Compelling Optimism

“HOW CAN YOU STAND IT?” The young woman appeared to be on the brink of tears but there was anger in her voice too. “I mean, every day your job requires you to hear about human beings treating each other like garbage—raping, torturing, killing, mutilating. It’s just too much. How do you retain even the slightest faith in the goodness of humanity and the future of the human race?”

In one form or another that is the question I’ve most frequently been asked since I started working in the human rights field in 1994, first as executive director of Amnesty International USA and more recently as president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The answer would be simple if I could claim to understand suffering as part of some larger “plan.” But as a humanist, I know only too well that evil is real, that pain is inevitable, and that much violence is gratuitous.

Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that misfortune was invariably offset by some compensating gain, but I don’t believe the universe functions like that. Sometimes the worst happens without warrant or reason and the innocent die. When that happens at the hands of other people—when militiamen slice open the bellies of pregnant women, toss the fetuses into the air, and spear them with their bayonets—we have to be either callous or foolish not to wonder what that says about humanity. So how have I retained my faith in the human being?

First, because remorse, while rare, is not unheard of. Second, because courage, while not universal, is not uncommon. Third, because history isn’t fated and cruelty isn’t inevitable. And finally, because the sweep of history compels optimism.

How do we teach children empathy? We treat them kindly and show them examples of suffering. Some will remain indifferent to such suffering; a few, defending against their own vulnerability, will purport to find it funny; those who’ve been abused may themselves become abusers. But many will react with horror to the mistreatment of an animal or the brutalization of another human being. And sometimes, even among the most hardened adults, those elementary impulses will be reawakened.

What has astonished me even more than the lengths to which a human being will go to hurt another are the occasions when perpetrators have caught a glimpse of their own perversity. Such intimations aren’t the norm, I grant, but that they occur at all is evidence that conscience doesn’t always stay buried. Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, challenged torturers in Indonesia to reenact their crimes. One of them, Anwar, finally forsaking bravado, ended up retching at the recollection of his horrific deeds. The premier defender of the French use of torture in Algiers was General Paul Aussaresses, and yet even he, recounting a confrontation with a doctor over a prisoner Aussaresses had just choked to death, cried out, “Do you think I enjoy this?” I know of far more than one murderer on death row whose regret for the pain he has caused to others I can only believe is genuine. The first reason not to give up on humanity is that the capacity to feel remorse is impossible to kill in every heart.

What is far more common than a perpetrator’s guilty conscience, however, is a human rights hero or heroine’s courage. I’ve seen this a thousand times: a political dissident unwilling to be silenced, even by the most harrowing threats; a journalist willing to risk her life to tell a dangerous story; a survivor of torture unbowed by the experience and prepared to name the torturers; the mother of two little girls killed by Guatemalan death squads who decides to devote her life to ensuring no one else lives through the hell that she did.

In his classic book, A Miracle, a Universe (1990), Lawrence Wechsler tells of a man who was tortured mercilessly in a South American prison. Many years later, walking along the street, he ran into his torturer. “How are you?” the survivor asked. The former torturer said he was very depressed because he was being prosecuted. There was a long pause and then the survivor said, “If you need anything, come to see me.” And then he said, “Shake hands, friend. I forgive you.”

In the face of such fortitude and resilience, of such a refusal to give up on humanity, what arrogance would it take for me—one who has never experienced anything close to such danger or suffering—to express a gray and embittered cynicism about the human condition? That is the second reason I cannot resign myself to hopelessness.

After all, as we humanists know, history is in human hands. It’s ours to weave. We are, it’s true, limited by biology and ignorance and time, but the human future is not determined by an angry God or an inexorable economic fate. It is shaped, for good or ill, by human beings, both obdurate and fragile as we are. We have the capacity to call to account those who are the authors of abuse, to take down structures of oppression that make such abuse more likely, to reach across boundaries that isolate us from one another, to use our power wisely and to set limits to our barbarism. That is the third reason for my stubborn faith.

Because—and this is the final reason: humanity has already done those things. Not consistently. Not without regression and retreat and a temporary enthrallment with the beasts. But it’s impossible to argue credibly, where human rights are concerned certainly, that, for all the ongoing violations in the world, one would not rather live in 2015 than earlier millennia.

Shortly before I left Amnesty International in 2006, I gave a lecture at Syracuse University. At a dinner beforehand, the chancellor of the university asked a gathering of faculty members whether human rights were better or worse off today than they were two hundred years before. With one exception, the faculty all insisted that human rights were in worse shape at the moment than they had been two millennia before.

Finally, after listening to all this moaning, I could contain myself no further and I said in my customarily tactful way, “Are you folks nuts? Why, in just the twelve years I’ve been with Amnesty we’ve seen a huge growth in democracy around the globe; we’ve seen war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone; we’ve seen the British Law Lords rule in 1999 that Augusto Pinochet (and, by implication, any former national leader anywhere) wasn’t protected by the concept of sovereign immunity and could be prosecuted for his crimes; we’ve seen the creation of the International Criminal Court; we’ve seen all but two countries—Somalia and the United States—ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child; we’ve seen the U.S. Supreme Court rule unconstitutional the execution of children and the intellectually disabled. [Today I would add the Court’s endorsement of same-sex marriage.] And you don’t think we’re better off today than in 1806 when a slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, could get elected president?” (The one faculty member who agreed with me, by the way, was David Crane, a law professor at Syracuse and former prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone.)

I’m no Pollyanna, I assure you. And I know that my perspective is colored by my white color and my privilege. I know that systemic racism remains a horrendous scourge; that economic justice and a fair distribution of the earth’s abundance remain wildly out of reach; that climate change threatens every one of us. But if we follow the advice of one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Baruch Spinoza, who said, in effect, “Always take the view from eternity”; if we take the long view; if we consider that just 250 years ago virtually no reputable person would have opposed slavery or limited suffrage or the subjugation of women and today no reputable person would support any of them; if we look at human history not, in Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, as “one damn thing after another,” but if we see it in its totality, it is impossible to argue credibly that, on balance, humankind has not made enormous progress and that there is a chance—60/40?—that the human race will ultimately pull through.

So these are my answers to that young woman’s question. They may not be right and for many they will certainly not be enough. But I love the world, I cherish many human beings in it, and I’ve worked hard to do my small part to diminish pain. So, at the end of the day I want to believe (and, if I could, I would even pray!) that what I say is true.