Courage, Apathy...& Evil

*** Quotes on courage here! <March 18/10>

I’m reading a book called Country of My Skull – Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa,(1) by Antjie Krog. Bit of a tough read, at times – but very well-written, provocative & rife with interesting thoughts, insights & quotations. Rough because one learns in detail some of the horrific acts of violence & cruelty visited upon so many citizens of South Africa in the apartheid era. Its recounting of the operations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes for fascinating reading (parenthetical thought: I ought to let the author know of my deep appreciation for her book!).

We human beings are certainly a curious lot. We can be so marvellous, generous, compassionate, creative, loving & wise – & by the same token, so thoughtless, self-absorbed (2), cruel, violent, homicidal, and … dare I say, evil?

I will leave it to the philosophers to debate whether or not evil really exists. (though I personally feel we are a bit short of time here on Planet Earth for long-winded philosophical debate & time-consuming study; seems to me more like a time for concerted ACTION.)

I will add that I have encountered my fair share of nasty (even homicidal & sociopathic & kind of scary) characters in my time – in a professional capacity, shall we say – so I am not unfamiliar altogether with the sheer nastiness capacity of some human beings…

Anyway, whether or not evil exists, I will say that I think the apathy of so many people I know & meet – in the face of the most serious & horrendous crisis our species has ever known – borders, to my way of thinking, on evil. (Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I rest my case…)

It frightens me.

It astonishes me that most people I know would be more upset to hear me describe myself as an anarchist (3) than they would to hear that our robot-man prime minister is quite knowingly destroying a huge swath of Canada (read up on the tar sands ) in the name of profits for his corporate buddies (George Monbiot has described Canada as a ‘corrupt petrostate’).

It surprises me that the thing most people seem most curious about when they ask me about my sit-in/arrest experience last Nov. 30th, just before the Copenhagen meetings, is what it was like to have to wear a diaper all day. They are dying to ask me whether or not I peed in it. (The answer, for the record, is no. I skipped my morning coffee that day, which for caffeine addict me was frankly the most challenging aspect of the whole experience!) But the experience wasn’t so much about using a diaper as about getting outside my comfort zone – something I think a lot more of us need to start doing.

I know there are a lot of reasons for our apathy.

But it scares me.

I heard a report on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio yesterday, on ‘The Current Review.’ It was about a TV show in which participants were asked to cause fellow participants to be given electric shocks. Apparently, most did order the shocks.

What kind of people are we?

It worries me.

Author Antjie Krog asks in Country of My Skull (in reference to the goings-on in South Africa during the apartheid years, & afterward, during the time of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which began operating in December 1995), “What the hell does one do?”(4)

& I wrestle with this question myself, pretty much daily. What the hell does one do?

I am not a philosopher, dear Reader, nor any kind of “expert” nor (supposedly) brilliant scientist.

I’m a woman, mother, environmental activist & writer (a person who is unpaid for the work I do; that’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact) – & I am no longer confident about the ability of our species to survive.

We have made/are making such a frightful botch of things.

Still & all, what is one to do??

Throw up our hands?

I say, Take action.

Let’s raise our voices.

Let’s quit stepping over the elephants in the room, & start calling them.

Let’s grow some courage. Grow some it were. Shake things up a little.

In Country of My Skull, Chilean philosopher & activist, José Zalaquett (who served on the Chilean Truth Commission) is quoted as saying, “The most important lesson the struggle taught me and my friends is that no one is endowed with remarkable courage. But courage is another name for learning to live with your fears. Now, after eighteen years and the Chilean Truth Commission, courage has again evolved a new definition: the guts not to give in to easy justice. To live within the confinements of reality, but to search day after day for the progressing of one’s most cherished values. Merciless. Accountable.”(5)


I wonder, might we all try growing a little more courage in the face of the grave dangers now facing us? I surely do hope so….


p.s. A buddy of mine said to me in an e-mail message recently, in reference to the sorts of people who defended tobacco use until they were finally wrestled to the ground, & the people who were responsible for trashing the ozone layer (fully aware, btw, that they were doing so), & the ones who are now defending the oil business with their criminal conspiracy (do read Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, by James Hoggan, with Richard Littlemore), “These big business issues, like the pro-smoking debacle, are beyond my capacity to understand – it’s like there is a parallel universe of animal things that look like humans but behave like something else.” Rather nicely put, Richard!!

I’d say it’s time we turfed out politicians who look & act like robots (& criminals), & bring in some real human beings for a change!!

p.p.s. Shortly after I scrawled this essay, riding the GO bus to Oshawa, I resumed reading Country of my Skull. Author Antjie Krog relates on page 159 that just before midnight on May 10th, 1997 (the deadline for amnesty applications), “six black youths walk into the Truth Commission’s offices in Cape Town.” She goes on to explain that they had decided at the last minute to apply for amnesty because they had realized it had been wrong of them to be apathetic, & do nothing. “So, here we stand as a small group representative of millions of apathetic people who didn’t do the right thing.”


Quote of the Day’ with this post: “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy, in a speech in Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966.

(1) Times Books/Random House, 1998.

(2) I have a very rude name for a condition I feel all too many of us suffer from. “Terminal heads-up-our-own arses” disease. (Sorry; I did try to warn you!)

(3) The Collins dictionary defines anarchist as 1. A person who advocates the abolition of government and a social system based on voluntary cooperation. 2. A person who causes disorder or upheaval. Kurt Vonnegut has a character in his novel Jailbird say “Anarchists are people who believe with all their hearts that governments are enemies of their own people.” I think a lot of us are anarchists, by this latter definition…

(4) Page 118.

(5) Country of My Skull – Guilt, Sorrow & the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, by Antjie Krog, Times Books/Random House 1998. Page 32.

Civil Disobedience Rocks!! 10 Observations

5 days ago now (on Monday, Nov. 30th 2009), I took part in a peaceful sit-in at the Canadian Harper government’s finance minister’s office in Whitby, Ontario, along with 6 other Toronto-area ‘People for Climate Justice.’ We spent the day in Jim Flaherty’s office, & at the end of the day were arrested, taken to the Oshawa police station, charged & later released. [See also Busted for Climate Justice! & Civil Disobedience: Why did we occupy Fin. Minister's Office? & Dear Judge: Comfort Zones & Climate Change]

It was the first time I’d ever been arrested, & all in all, I found the whole experience pretty energizing!

Here's a list of 10 things I’ve concluded:

1. I am very pleased & proud to have taken part in this event. Surprisingly, it was a lot more fun than I’d anticipated!

2. The young people involved in social justice/environmental activism are wildly

  • smart
  • energetic
  • committed
  • courageous & assertive &
  • politically astute (much more so than I was at their ages!)

3. Something that really stands out for me is how community-building this experience was. Totally the opposite of isolating or alienating, which so many things in today’s world seem to be. I felt kind of like one small cell in a functioning body. No need to overplay my own “importance” or contribution. The support that those of us who did the sit-in had was phenomenal – & that felt awesome.

4. The actions of individuals can & do make a huge difference! This “action” was the culmination of many different individual actions & contributions, & its success is due to the synergy of all those individual contributions. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts, and each of those individual “parts” helped hugely! I am so grateful to everyone involved!!

5. The Buddhists are always saying that everything is connected (well, not just the Buddhists; it’s a pretty widely-understood phenomenon by now). Many of my blog entries are about how we need to learn that “Everything isn’t all about ME,” & how valuable “spiritual growth” is, & how much we need to learn from teachers like Eckhart Tolle about the need to tame our egos. This civil disobedience experience was an on-the-fly exercise in the need for these very kinds of lessons. When we know in our guts that “everything isn’t all about me,” it’s pretty powerful what we can work for & achieve…together!!

6. Given some of the feedback I’ve had from friends & family since my arrest, it’s been brought home to me more than ever that those of us who feel capable of speaking up &/or being arrested have a moral duty to do so – because when we do, we're speaking/acting for many, many others who for a whole host of compelling reasons may not be capable of this kind of action themselves. When we do it, I think we help them in some mysterious way to feel the power of their own voices, thoughts & actions too.

7. We middle-class Canadians are, I am ever more convinced, much too complacent, compliant & comfortable. We allow our own comfort to insulate us & isolate us & become an excuse for inaction.

8. Occupying a politician’s office for the day, being arrested & spending a few hours in a police station is a very “small potatoes” contribution, hardly a heroic act! I think of the bravery of the suffragettes, & Rosa Parks, & Nelson Mandela, & Mahatma Gandhi, & so many millions of current prisoners & refugees all over the world who have suffered & are suffering far, far more than I can ever imagine. If I cannot give up my comfort for one day in solidarity with the millions on this planet who are suffering & will suffer grievously due to climate change impacts, well... what kind of person am I, then, really?

9. It is time for my generation – the Baby Boomers – to step up to the plate. Our parents lived through the Depression & World War II, & made huge personal sacrifices in order that our generation might have better lives. So many died during World War II, that we might live. What has my generation done? Is it not finally time for us to make a contribution to the future for our own children & grandchildren? To actually make some sacrifices? I definitely think so.

10. We have been too quiet, too polite, too selfish, too inwardly-focused. It’s time to speak up. To get off our comfortable backsides & show some gumption. As someone wise has said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” It’s time to get our hands dirty!!

More & more well-known figures – people like George Monbiot, & Wendell Berry, & Dr. James Hansen, are saying that civil disobedience must be stepped up. It isn’t just “overgrown hippies” who see that it’s time for change; many, many respected writers & scientists & educators of all kinds are saying we must speak up – and act up.

Let’s use these wonderful voices we’ve been given, shall we?


p.s.  This blog is my own. I am not representing or speaking here on behalf of any other groups to which I belong - just me, myself & I. Any screw-ups are mine alone!?

p.p.s. You can read the blog entry ‘Copenhagen Primer’ if you need some suggestions for personal action. I went out yesterday to do some errands in downtown Toronto, & the simple fact that I was wearing a (Toronto Climate Campaign) button about climate change led to a good conversation with a staff person in a store. Such a simple contribution, just wearing a button!!

p.p.p.s. For information about doing direct action yourself (and some good photos!), you can go to Direct Action in Canada for Climate Justice here

Quotations I hope may help summon up the blood, as it were….

“The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.” – Harold Zindler

“The single most important contribution any of us can make to the planet is a return to frugality.” – Robert Muller, former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN

“The saving of the world from impending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of the non-conforming minority.” – Martin Luther King

“Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy, in a speech in Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966.

“I still believe the model of the peaceful world is the potluck supper.Everyone can make a contribution, everyone can gain fellowship and nourishment, and we can all learn from one another.” – Ursula Franklin

“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who, in times of crisis, preferred to remain neutral.” – Dante, in The Inferno

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” – Alice Walker

“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something.” – Carl Sagan, astronomer (1934 – 1996).

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it’s the only thing.” – Albert Schweitzer

“We are privileged, and the duty of privilege is absolute integrity.” – John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and former priest

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful.” – Wendell Berry, quoted in Depletion and Abundance – Life on the New Home Front or, One Woman’s Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times, Sharon Astyk, New Society Publishers, 2008.

“Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” – Quote displayed at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. – quoted in Heat – How to Stop the Planet from Burning, by George Monbiot, Doubleday, 2006.

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid.” – Audre Lourde, 1934-92

“Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?” – George Monbiot