Taking the Punch – Part 3 (Ross Fowler on HRI)

Good evening. I know you came here tonight to hear about Human Rights International, that you’re curious as to exactly what we do and why, and we’ll get into that later, and there’s information here to take with you, but tonight I’d like to mainly discuss the power of an individual decision. The decision an individual makes to speak out despite the risks inherent in doing so, the decision a government official makes to let someone go or keep the cell locked, the decision you made to come here tonight, the decision each one of you makes to get involved or turn away. The decision to believe you can effect change. You each have a mind and a heart—they’re supposed to work; they’re meant to be used, not overridden.

Ross paused, methodically turning over a sheet of paper on the table, letting his words sink in, and a few people shifted in their seats, expecting perhaps to hear a diatribe against far-away dictators and uncomfortable at being so directly challenged.

And right off, I’d like to clear up some misperceptions about the work we do. It is work. Defending individual rights and freedoms is not a passive endeavor—we’re not a bunch of hopeless dreamers, the lovers of lost causes.

“Well, being a Red Sox fan, maybe I am,” he said as an aside, putting his hand on his chest, generating a mild chuckle from the audience, a grin alighting on his face for a second before springing off and disappearing. Then immediately serious again —

It’s not a passive, but an active struggle. The most challenging work you’ll ever take on. The inhumanity can pull you apart. It can wear you down, unnerve you, break your heart. Torture is not something most of us like to dwell on. So we turn away. But you can lessen it, or yes, even stop it. Rather than live in fear surrounded by the darkness of this oppression, you can provide a light, no matter how small or flickering, of deliverance. The one thing you can always do is not accede to it. You can say to governments that they do not have the right to torture and murder their people. Almost all of these countries have signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You can hold them to their promises. You can have an effect, but it takes the sustained effort of many people doing small and great things unrelatedly and together; wishing won’t make the atrocities go away. So you must decide to act. To paraphrase Thoreau, don’t wait for others to right the wrong so you need no longer regret it.

On the street level, on the individual level, the work HRI does is pragmatic. Providing food and clothing for a family whose breadwinner has been “disappeared.” Getting someone moved out of solitary confinement, getting them ten minutes of exercise every other day. Victories when they occur are often small and incremental. Don’t romanticize this or the people involved; don’t play act at it. Many of the people imprisoned are ordinary people held for doing ordinary things. You may or may not agree with their actions; you may strongly disagree. They themselves may not care, they may just be related or connected somehow to someone who does. We oppose the torture and the execution of people convicted of criminal offenses. In all cases without reservation. The drug dealer sentenced to death in Singapore as well as the mentally-impaired young man executed right here in the United States. So you must decide to be fueled by your emotions, but not ruled blindly by them.

And lastly on this point—and if you take one thing from here tonight, I hope you take this—the concept of human rights is fundamental and universal, above ideologies, above cultures. These rights are inalienable. They are not something that can be doled out or withheld at a government’s discretion. They are not a luxury. They are not Western dogma. These rights and freedoms are the foundation for the full and free development of any individual’s personality; they are necessary in order for that individual to participate successfully and productively in any economic or collective structure. These rights provide the umbrella, the tent, under which all intellectual and cultural endeavors—religious, political, scientific, artistic—are protected. The outcome can only be dire and barbarous if individuals do not possess the freedom to speak what they think, try to effect change or call for accountability. The protection of human rights is essential for freedom, justice and peace in the world. It’s essential for our future. So you must decide it’s that important, important enough to safeguard—for yourself, for your children, for everyone’s children.

Fowler paced back and forth in front of his audience, letting his gaze fall on one individual then another for a tiny fraction of time, trying to connect the circuit and pass his passion through to them, light a fire, and certain elements of the crowd might be forgiven for letting their imaginations run hyperbolic for just a moment, turning the speaker in front of them into a romantic figure, a gentle white knight with those beautiful sober eyes and that charming self-deprecating manner. At the furthest point of his pendulum swing, from the far side of the room, he turned, and at that severe angle had me directly in his sights, holding my gaze for several seconds longer than any other challenge, but my self-awareness had been extinguished by the dignity of the talk—I grew up that night, I think—and I took his proffer steadily, thoughtfully, calmly, intent on learning all he had to teach. The channels between us were clear and open. He finally broke the stare, bowing his head, and silently walked back across the room as if lost in thought. Then he perched, half-sat on the table, one foot on the floor, and continued.

So why do these things occur—torture, extrajudicial execution, disappearances—and why does the world allow them to happen? It’s only by making people “others,” turning them into something lesser, that governments can torture and kill their citizens as a matter of policy, as a non-extraordinary thing done in the course of a day’s work. People are cast as others for any number of reasons: their race, gender, political or religious beliefs, ethnic origins. But anyone under the right circumstances can be turned into an other. What if you were thrown into prison tonight for attending this lecture, reading the wrong book, having the wrong friends, family, listening to the wrong music? What if they took away some of you here tonight, but not others? What would you do? Consider yourself lucky? Convince yourself that those others must have done “something,” so you can believe it won’t happen to you? Convince yourself they’re not worthy of aid or rescue? Maybe you would circumscribe your activities; maybe you would simply be afraid. . . and look only straight ahead. . . and shut down your mind. . .

He continued on, painstakingly building logic upon compassion, courting his audience for his cause, and I sat still and enthralled. His world—all solemn and terrifying and beautiful at the same time—had taken me out of mine, no small feat to perform. Sitting there, for that moment, I was able to escape my confinement, the casements thrown open, the cold night rushing in, and I could see beyond myself, the stars now visible and candescent—distinct, brilliant and full of meaning. Those stars were now mine.

Violence and repression, unfortunately, have historically been part of the human condition. To acknowledge this is not to condone it. It has always been that aspect of our nature that has held us back, the struggle against it, the turning away from it what moves us forward. The question is, are you going to accept these forces or fight against them? At peril is the concept of the dignity of the individual human being. People suffer unspeakable torture, stripped of their rights; their tormentors prosper, contemptuous, unrepentant; injustice flourishes right here and in hidden corners of the world. Can you live with that as a given? Cast as one of the “others,” could you live without hope? Can you ask others to? So in the end, you must decide; decide if you’ll deliver the goods of both your mind and your heart. Decide that you’ll at least try. Decide what kind of world you want to live in, what legacy you want to leave to future generations.

Make your decisions; feel them in your heart and understand them in your mind. Thank you.

He slowly nodded his head at the silence greeting him upon finishing, not sure if it was due to deep thought—everyone punch-drunk—or blank indifference. But it lasted only for a second, a warm and respectful round of applause breaking out, started and ended by a certain someone, upstaged only by a couple of kids in the back, standing and whooping their approval.

Thank you. Thanks very much. Questions?


4 thoughts on “Taking the Punch – Part 3 (Ross Fowler on HRI)

  1. I like how he tried to connect the circuit to his audience and built logic upon compassion. I just mention again the run-ons. I think your piece would be stronger with them clipped. Simplicity does magic – in writing. =)

    “Fowler paced back and forth in front of his audience, letting his gaze fall on one individual then another for a tiny fraction of time, trying to connect the circuit and pass his passion through to them, light a fire, and the female element of the crowd might be forgiven for letting their imaginations run hyperbolic for just a moment, turning the speaker in front of them into a romantic figure, a gentle white knight with those beautiful sober eyes and that charming self-deprecating manner.”

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