Note: While I have written in the past about why I started this blog, this essay is related as to why I got back into human rights activism.
The values of selflessness, empathy, optimism, open mindedness and mutual respect that unite us as friends, families, partners, neighbors and even as fellow humans have been rock solid for decades despite the efforts of those who want to divide us.
As a human rights activist, the results of the 2016 US presidential election challenged this assumption. It was frustrating and dispiriting as it upended many of the beliefs that I took for granted. At the time, I naively and unconsciously felt that internationalism, secularism, non discrimination and interconnection were unconditionally accepted as net positives by all. As time has passed, my conviction has become that the message this victory has sent to populist and authoritarian leaders such as Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has been one of a wink and a nod that has encouraged them to follow a path that bolsters their own political fortunes while bringing much hurt to vulnerable communities worldwide.
This hurt can be seen in the case of Kian Delos Santos, the seventeen year old Filipino boy who was shot dead by police in 2017 as part of Duterte’s war on drugs. Kian, whose last words were ‘please stop, I have a test tomorrow’, was dragged down an alley, forcibly handed a gun so later investigations could imply that he had ‘fought back’, and then gunned down as he tried to escape. While the government claimed his case was isolated, independent research has found a disturbing trend in the circumstances of shooting deaths of drug suspects and evidence pointing towards the existence of ‘kill lists’ focused on economically struggling communities and an officially manufactured narrative of victims invariably firing upon police. The Filipino president himself has openly bragged about killing drug suspects while he was the mayor of Davao, and has suggested that journalists critical of the drug war could be responsible for bringing violence upon themselves because of their reporting.
It can be seen in the case of Marielle Franco, a tireless fighter for those living in Rio De Janeiro’s favelas as well as a loving partner and mother, who was assassinated along with her driver, Anderson Gomes. A black bisexual woman, she was killed by two former policemen after criticizing of the conduct of officers of the law and the scourge of extrajudicial killings. Despite the arrests of those who pulled the trigger and drove the car to the scene of the crime, in addition to all signs pointing to it being an organized hit, the person or group responsible for the planning of this operation has yet to be brought to justice. Like the previous example, the Brazilian president has indulged in divisive rhetoric by saying that he’d rather his son be dead than gay, that Brazil must not become a ‘gay tourism paradise’, that the post 1965 military dictatorship in that country saved it from communism, that indigenous people are ‘evolving and becoming actual humans’, and that a female congresswoman wasn’t worthy of being raped while addressing the Brazilian parliament.
It can be seen when talking to friends from India who tell me of their compatriots being attacked by security forces for protesting against the Citizen Amendment Act. I hear tales of friends being hit with batons and being violently tackled for defending their Islamic brothers and sisters by exercising the rights that we are all entitled to. This violence is cast against the backdrop of a campaign of persecution against Muslims. It is highlighted by the ongoing repression in Muslim majority Kashmir, an area boasting a ratio of one soldier to every thirty civilians. This is the equivalent of having the population of urban Milwaukee moving into urban Chicago, with the difference being that the Milwaukeeans would be brandishing AK-47’s and wearing kevlar. To carry on a theme prevalent up until now, the president of the ruling BJP party has referred to Bangladeshi Muslims that the law is perceived to be targeting as ‘termites’. The chief of the army has also hinted at the existence of ‘deradicalization’ camps in Kashmir; evoking fears of the human rights abuses suffered by the Uigyhur community in Xinjiang province, China.
It can also be seen in so called developed countries like the US where sixteen year old Guatemalan migrant Carlos Gregorio Hernandez died while being detained in isolation despite his temperature exceeding 103℉, and the staff of the immigration detention facility he was being held in having been told that he should be taken an emergency room if his condition continued to worsen. This happened in the wake of an election that saw the ascent to power of a president who had referred to Mexican migrants as ‘rapists’, asylum seekers massing at the southern border as an ‘invasion’, and whose former attorney general supercharged the enforcement of existing laws that allowed separation of children from their parents. This is a ‘policy’ that should stir the inner humanity of anyone because of it’s callousness. I could only imagine the damage that would be inflicted on any one of my four nephews were they to be separated from their parents and kept in a foreboding and unfamiliar place. It would make my blood both boil and freeze at the same time if that were possible.
On the morning after the American election, I was like a lot of others who were trying to process what had just happened. I was considering the potential for what might come to pass and commenting about it on social media. While this was cathartic at the time, it didn’t change the result or relieve any of the suffering of those whose misery had been born of authoritarian politics. It ultimately made me descend into a vicious circle of point scoring waffle with people online that I had never met and ever deepening cynicism towards the world.
What ultimately gave me hope is the discovery that there ARE people among us with a vision of a better world.
A world where we all have a chance to get a decent job, access to food, water and to the levels of education and living standards that we aspire to should we be willing to work hard for them.
A world where we are equal in the eyes of the law and there are no barriers to it’s access.
A world where our diversity is seen as a strength, and unique ways of thinking are valued as cultural capital; not a means to divide us.
A world where the fruits of society’s labors are distributed according to need and the burdens of us all are tackled collectively, selflessly, and by those with the means to do so.
I discovered these people by reading biographies of those who have made change. I read about women like Malala Yousafzai, who as a teenage girl promoted women’s education while standing up to Taliban intimidation. She continues to stand up for what she believes in to this day.
I read about men like the slavery abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican deacon who rode the length of England many times over to stop a trade thousands of miles away because of it’s demonstrable evil. He was threatened physically, and was campaigned against by the highest levels of the British establishment. Yet he took a stand when doing so made one an outcast. To put this in perspective, what he was advocating for then was the equivalent of saying we should solve the climate crisis by banning all automobiles in terms of how incongruent with the times it was.
I read about Nelson Mandela, a lawyer who most of us know was imprisoned for 27 years (downgraded from the death penalty) for his sabotage tactics against the South African state in the pursuit of liberty. Never once in his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ did he express doubt towards his cause of ending an unfair and bigoted system. His belief in the collective ties that bind us was demonstrated by his embrace of all parts of the South African family upon his elevation to the presidency.
While these people were extraordinary in themselves, I realized after reading their stories that most of the communitarian and humanist values I have highlighted throughout this article are held by the vast majority of people if you sit down and survey them on each one. That says to me that a lot of our citizens are better than the politicians they send to state capitals and houses of parliament. From my point of view, the problem is that democracy in a lot of the world is seen as representative and not participatory. I believe that the reason for this is that a plurality of citizens have come to the misapprehension that their politicians are there to ‘lead’ (i.e. rule over them) as they have no voice nor stake in the world. All they can do is vote every few years, hope ‘their guy’ gets up, and that their position doesn’t get worse.
Men and women like those above showed me that despite grifters and oppportunists telling us that our collective existence is one in which the most selfish, misanthropic, cynical and paranoid win, we humans aren’t like that. People from all walks of life are willing to do what is right.
Does this mean that we all will go on to have as big an impact as Mandela, Clarkson or Malala should we choose to try to make a positive difference? The reality is most likely not. However, whatever we can do is felt by those whose lives ARE positively affected by our actions. This is best symbolized by a proverb I once read about a young girl who came across a beach covered in countless starfish that had been washed ashore. Upon finding them stranded and dying, she proceeded to pick them up one by one and put them back into the water. Her rescue effort was noticed by a lady who called out to her, ‘Why are you doing that? You can’t save them all!’
The girl responded by showing her one of the starfish she had picked up and responded, ‘It matters to this one.’
After a period of personal reflection and self discovery, I ultimately decided to get re-involved in human rights activism. I have become a member of my local Climate Action Network group, have raised money for a local NGO that supports asylum seekers and refugees, and have been involved in two chapters of Amnesty International. These activities have given me a sense of purpose, provided solidarity with like minded people and has revisited hope upon me as I have been able to see how much our efforts, no matter how small, have helped the men, women and children touched by these issues. They have shown me that no matter how dark things are, there are always things we can do to make them better. As Viktor Frankl, the humanistic psychologist and concentration camp survivor, once said, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond (to what you do to me). The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
If you are reading this and empathize with what I am writing, know that there are others who feel the way we do. We must be proud of our principles and what we fight for. It is the reason we do what we do, and why we will continue to do so!
I’d be delighted for you to find out more about the historical and current figures that I cited in this essay. Therefore, I recommend reading:
Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild (MacMillan, 2005)
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (Back Bay Books, 2013)
I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Back Bay Books, 2013)
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (Beacon Press, 2006)