Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do Human Rights Require an Imagination?

I believe in the power of narrative to change the world. Or at least it is my way of changing the world. We know that words themselves are mightier than the sword, and I admire many a persuasive speaker, but to me it is the ability to enter people’s imaginations, not just ignite their passions, that sets poetry and prose apart from other media.

In her article “Sentimental Education,” (Harper’s, May 2007), Joanna Bourke reviewed Lynn Hunt’s book Inventing Human Rights: A History. The review unfolded both Hunt’s and Bourke’s arguments that the downfall of slavery, the emancipation of women, and even the pursuit of animal rights, can be traced back not to the simple statements that these truths and rights are inalienable and self-evident, but to the moment in history when the masses began devouring popular novels. By entering the minds, and more importantly, the emotions, of well-drawn characters, normal people began developing empathy for their fellow person. It was only when another’s heartache, distress, unhappiness, and desires entered our imagination—not just our intellect—that humanity began to believe that all people are truly created equal.

Obviously, we still have a long way to go. It’s easy to feel powerless in a world full of inequalities; it’s easy to fret at the iniquities perceived on all sides and one’s inability to right them. Injustices large and small burn my heart. I want to feed the world, to soothe all neglected children, to house every head, to protect every abused animal, to shield beauty and wilderness from environmental devastation, to make motherhood the most revered (and well-paid) job in existence.

As I write this, my son is asleep in the other room. Some days he drives me mad and I’d like to give him away to a passing band of gypsies. Other days I look at him and think there’s no more delightful creature on the planet. On all days, though, when I’m nursing him or just watching him play, my thoughts turn to the other mothers of the world: a mother holding her babies close in Mosul as her house is bombed, a mother looking for her son who’s been stolen and is learning to be a child soldier in Uganda, the mother across town who doesn’t know how to extricate herself and her children from an abusive husband and father. No mother, I think, should ever have to watch her children starve, or be beaten, or should need to protect her baby from a bomb.

It is imagination that gives me empathy and makes my heart ache for the mothers of the world, and it is only through entering others’ imaginations that I can change a world that allows these situations to exist. Writing helps people from different cultures understand one another. It makes previously ignorant readers aware of the beauties of untouched wilderness, and our need to protect it; it turns the hard edges of political rhetoric into something malleable and soft, something closer to real life. Writing that touches people's imaginations will, I hope, help regenerate the power of women, of the Amazon warrior and the mother in all of us.

Writing is the place where I feel I can make a difference. I hang on to the final words of Bourke’s essay: “Although words by themselves cannot eliminate suffering, they can extend the boundaries of our moral imagination. … The words we use to describe others represent contrasting meditations on what it means to be human. Our future depends on which of these meditations we adopt.”