The UK Parliament’s decision not to support its Prime Minister over Syria represents a moral stand. The ripples of protest have travelled ten years to arrive in the House of Commons, it seems. This is surprising because that pebble in the pond was so large; the Iraq War was hardly met with a silent condonation in the UK’s streets.
Appropriately, the last fortnight has also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the enforcement of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). We’ve also found ourselves celebrating the life of Nobel Laureate poet, Seamus Heaney. This has prompted an overwhelming analysis of the poet’s imprint on literature and his relationship to his homeland, Northern Ireland. Not only was Heaney a mouthpiece for his own soul’s troubles, but he signalled a sympathetic beacon for human dignity everywhere.
In the early 1950s, the ECHR launched a post-traumatic embrace of individual liberties in the aftermath of fresh human horrors. In 2013, there are new horrors with which to wrestle. It seems that the UK government is slowly coming to terms with its responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland under the ECHR, though its reticent compliance instils severe doubts as to its commitment to human rights.
The concept of ‘human rights’ was something that Heaney addressed both in speeches and in his poetry. In the context of Northern Ireland, he spoke about discrimination of the “minority citizen” and the “poetic truth [that] change had to take place”. W.B. Yeats had written of the savage ferocity of civil war, of how romantic ideas about what we may deserve as humans can lead to jealous, violent disillusionment:
… We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart's grown brutal from the fare; / More substance in our enmities / Than in our love…
Heaney considered humans to be “hunters and gatherers of values”, sharing our earnestness of emotion. He spoke of the “boldness and buoyancy” of these values in the context of human rights treaties. Documents like the ECHR represent for Heaney an international consensus of our collective moral imagination; any breaches thereof are “far outweighed by the historic importance of the global covenant which it represents”.
Former Czech playwright, prisoner and President, Václav Hável, spoke of human rights as a “valid global instrument that holds up a mirror to the misery of this world”. In a similar vein, Heaney used his poetry “to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it”. At the root of this activism is wordcraft. The law, too, relies on such semantic “manipulation”. Another writer, Philip K Dick, opined:
If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.
This encapsulates not only the impact of literature, but also the very function of the law. Of course, the law’s monopoly over words can be used to undemocratic ends. However, the manipulation of words can be used to limit conflict in human relations. Human rights law, as manifested in the ECHR, “contributes… to the maintenance of an equilibrium” between right and wrong, and it could be “seen as a counterweight to the given actuality of the world” (especially given the circumstances of mid-20th century Europe).
In “The Power of the Powerless”, Hável alludes to a decision we share as citizens: whether to ride with the ripples of protest or to wade against the tide of change in favour of the comparable security of conformity. The decision presents itself often as a moral judgment call. To reflect the world’s problems back on itself may reveal a risk that ultimately outweighs an individual’s perceived gains.
However, the perceived gains are as much imagined as they are actual. Imagined gains in 2013 can herald in the actual gains of future generations. The imaginings of Heaney and Hável, and the wordcraft of the ECHR’s drafters, have survived to inspire still today.
Those who deem themselves to be powerless have not yet awoken (or been awakened) to the poetic truth of their role in the state-citizen dynamic – the relationship wherein human rights nestle most comfortably. To paraphrase John Waters, these conforming citizens collude in their own enslavement. They signify “a kind of blind automatism which drives the system… They are both victims of the system and its instruments.”
The only reasonable means to confront that which offends our base human sympathies – our humanity – may be to reject that system. We see it happening today across the world; from Turkey to Egypt to Colombia, and in Romania’s quest for its own model of European democracy. To act otherwise is to “cast… the stones of silence”. In the words of Philip K. Dick:
The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.We must strive to honour our humanity, our authenticity.
 From “The Stare’s Nest by My Window” (1928) by W.B. Yeats
 From “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney in “North”, 1992 (Faber & Faber)
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