Voices Against Indifference Initiative
The Harry Wu Project
January – February 2000
The Quest for Swaraj
by Katie Dimmery
Sun Valley High School
We were a typical middle school class, a bunch of scrawny kids whose most pressing concerns were pop quizzes and popularity. We shopped at the trendy stores, kowtowed to the “cool” boys and girls, and, of course, we avoided Nick Matthews. Nick was just another kid, but according to eight grade society, he was completely “untouchable”-a true Harjan, or member of the lowest caste, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi.
The teacher had not yet returned from lunch, and the class was alone in the classroom. As usual, my friends and I sat in a corner and watched the goings-on.
On this particular day a group of boys had surrounded Nick; they were cussing and punching at him.
Nick always tried to be friendly with them. “Okay, guys, that’s enough,” he was saying. “Really, guys, that’s enough. You can stop now. Why don’t you stop now? Why won’t you stop?”
They laughed. A strong boy named Bennett chuckled and grabbed Nick around the neck. Bennett had strong hands, with black hairs sprouting on the knuckles, and now the tips of his fingers were turning white as he squeezed. Nick’s face was turning red, and his knees were buckling. He made a strange noise in the back of his throat, like a faucet that’s just been turned off. The class was silent. I looked at the terrified faces of the students around me, but none of us could move.
All of a sudden, Mandy Brown stood up and rant at Bennett. I looked up just in time to see her lean back, her skinny white arm cocked, and punch Bennett in the shoulder. Nick collapsed on the floor in a heap, and Bennett turned to Mandy. He let out a long string of cuss words and cracked his knuckles.
“What makes you think you can DO this?” Mandy said. Her voice was high and scared, and she didn’t move from where she stood but I could see her hands shaking. She looked around the classroom desperately. But none of us would help her.
We sat in our desks and sensed the terrible injustice, but we did nothing. Fortunately the teacher came in shortly after that and broke things up.
Thinking back, I realize how much Mandy’s decision must have cost her. In simply defending what was right, she risked punishment, mockery, and the disapproval of an unforgiving eight grade society.
Almost four years later, Mandy Brown and I are in high school. I no longer talk to her and see her only occasionally in the halls. But no matter what Mandy goes on to do with her life, to me, she will always be a hero. Mandy saw injustice and knew she had the ability to end it. And without a second thought, she did what she knew what the only real choice for her.
As the poet Matthew Arnold said, “The will is free/ Strong is the soul, and wise and beautiful/ The seeds of godlike power are in us still/ Gods are we, bards, saints, heroes, if we will.”
As Mandy believed, all people with the ability to defend right have a moral obligation to do so. It is the duty of all humankind to promote justice and tolerance for life. While justice is the quality of treating all living things with complete fairness, tolerance is the characteristic of having total compassion and understanding for difference. Together, justice and tolerance form the basis for all morality.
It is not necessary for a person to be completely free in order to promote justice and tolerance. In Ghandi’s movement to gain independence for India, his ultimate goal was “swaraj.” The literal interpretation of swaraj is freedom, though swaraj encompasses much more, including both political freedom and freedom within oneself. It includes an awareness of the unity of all life, and also a belief in universal rights and wrongs.
“The word swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint which ‘independence’ often means,” Gandhi said.
Though complete swaraj is not attainable, people come closer to it when they promote justice and tolerance–in other words, when they bring others closer to swaraj. Therefore, the real issue concerns ability: If a person is able to promote morality, then she is duty-bound by the very laws of morality she supports to do so.
In order to promote morality, however, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what it means. Is morality a product of society, or does it transcend human creations? If morality is defined independently by separate cultures, then one culture cannot impose justice on another without being intolerant. It would be equally impossible to tolerate all difference without ignoring beliefs in justice.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant, however, believes that morality “borrows nothing from experience,” and is instead universal, a matter of common sense. Since morality is actually just as permanent as any physical law, it can be applied to all cultures without violating their identities.
The philosopher and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer sums this up best: “We are no longer obligated to derive our ethical worldview from knowledge of the universe. In the principle of Reverence for Life we possess a concept of the world founded on itself. It renews itself in us every time we reflect thoughtfully about ourselves and our relation to life around us.
This morality is obvious even in the most ancient cultures in the form of the Golden Rule and even the Codes of Hammurabi.
Kant summarizes these universal ethics laws as, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a Universal Law of Nature.”
Gandhi reflects a similar view. “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man who you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starved million?”
However perfect humans’ vision of morality may be, imperfect humans cannot perfectly enforce it. When European explorers first came to America, one of their main goals was to “civilize” the Native Americans. Despite good motives, the Native American people and their culture were ultimately destroyed. Similarly, the purpose of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to prevent a prolonged and bloody war. Nevertheless, the bombs killed countless innocent victims. Many of the worst mistakes in history are regarded as examples of human evil. In fact, those responsible for such atrocities almost always had the best intentions. They made mistakes due to ignorance and very human imperfections.
Plato divided the universe into a material world and a world of ideas. The material world is what humans perceive with their senses, while the world of ideas contains everything that is eternal, including justice and tolerance. The material world is changeable and imperfect, while the world of ideas is ideal. Humans are aware of this idea world through their common sense.
Because life is imperfect, however, humans cannot promote morality without compromising and making exceptions. Gandhi describes the pursuit of this ideal morality, or swaraj, as “satyagraha.” Satyagraha is a method that uses only love and nonviolence to cause change.
“Satyagraha is gently, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice…” Gandhi said.
Satyagraha is also an ideal. Humans should always attempt to use this method, but they should not be completely limited to it either. Albert Schweitzer sums this up:
“The principle of not killing or harming should not be considered as something in itself but as the servant of compassion and subordinate to it. Therefore it must come to terms with reality in practical fashion. A true reverence for ethics is shown in the fact that man recognizes the difficulties inherent in it.”
Even the greatest heroes make terrible mistakes. People tend to react to these mistakes by losing faith in morality and instead revering physical and social power. Through time, society has given more respect to “heroes” such as Hercules, Beowulf, Julius Caesar, General Eisenhower, and sports stars. Even in my eight grade class, the students had more respect for the so-called cool people that for Mandy Brown.
True heroes like Mandy Brown struggle to uphold the ideals of justice and tolerance in the face of mockery and considerable personal defects. To them, doing the right thing is more important than their personal welfare.
And though I never did do anything to support Mandy, I still remember what she did, and I think the other people in that class do, too. I also remember the day following Mandy and Bennett’s face-off; we all left Nick Matthews in peace, and I even had the nerve to say something when a group of girls made fun of a sixth-grader for being overweight.
Mandy truly understood the quote by Herbert Spencer: “No one can be perfectly free till all are free; no one can be perfectly moral till all are moral; no one can be perfectly happy till all are happy.”
Our American Obligation
Butler High School
Since the dawn of man, humankind has been subjected to injustice, intolerance, and acts of inhumanity. We, as residents of this earth, have a moral and ethical responsibility to our fellow man to sustain peace, justice, and freedom for everyone. Many have impacted society and left a lasting mark, while others remain heroes only to those who know them personally. Thousand of people have died to ensure freedom for others, and their deeds continue as legacies for future generations.
“Injustice is a threat to justice everywhere,” the great Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. This idea summarizes the situation of humans everywhere. The population of America enjoys countless freedoms and liberties unknown or unimaginable to the population of much of the rest of the world. During World War II< the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer fled his native country to escape serving in the Nazi army. He arrived in America where he had the freedom to follow his religious pursuits. However, after only one month in America, he became convinced that the only moral and ethical thing for him to do was to return to his homeland and take a strong stand against the Nazi scourge. Not long after his return to Germany, Bonhoffer was arrested because the Nazis claimed to have proof that he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Dietrich Bonhoffer was hanged in 1945. When a situation of injustice or intolerance occurs-what do we do? Do we turn our other cheek and pretend the situation is nonexistent, or doe we do what is right and honorable and come to the aid of those whoa re suffering from intolerable acts? Much of American society hides behind the facade of freedom and ignores those who have yet to obtain freedom for themselves. I truly believe that society should focus mainly on giving people the chance to make their own decisions and choose their own future. That’s what freedom means to me. Not only should we bask in freedom ourselves, but we also should see that others have the opportunity for freedom as well.
Albert Schweitzer, a humanitarian who served in some of Africa’s most poverty-stricken areas during the early part of the twentieth century once said “the thinking man gives every life the same reverence he gives his own.” Despite race, religion, sex and backgroud-we are all equal. We all deserve basic human rights. We all deserve a chance at freedom. From the desolate, war-torn areas of communist Vietnam, to the unjust and racist ruled townships of South African apartheid, people have suffered. They have suffered while most of us sat back and watched and listened. Our country suffered the acts of a tyrannical government, and man of great courage declared our nation’s independence. Some Americans protested the atrocities of war and they paid the price at Kent State. We have shown our opposition to moral and ethical shortcomings and have made a difference. Isn’t it time we did the same for other countries? “The one fundamental trait we all share with humanity is the desire and will to live. Good is what maintains life. And evil is that which destroys it.” (Schweitzer) United States citizens preach of freedom and liberty to all those of the earth. It is our obligation as the citizens of a free country to promote the freedom of others. It was not until I read a book, entitled Kaffir Boy (by Mark Mathabane) that I was aware of the hopelessness of people in unjust societies. They feel as if the world has forgotten them. They feel that the world has turned its back on its fellow man. Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Schweitzer were all dreamers and doers. They were people who believed in a free world in which everyone could live peacefully. One of Schweitzer’s most famous quotes, and one that I stand by firmly is “We all need to apply our services to the needs of humanity.” It is our obligation, as Americans. After all, isn’t that what we stand for? “Liberty and justice for all…”
I have lived fifteen years, about ten of which I can remember. But in the short amount of time I have learned so much and heard of so many people who have impacted society-in this world, in my country, and in my own community. My grandfather served in World War II at the young age of nineteen. He suffered a serious leg wound, which kept him hospitalized for almost a year before he was medically discharged. He saw firsthand the awful price our freedom sometimes exacts. As my grandfather saw other soldiers who had suffered all types of wounds, he decided to become a committed advocate for our country’s veterans. After all, these were men who were wounded, and saw comrades fall, all for the sake of keeping America free. My grandfather became active in the American Legion, the Veterans for Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans. He spoke to many groups regarding all the sacrifices so many have made to guarantee the cherished freedoms we so often seem to take for granted. Even during the turbulent Vietnam era when patriotism was so deviled by many, he still spoke out to young people about the importance of cherishing and preserving freedom and democracy. He was able to represent those who fought our war and his work allowed him to obtain grateful appreciation for a job well done.
Another “hometown hero” is the Associate Pastor of my Presbyterian Church, Rev. Fred McAllister. He has served as a military chaplain in World War II and felt he had done a great service for America. When the conflicts in Vietnam arose he felt it was his obligation to the young men of the service to bring them faith and comfort. When he was the age of many of the young serviceman’s fathers, as well as a father of teenagers himself, even though it was not required of him, he asked to serve on the front lines of Vietnam. His decisions impacted many in those trenches. Many who were hurting physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually were comforted by his presence. People like Rev. McAllister go the extra step to fulfill their calling. Whether it was helping locally by assisting with mission projects or standing up for a cause globally, there are many respected heroes from our past. Their legacies will continue to live on – shining in the shadow of justice.
History and literature have long regarded ‘heroes’ in high stature. After all, they are what make much of history. The role of a hero is someone to respect. A hero is someone who is a role model and who stands up for what he believes. Heroes are important in today’s society as well as the past. A hero has infinite potential in the influence of younger generations. His influence shines on after death. Heroes take a stand for the ultimate truth, and don’t succumb to doubts about their cause. History has produced any heroes who have fought for freedom and saved the lives of many. Literature has developed heroes of epic proportion who save the world and win the hears of readers. Whether it is fact or fiction – historical and literal heroes complement each other. They both represent the good of the earth. From John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Superman and Odysseus – they all have positive influences. The hero teaches morals, ethics and justice. The idea of heroes plays an important role in the issue of humanity. In fiction, when injustice and inhumanity occur, the hero is there to save the day. Much like in reality – the her dreams of a more perfect world, justice and freedom. The hero acts on that dream and stands up for what is morally right. He does not accept “no” and fights for his goal until it is accomplished. In the case of death, the hero’s legacy is lived on through survivors of the cause. Children especially look up to heroes. If we could teach them at an early age, what the moral structure of society should try to obtain, we all could be heroes. If you teach just one child in your lifetime what is right and honest and fair, then you are a hero. The people looking up to heroes are the future of this world. Historical and literal role models enlighten and inspire for the greater cause of humanity.
I truly believe the future of this world lies in the hands of children. When you educate them about past heroes, you inspire them to perform courageous and heroic deeds. Children can be inspired to take a stand for what’s morally right. As we in America enjoy our freedom, we can not hide from reality. We need to realize the hardships that others currently face, and we need to make a difference. We need to help justice prevail. We need to spread freedom to countries where freedom is an unknown. It is our duty because we are morally responsible for our fellow man. It is our job. It is our American obligation.