News: Nov 15, 2012
How can a global heroine change your life?
Brian Palmer asked this question as part of the Gothenburg Annual Lecture on Global Collaboration, a lecture during Global Week at the University of Gothenburg.
In one of Woody Allen’s films, the female central character explains that she has just met the world’s most wonderful man. The only problem is that he’s a movie star – he is not for real. But then again, you can’t have everything.
‘The first sentence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. But for people in Gaza, Tibet or Afghanistan, these rights exist only on paper and not in reality. But then again, you can’t have everything.’
Brian Palmer is lecturing in a large auditorium at the University of Gothenburg. In 2002 he was appointed best teacher at Harvard and in 2008 he held the Torgny Segerstedt Visiting Professorship at the University of Gothenburg. Today he is a senior lecturer at Uppsala University. But he continues to lecture on the same topic: civic courage and bravery.
‘On 9 October, Talibans stormed a school bus in Swat Valley, Pakistan, and shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in her head and neck. She is currently hospitalised in Birmingham, UK, and miraculously seems to be recovering relatively well. Yousafzai is known for her blog, where she writes about life under the Taliban regime and the importance of letting girls go to school. I dedicate this lecture to you.’
What is it that makes some people manage to do good to others despite horrendous circumstances? Before Palmer attempts to answer this question, he gives several examples.
‘In 2003 German television asked people to help choose the most influential German of all times. The list of candidates included – of course – Bach, Beethoven and Einstein. However, young Germans voted for a completely different type of hero: Sophie and Hans Scholl. In 1943 these two siblings managed to pass out fliers against Nazism, something that ended up costing them their lives. Human rights activist César Chávez once expressed that, to be a human is to suffer for others – God help us be humans.’
Brian Palmer has many examples of extreme courage. One is Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier who purposely let the Nazis catch him and send him to Auschwitz in order to report about what he saw there.
‘When Lisbon was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1755, Voltaire wrote: Lisbon is destroyed, but they dance in Paris. Author Susan Sontag referred to this as the frustration that comes from experiencing the simultaneity of contrasting human fates – right now we are in the safe country of Sweden in a beautiful auditorium at the University of Gothenburg, yet at the same time people are suffering tremendously in Gaza, Tibet and Afghanistan. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas emphasised that our responsibility as humans has no limits, but that our ability is limited.
How would you react if you were at an underground station and somebody suddenly had an epileptic attack and fell down onto the tracks?
‘This happened in New York in 2007. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey realises that there is not enough time to get the man out of the train’s way. So he jumps down to the man, pushes him against the ground with his own body, and manages to keep them both safe between the rails with the train roaring above their heads.’
Would you have done the same thing? This is a question most people ask themselves when they hear stories about great courage.
‘Unusually brave people often share certain features,’ says Palmer. ‘They tend to have strong ideals, they have been exposed to different cultures and lifestyles early in life, they have tolerant parents and teachers, and a majority of them are women.’
What’s fantastic about courage is that it is contagious. Even people who are not as brave as Witold Pilecki, Sophie Scholl or Wesley Autrey can still do something.
‘Ellen and Jonna Hansson were two Swedish 11-year-old twins who refused to perform a traditional Saint Lucia show with their classmates for the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors, despite their school insisting that all children participate. And a YouTube clip shows how a bystander saves a woman from being attacked by a man. He simply stands in front of her and calmly eats his potato crisps while keeping the man at a safe distance.
Malala Yousafzai was asked in an interview why she is engaging in girls’ rights. Since she’s only 14 years old, shouldn’t she let adults deal with those types of issues?
‘If I don’t make my voice heard now, when should I do it?’ she responded.
‘Millions of people around the world are taking risks for the sake of human rights. They constitute a counterweight to all the violence, greed and indifference in the world. They serve as a reminder of what a human being is actually capable of,’ says Palmer.
Photo: Johan Wingborg