Be Still and Listen: Human Rights and Mutual Respect

Following is the text of Ethan Casey's keynote address at a Workshop on Compassionate Listening and Human Rights Across Cultures held at Shoreline Community College, Shoreline, Washington, USA, May 18, 2013.

I’m going to start by saying something a little provocative: that I don’t know exactly how to define human rights. I’m afraid the phrase comes across to me as too abstract, and that it’s susceptible to being wielded as cant. And, like my hero the great 19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt, I’m allergic to cant. Cant means cliches, conventional wisdom, ideology, abstract terms, language used unthinkingly or even as a weapon. I always keep in mind not only Hazlitt but also what the great West Indian historian C.L.R. James pointed out in The Black Jacobins, his masterpiece about the Haitian Revolution: that “In politics all abstract terms conceal treachery.”

Using language carefully and well is important because clear, accurate, specific language goes hand in hand with clear thinking, and we can’t act effectively unless we first see and think clearly. Another English essayist, a great intellectual heir of Hazlitt named George Orwell, wrote in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that “To think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration. … [T]he fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”


But, all of that said, human rights are an important concept, one that we must do the hard work of trying to understand and apply in many diverse contexts in our modern world. About that concept, there are a couple of things that I can say with confidence.

First and fundamentally, despite and even because of all of our obvious and unavoidable differences, every human being is equal in dignity to every other human being. Every religious tradition insists on this, and so does modern liberalism (in the broad, international sense of that term). Number two, or rather number 1 a), every human being is fundamentally and equally entitled to respect. Different traditions have different ways of expressing this, but the truth is fundamentally the same everywhere. The Web page promoting this workshop quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, who said:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home … where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning … in the larger world.

There’s a Haitian expression that says Tout moun se moun, which means, simply, “Every person is a person.” And there’s a wonderful verse in the Quran, in which God says: “For I made you nations and tribes, that you might know one another.” The implications of that are intriguing: if we were not different, how could we know one another? So, whether you’re coming from the Muslim world, or Haiti, or the liberal USA like Eleanor Roosevelt, respect and dignity are fundamental, and they go hand in hand. And to practice respect – to respect each other actively, rather than only passively or rhetorically – requires listening to each other.

Listening is crucial because respect implies, and entails, difference and distance. Let me explain what I mean by that. If you and I were exactly the same, if we were coming from exactly the same place and time and had the same perspectives and interests, there would be no need for us to respect or listen to each other, because we would understand each other tacitly. Given that we are different – that no matter who we are, we inevitably have different backgrounds and priorities, and we can never know each other completely – if we do want to understand each other, we must listen. And we also must trust each other’s goodwill, which means suspending judgment.

Suspending judgment can be one of the most difficult things for us to do, especially if we were raised with a strong sense of morality, of right and wrong. I was raised by a grandmother who drummed into me that some things are, as she put it often and emphatically, “just plain wrong.” And she wasn’t wrong about that; she was usually right, in fact. Many things are in fact just plain wrong. But knowing which things, and knowing what to do about it, is actually a subtler and more complicated project than it might seem, given the many differences among our cultures and perspectives. A helpful starting principle is to be more sure of your ability to apply moral judgment to your own actions than to those of other people, especially if the other people are from other cultures. Be harder on yourself than you are on others.

A related principle, which I concocted for myself during the years I was earning my chops as a working reporter in Asia during the 1990s, is that understanding should always precede both judgment and action. Let me repeat that: understanding should always precede both judgment and action, because we can’t judge soundly or act effectively if we have incorrect or incomplete understanding. This fits nicely with the methodology that I’ve also developed for my work as a reporter, which is to show up, meet people and express interest in their stories, listen to them, take notes, and then – and only then – to write. This means practicing and exercising patience. It works especially well if I’m in a country or situation that I know I don’t fully understand, which has always been the case for me in Haiti, despite the fact that I’ve now been visiting that country for more than thirty years. Betsy Wall, the daughter of longtime Canadian missionaries, expressed this beautifully when she urged me to

be still and listen. There’s something extremely humbling in listening [she said]. If that’s all I ever experienced in Haiti, I think Haiti would be more whole, and so would I. … People come here, and they think Haiti is so corrupt. Well, you know what? It’s that way everywhere in the world. Haiti is what we all are. And I sometimes think this is why America comes here to try to change things: to try to redeem itself.

As an exercise in challenging our own assumptions, I’d like to consider an issue on which it’s especially difficult for us liberal Westerners – those of us in this room who are liberal Westerners, that is – to adjust our attitudes: the treatment of women in Muslim societies.

If you’re sitting there thinking that the answer to the question of how Muslim societies should treat women is so obvious that I shouldn’t even be raising it, then I would say that’s exactly why I should be raising it. I hasten to add that I don’t claim to know the answer. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think women should be mistreated, disrespected, or suppressed in any society. But mistreatment of women, both actual and alleged, has been used by the liberal West in recent years as a pretext for demonizing Muslim societies and Islam as a web of religious and social traditions. We should be asking ourselves whether we’re entitled to do that, for two reasons.

First of all it’s unhelpful, as a purely practical and political matter, to put more than a billion people on the defensive about their religion and way of life, especially in times as tense as these. Second, as I know from my years as a reporter on the ground around the world, every country, every society, every situation is always different, and almost always more complicated, than it looks from the outside. This is why we need, first and foremost, to listen and learn. This is why understanding should always precede both judgment and action.

So, before we judge another society, we need to ask ourselves several things. First, are our assumptions about – in this case – the treatment or social position of women in Muslim countries factually correct? The answer might be yes, but we can’t assume that without asking the question and then doing the work of finding out. More likely, the answer is yes and no. Second, are our assumptions about the morality of the matter correct? And even if they are, are we at risk of being self-righteous? As my father likes to say, quoting someone, it’s possible to be right repugnantly. I remember the exasperation a British official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed to me about Western liberals, when I met him in Peshawar in Pakistan in 1999: “They have the moral high ground,” he said, “and they’re not about to give it up.” And third, even if we’re sure that the answer to the second question is yes, is it right for us to impose our answer, right though it may be, on people who don’t agree that we’re right?

Here’s how William Dalrymple, the distinguished British author whose new book Return of a King, about his country’s first war in Afghanistan in the early 1840s, should be required reading for all Americans, put it in a May 2 presentation I attended at the Seattle Asian Art Museum: “Are we going to rip the burkahs off all the Afghan ladies? Are we there for good liberal reasons, not horrible imperialistic ones?” Or, as he puts it in the Author’s Note at the end of his book:

As I pursued my research, it was fascinating to see how the same moral issues that are chewed over in the editorial columns today were discussed at equal length in the correspondence of the First Afghan War: What are the ethical responsibilities of an occupying power? Should you try to “promote the interests of humanity,” as one British official put it in 1840, and champion social and gender reform, banning traditions like the stoning to death of adulterous women; or should you just concentrate on ruling the country without rocking the boat? Do you intervene if your allies start boiling or roasting their enemies alive? Do you attempt to introduce western political systems?

Dalrymple then quotes the British spymaster Sir Claude Wade, who warned, just before the ill-fated British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, that:

There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against … than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions, and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new and untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to a violent reaction.

Another resource I want to draw your attention to, before I offer my concluding thoughts, is Graham Greene’s great novel of Vietnam, really Greene’s masterpiece as far as I’m concerned, The Quiet American. We’re more familiar with “the ugly American,” the cliché of the loud, boorish American overseas, which is also the title of a bestselling 1958 novel and a 1963 film starring Marlon Brando, also set in Vietnam. But The Quiet American, prophetically written in the early 1950s and published in 1955, a full decade before the American misadventure there got underway in earnest, is more deeply telling. What Greene is getting at in the novel’s title and story is something more dangerous than ugly boorishness, and perhaps even sinister: the innocent, fresh-faced, well-meaning young white man who is so convinced of the rightness of his own assumptions that he can’t imagine how others might possibly see things differently.

Greene covers a lot of ground in his short and exquisitely crafted novel, but I want to focus here on a scene in which Pyle, the quiet American, and his British rival and reluctant mentor Fowler find themselves trapped together with two frightened Vietnamese soldiers in a guard tower, where they discuss the very issues that you and I are here to discuss today. “You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested,” Fowler says to Pyle.

To which Pyle retorts: “They don’t want communism.”

I want to pause a moment to note the arrogance of that assertion. Pyle thinks he knows what Vietnamese people do and don’t want, even though he’s just arrived in their country, he doesn’t speak their language, and he hasn’t bothered to ask them. All he’s done is read a lot of books by a professor named York Harding.

Fowler retorts to Pyle in turn: “They want enough rice,” he says. “They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.”

Note that communism is an abstract term – cant, cliché, conventional wisdom, referring back to the importance of language that I emphasized at the beginning of this talk – whereas rice and not being shot at are very specific, concrete things. The main point, though, is that we should always begin by asking ourselves the question that Fowler has not only asked but answered: Who are “we” to say what “they” want, or what they should want?

I spend a lot of my time – in correspondence, in speaking engagements, and on Facebook – trying to run interference between the divergent and often dueling points of view of Pakistanis on one hand and Americans on the other. Some of these, on both sides, are extreme and strongly worded. For example, when I recently reposted an article I had written stressing the importance of mutual respect, a postal carrier in Detroit responded on Facebook:

Know what’s more important than “mutual respect”? Destroying those that wish to destroy us. Fortunately, you bleeding heart liberals are far outnumbered by people who don’t give a rats a#$ about what the world thinks of us.

Similarly, about a thoughtful and nuanced article by an American friend of mine on the Boston bombing, a Pakistani claimed (again on Facebook) that “the Americans have been so brainwashed since 9/11 that they readily accept whatever is fed to them.” Notice the sweeping quality of that claim: the reference to “the” Americans, all Americans without exception. It’s easy to say things like this if we can’t be bothered to listen to each other.

But every society is more complex and diverse than it looks from the outside. Here in the United States, for example, there really are at least three distinct publics or audiences: East Coast officialdom and what we call “policymakers” or “the policy elite”; the liberal cities on the coasts and various university towns around the country; and the rest of America, which is mostly neither elite nor liberal. It’s that “rest of America” that I’m especially concerned with these days, because that’s where I come from and where I live, and because that’s the America that I feel most needs to be communicated with, and also – and this might be the hard part – listened to, with as much respect as I’ve been urging that we listen to people from other cultures. Provincial Americans certainly should not be either patronized or dismissed out of hand, any more than Pakistanis or Haitians should be. I appreciate the sentiment of Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University, who grew up in a conservative, suburban area of southern Ohio, and whom I met while I was driving around America last fall. “I tend to think that coming from places like that is helpful to people who end up being cosmopolitan, pluralist, liberal,” Snyder told me.

Because if you grow up with, and you know intimately, and you care about, love, people whose views are, you know, typical Republican, red-state views, I think you have a better chance of understanding the virtues that can underlie those convictions – as opposed to just seeing them as mistakes.

I’ll add a thought that I think is in the spirit of this speech and this workshop: that, as my late mentor Clyde Edwin Pettit liked to say, we’re all ignorant, only about different things. There’s no shame in that, but that’s one reason it’s important to make a lifelong project out of listening to and learning from other people. On that note, I’ll end by telling you a slightly indiscreet story. When William Dalrymple, the author I mentioned earlier whose terrific history of the first British war in Afghanistan should be required reading for all Americans, was in Seattle on May 2, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him. At one point that day, someone in our small group remarked that Seattle is the second best-educated metro area in the United States, after the Twin Cities in Minnesota. If you know anything about Minnesota, you know that that’s not surprising.

But Dalrymple said, “Really? Minnesota?” And you could tell, in the short pause that followed, that he was trying to fit that new fact into his preconceived notions about provincial America.

There’s no reason that William Dalrymple, who grew up in Scotland and England and lives in India, should be expected to know anything about Minnesota or about how it’s different from, say, Missouri or Mississippi. He’s not from the United States and doesn’t spend much time here. His recent book tour consisted of, in his own words, “the usual cities” – meaning the liberal coastal cities, including Seattle. But that’s just the point: any society, and any political or cultural point of view, is more diverse and complex than it looks from the outside. We’re all ignorant, only about different things. And, just as William Dalrymple might be pleasantly surprised if he were ever to visit Minnesota, so might we be if we visited, say, remote areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan and listened to the people there.

If we begin by remembering that, however great our superficial and even substantive differences, what we have in common is humanity, and we act on that by listening to each other, we will have made a good start.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010) and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) and co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). His next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase.



Twitter: @ethancasey.

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