“One may understand by humanism a theory which upholds man as an end-in-itself and as the supreme value.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Certainly the above title is not merely an assertion, nor has it been conjured up purely accidentally. The title is above all else an invitation to dialogue, though of course it is also, to say the least, reflective and yet at the same time commemorates a mood which tortured my sense of belonging, and the consolation and luxurious inertia that came with that parochial sensibility in regards to my then limited worldview right at the outset of my engagement in the HIA program in Warsaw, Poland. But actually, with the benefit of hindsight, what could have been more necessary and urgent than the painful convulsions of a woman in labor synonymous to that needling mood I experienced then? Alas, what I had misconstrued as my dissatisfaction with the program turned out in the end to be the birth of something stellar in me. So, relax your guard, for this is an invitation to some great news regarding the program, which as we speak, I do gladly bear.
My dear HIA friend, or whoever you are, come and please lend me your ears for you might see yourself in this Confession. As though that would be a suitable incentive, I head straight to a more pressing aspect of this Confession. I must mention the various quest speakers, especially Prof. Zimbardo, Mr. Konstanty Gebert, Mr. Eugeniusz Smolar whose influence, along with other unmentioned quest speakers, can never be underestimated? Their omission would amount to a stark betrayal of the ingeniously employed efforts of the HIA Polska program to sharpen my awareness of a new concept of Justice and Freedom anchored in the universality of the human essence, unlike my earlier presuppositions of what constituted Justice and personal Freedom.
After enumerating the inconsistencies of the “ History of International Relations” in his lecture which I immensely related to, I wanted Mr. Eugeniusz to conclude like many nihilists do, by weeping about man’s depravity and the irredeemable nature of the dark side of man’s life. What I got instead shocked me, and I thought he had committed the same sort of deductive error as some intellectuals I’ve met when he said, “Morality is only possible as individual and not state acts. All prejudices and schemes love to be revisited by our generation.” Mmh, “So what?” I thought, “Isn’t history too a darling of repetition?” As though he had overheard my mistrust Mr. Eugeniusz (or was it Mr. Gebert?) instead replied, “Statistics don’t say anything about the individual. Stop evil earlier, against this background we can see stars rising, shining. We no longer need the past as a metric for interpreting the future – to say goodbye to grandfather’s ghost [this timorous tendency in us that often loves to hide itself behind customs and “grand” opinions of rather questionable validity] inhabiting the mind of his grandson.”
Well, for all that Mr. Eugeniusz’s lecture was inspiring? I was not even in the slightest bit persuaded then. And the day passed just like that, with my premature dismissal of Mr. Eugeniusz’s lesson as a spirited lecture but utterly based on wishful optimism for a vague humanitarian possibility. But life goes on whether or not one takes wrong detours in their inward reflections on life lessons. So I remained discontent at that unexpected conclusion (actually it was a call to hold fast in our humanitarian errand, despite the contrariness posed by the imperfect forms of human history) of Mr. Eugeniusz’s talk. The series of lectures that followed raised my suspicions that HIA Polska was actually conspiring against the happy state of my consciousness.
I stayed on guard all the while and only relaxed it when Prof. Zimbardo came to present his “Exploration of the Psychology of Evil” lecture. I thought happily, “My time for the last laugh will soon be here,” for I had recalled this Nietzsche quote, “But psychology is the measure of cleanliness or uncleanliness of a race,” and I took a seat in the lecture hall as an African happily blessing myself that they will finally realize which race has been after all unclean all the time. Somewhere in the lecture after elucidating Milgram’s experiment, Prof. Zimbardo said, “You’re in a system; how does a system corrupt a person?” Well, that was good news to me but where do colonialism and neocolonialism fall in this scheme or what is their relationship to the truth he just mentioned? All in all the lecture seemed very promising, as evidenced by the fact that I was edgy in my seat. To fast forward, I was taken aback when he began to speak of something to the effect of criticizing “The Morality of Bystanders.” What, they are on me again. He said, “Our character is malleable. Let’s dehumanize our irrational fears plus systemic injustice; we are all-powerful agents of social change.” Okay, Sir, I snapped silently, but on what trait or human condition can we establish humanity?
If I have lied in the foregoing paragraphs it is because of my lingering spite against my new found and cherished truth about the universal essence of man orchestrated in his existence and not given to him ready-made or ascribed to him a priori by some traditional mythology or religious doctrine. I am still working on that spite born of my Turkana mythology cocoon and received ancestral wisdom. I thank HIA Polska for making me realize the power of my limited capacity by enabling my encounter with the Power of One, through the heroic life of Jan Karski. A Pole fighting for the “Jewish” cause seemed to me like a Turkana (my tribe) fighting for a Pokot cause (our number one archenemies in the volatile though oil-rich region of the North Rift in Kenya). His story piqued my interest to investigate further the cause and motivations of what then seemed to me an absurd choice made by an individual. Now I realize that it was not a “Jewish” cause but a humanitarian one and Jan Karski could have without a doubt done the same were it the Turkana who suffered under the Nazis’ fascistic regime. The case of Jan Karski for the first time, as you will clearly remember, confirmed Mr. Konstanty Gebert’s hypothesis that we as individuals have the inherent power to transcend the classical interpretation of history (and our life’s praxis of that interpretation) (that mandates to educate and make people good or “moral” from the classical-interpretation point of view. For instance my erstwhile classical interpretation of Turkana history did limit my sense of myself as solely Turkana and nothing more and hence perpetuated and enhanced my fears and suspicions of the Other, even when this accepted intentionality of Turkana people was contrary to universal logic. Then I remembered Mr. Konstanty Gebert’s words: “The need to categorize a different culture as a threat to one’s own is not only modern but also grounded in an irrational fear and on a narrow view that one’s culture is a unique (often, superior) player in the global ‘social Darwinism’ and not admissive of enhancements and influences from other cultures.” And also, “The shortsighted desire for a certain group of people (e.g. of “homogenous” origin) to aspire for unity and security under a common identity… belies their fear to relate and identify with global humanity.” Now there was no hope left that my earlier but limited sense of belonging could survive beyond this point. If I knew then what I understand now I could definitely have remarked, “Good riddance!”
HIA helped me realize that there is no problem and misunderstanding from Hell, that man’s fate is solely situated in the historical present-ness of his reality, in his ability to act through the choices he makes. La condition humaine (man’s fate), as Benjamin Kaufman explains Kierkegaard’s and Andre Malraux’s idea, is only needful of one thing, that is a decision; and of course Sartre’s idea that “all that we are is a result of what we have thought” or not thought. HIA indeed strongly echoes Albert Camus’ message – enabling us to realize that human fate and historical progress is “a human matter, which must be settled among men.” That is why it is not Humanity In Lecture Halls or simply just Humanity (with great emphasis on the letter H). I hope it has dawned you just has it did on me why it is precisely Humanity In Action, that it is Humanity in practical life, in our everyday to day occurrences, in our Doing. It would not be an overstatement to remark that HIA is the much-needed transcendence in this negative age, though of course HIA cannot simply be reduced to a single explanation or just this simple Confession. Other HIA Fellows have for sure had amazing experiences of HIA that should forever be sought out.
Through especially the Power of One, I am able to face both history and myself. It is in this consequence that HIA has been most influential to me, it has enabled me to change. It is through the guidance of HIA and its invitation to critical thought and invitation to see the feasibility of its humanitarian mission that my passionate revivifying of the expectation of a man situated in Turkana history has been altered and rendered into good service for a valid form of humanity. HIA has enabled me to discover myself and understand that it is not enough to have generous ideas about some people or races or ways of life and yet hate others. The Negro, The Jew, The Pokot, The Homosexual can only be a pretext. As Sartre aptly recaps, “Man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all others as the condition of his own existence. I am obliged to choose my attitude to it, and in every respect I bear the responsibility of the choice which, in committing myself, also commits the whole of humanity.”
So my earlier dissatisfaction was just the dissatisfaction of a man who had remained on the surface of life. My superstitious overconfidence in how I led my life was my own fetter. Now that I have been made to realize this, what then is my place and role in this politico-sociological space? Or as HIA would timely ask, “What is my ripple effect?” Truly HIA has become guidance for my inner and outer action. HIA is not only a place where reflection in solitude is sharpened or our solicitude cultivated, but is entirely a place to be. For a person who can relate to my former self, I encourage you to apply and join HIA, for our epoch severely demands a social ideological shift if it is to be at least saved from the slope of moral degradation, let alone improved. For HIA senior and junior Fellows, since we aim constantly at improving humanity, your membership and work are not only important but necessary. Withdrawing your membership and support of HIA would be fatal to humanity. Where else would we find a place where we can be authentic and complete human beings again like in HIA, where could we find that required critique of our presuppositions and lingering biases? As Franz Kafka and Walter Kaufmann would have agreed, “Although critical intelligence is not sufficient to redeem humanity from misery, those who renounce it are heading from the frying pan to the fire.” And why have we not brought in Jasper’s authority? Okay, here goes, “The inner attitude of all humanity is determined by the way and content of its knowledge.” And as one honorable and dearly beloved Professor Alice Hadler would say, we had several forces or counterbalance added to the “critical intelligence” aspect of the program in form of planned educational excursions to the historic Treblinka concentration camp and the Auschwitz death camp. This valuable practical aspect of the program provided rich and complex occasions for personal reflection and a face to face encounter with the extent that unrestrained dark side of human life can get to.
HIA is indeed the place to be. It is a place that disorients one from their deluded world citizenship or civil quietism (or lack of unified voice against evil) and inaction for the betterment of our human race. We have reached the end of this personal Confession of the impact that HIA had on my being, but please allow me to quote two more venerable thinkers, Leo Tolstoy and the late emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie. Tolstoy: “The men of our time do not pretend to hate oppression, inequality, the division of men, and all kinds of cruelty, not only toward men, but also toward animals – they actually do hate this, but they do not know how to destroy it all, and they have not the courage to part with what maintains all this and seems to them to be indispensable.” Haile Selassie, “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
I wonder why my kindergarten teacher did not teach me what H.I.A. really stands for. But she said “H is for hen,” not Humanity, “I” – well she never said it meant “In” (apparently kids at this young age don’t get lessons on prepositions especially non-native speakers of English); as for “A,” she said A is for Akim (a Turkana word for fire) – well she actually was very close, for the essence of fire can be said to be in the activity of burning, that is in Action. HIA has opened my eyes, metaphorically speaking, and I hope it has yours or will in the shortest time possible have the same or even a greater humanitarian impact on your being. Don’t dare resist please, let HIA enhance your ability to bring voice to oppressed people and enable the action of those who can act, people like you and me to name but two, for our common humanitarian universalist goal. Taking mine as case in point: HIA is the master of “indirect reawakening” par excellence. What surpasses my indebtedness to HIA? Absolutely nothing/nobody.