those standards were not upheld in Gaza to protect Palestinian children and Israeli children then that would be one step closer to him, and I wasn't going to wait until then to act.
The poem, "First they came" by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) is one of the simplest and most emotionally evocative expressions of the pragmatic reasons for taking some responsibility for defending the human rights violations of other people. There are lots of different versions of the translation of of Niemoller's poem, but the one I prefer is this one:
- First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up,
- because I wasn’t a Communist.
- Then they came for the sick, the so-called incurables, and I didn't speak up,
- because I wasn't mentally ill.
- Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
- because I wasn’t a Jew.
- Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left
- to speak up for me
Ultimately, though, I believe that the strongest motivator for the defense of human rights is not a fear of "me next" but rather empathy. It is because I can imagine how it might feel to be a Palestinian mother who watched her child die because the ambulance carrying him to the specialised hospital in the West Bank was not allowed to pass an Israeli checkpoint that I feel compelled to work towards securing the right to freedom of movement for her and for everyone else. It is because I can imagine how it might feel to be an Algerian asylum seeker in New Zealand, labeled a security risk by the central intelligence agency but unable, even through my defense lawyer to see the basis on which I am accused of being such a risk, that I feel bound to do what I can to defend the right to a fair trial and a defense for him and for everyone else.
But I don't think that empathy is a static quality that we are either born with or without. I think we can generate empathy, I believe we can cultivate the quality of empathy within ourselves. I also have some ideas about how. I have always believed that a certain kind of travel, with an open mind and a spirit of respect, is one of the most powerful means for generating empathy for people who are very different from us in appearance and environment. I'm pleased to say that the great Mark Twain agrees with me, he said:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness
But Mark Twain would presumably also recognise the power of literature to do the same thing. I have also always believed in the incredible power of the arts and the media to generate or mitigate empathy. The broader the range of lives, cultures, environments and experiences we absorb through the characters with whom we deeply identify in a work of fiction, the broader our capacity to empathise may become. It is not only in books that this happens, I think movies are perhaps even more influential today, they certainly have a wider distribution. It cannot be argued, for example, that the film "Rabbit-Proof Fence" was a catalyst in the national debate in Australia about the 'Stolen Generation'. Similarly, a friend of mine who works for the Ministry for the Environment in New Zealand told me in a recent email that the policy environment has become decidedly more conducive to getting environmental protection laws and policies passed since "An Inconvenient Truth" was distributed and got massive box-office returns in New Zealand.
In the context of all those rambling thoughts, I found this book review by Gary J. Bass (from The New Republic, although I got it through Powells.com review-a-day) of Lynn Avery Hunt's new book "Inventing Human Rights: A History", a fascinating read. Hunt shows the important role empathy played in the development of human rights standards, and more than that, she also shows the direct connection between literature and the growth of empathy. If you have any interest in the ethical debate about human rights standards, or in the relationship between literature and empathy then I highly recommend this review. Here is an extract I particularly enjoyed:
Whose lives matter to us? In principle, for the most austere liberals, there is no justification for preferring one human life over another one. "Because a...community widely prevails among the Earth's peoples," Kant remarked, "a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere." John Rawls argued that we should choose society's main rules as if we did not even know which family or ethnic group we belong to. To a pure liberal, if people are dying in a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing, all that matters is that people are dying.
But the politics of this moral duty do not work that way. In real life, our ethical universe radiates outward from ourselves. Our own miseries are our first and foremost concern, even when they are relatively trivial. "If he were to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night," Adam Smith wrote in Theory of Moral Sentiments. "But, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own." Virginia Woolf echoed this nasty thought with verve in Mrs. Dalloway, in which her sweetly dithering title character thinks this: "And people would say, Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.' She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) -- no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses." We all love our roses. And most of us love them a little guiltily, insofar as we recognize the narrowness of this emotional horizon. This guilt, or discomfort, is a mark of moral progress. At least Clarissa Dalloway feels bad that she doesn't feel bad.
I hope that will tempt you to go and read the rest. More on empathy tomorrow.