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By Aarif Abraham, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace

We live in an age of flux – personal, professional, and political. Previously, we may have been lulled into a false sense of security seduced by the idea that humanity had progressed, and converged, towards undisputed economic, political, and even spiritual, paradigms. These proposed that economic (neo-) liberalism, untrammelled industrial development and increasing democratisation were on an unparalleled footing and the end of history was nigh – conflict, -isms and inequality were on the retreat. The ecological and natural were not even in contention; they seemed almost irrelevant in the face of apparent human progress. The illusion of inevitable progress has, of course, long been shattered not least in the heart of liberal democracies themselves such as the UK which wrestle with huge inequality, parochial nationalism, world-beating ecological devastation/degradation, and the increasing dilution of civil, economic and social rights. All who care are faced with what seem perennial questions – what can I do, how do I do it, who will help, where do I go, when will change happen, and why must I do something?

At a macro level, the end of history is now less a conceptual academic paradigm and more a very real and existential threat – imminent and catastrophic collapse of the eco-systems and environment that sustain humanity and all life on the planet. At a micro level, individuals feel increasingly despondent, disinterested, and disconnected from the political forces around them that are seemingly outside of their control: unsure and uncertain about our values we opt for either absent-minded conformity or conscious submission to totalitarian leaders presenting shibboleths and simplistic solutions (which never materialise). The symptoms of personal, professional, and political crisis, particularly taken together, are anxiety, suffering and a deep sense of hopelessness; sometimes individual but increasingly collective. Many who seek positive change often reckon with these crises daily. Sometimes those crises can manifest into debilitating mental and physical health ailments. 

 The inevitability of ecological collapse and how humans may relate to that, both inwardly and outwardly, was the subject of the retreat of St Ethelburga’s and Be The Earth Foundation at 42 Acres in Somerset in October 2021. The subject and object of the retreat were clear. What is an appropriate orientation, if any, towards apparent inevitable ecological catastrophe? Does acknowledging climate change in extreme terms propel one into action or despair? How does one position oneself to be of influence in addressing ecological collapse in our daily habits, work, and community (i.e., in our politics)? How does one avoid trauma and burnout in addressing such a vast undertaking? What are the tools necessary in maintaining self-care, well-being, and resilience? Ultimately the retreat was concerned with confronting, accepting, and inculcating the idea that catastrophic climate change is, or will be very soon, an inevitability. 

Ongoing climate and environmental catastrophe are inextricably linked to war, inequality, and the systematic violation of human rights. Many in the international criminal law and human rights law fields have long accepted not just the inevitability of conflict but the continued commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This is notwithstanding various international instruments obliging States to prohibit, prevent and punish perpetrators of such crimes. It is, for many, deeply dispiriting to not only accept the paradox of the inevitability of atrocity crimes which are entirely preventable but to reckon with, be proximate to, and feel the trauma, anguish, and dire state of victims/survivors. Survivors for whom avenues of restitution, reconciliation and restorative justice are often extremely remote. We need only think of the genocides within the past five years of the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, the Uyghurs in Western China, and the Rohingya in Burma; and the utter dismal failings of States to do largely anything to prevent these ongoing crimes despite their commitments to ending them after the Second World War.

Burnout, vicarious trauma, and despondency are real for anyone affected by, or proximate to, the scourge of war heightened by the reality of very limited avenues, whether structural or otherwise, for accountability and justice. The mental impact is intensified by further practical hurdles: acute lack of funding for people-centred accountability processes; the absolute primacy of realpolitik or political expediency over justice; and the breakdown of relationships among practitioners due to competition over limited resources, complicated power differentials, and self-promotion at the expense of the cause. As Pogo succinctly put it, “we have met the enemy, and he is us”. 

Given such a gravely glum and perniciously pessimistic outlook on human affairs (and failure in collective action) what possible orientation might be resilient, effective, and even, possibly, hopeful? There is no prescription that I am aware of, but four practices may help in developing an inward and outward orientation that is sustainable whilst practically furthering social justice and meaningful change:

  • recognising the fluidity between idealism and pragmatism and marrying the two to address existing situations of injustice.
  • appreciating that long-term systemic change, by furthering the rule of law through practical democratic engagement, must go hand in hand with short-term daily struggles.
  • moving beyond a focus purely on the symptoms to confronting the causes of dislocation, disillusion, and despondency.
  • finding the space and time for oneself, in concert with like-minded others, to cultivate common virtues emanating from deep human intuition or tradition: “living well, beautifully and justly”. 

Marrying idealism with practicality

There is something extraordinary about climbing a mountain and seeing a grand vista from the summit. It is a view of the world that is only possible through the, sometimes, arduous but, often, gentle step-by-step task of ascending a steep incline. Both the process and outcome are fulfilling, joyous and expansive – and if one has any doubt on the journey upwards, one needs only reflect on the small paths just lumbered up or gaze into the vast distance from the – once thought possibly unachievable – summit. 

 In much the same way, in attempting to tackle major injustices, particularly in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there is much in the process as opposed to the outcome: the required planning to work out the best route; a series of checks and first steps; preparedness for a steep ascent; and an ever-present readiness to reckon with the occasionally precipitous rockface. 

A common early pitfall in human rights work is hurling one’s whole being into action at break-neck speed, without much planning, into all manner of injustices with the unrealistic anticipation of immediate results. Much of the work, however, is painstakingly slow, difficult and cumulative; and critically it builds on the efforts and successes of many patient and committed others. And, all the while, one must be prepared from the outset to never quite reach the summit to appreciate the full vista.

History also serves us with some potent lessons. It shocks many to discover that slavery in the UK did not end because suddenly humanity’s conscience was awakened, slave owners acknowledged culpability and, subsequently, gave up their slaves. And neither was it instantaneous. In fact, in 1833, the British government spent £20m (some £16bn in today’s money), 40% of its then national budget, to pay 46,000 British slave owners for “recompense” for losing their “property”.  Even then, supposedly freed slaves were in fact committed to six to 12 years of further service as unpaid ‘apprentices’; the context was the massive ‘loss’ to the empire of the free-labour forcibly extracted from slaves. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was so large that it was only finally paid in 2015. Living British citizens, including the grandchildren of colonial experimenters and slave owners, helped pay to end the slave trade.

This example is cited in no way to suggest that we ought to accept existing injustices nor is to advocate for gradualism, incrementalism, or tokenism of any form. The example rather serves to highlight that the routes to ending an injustice – which often involve calculations to incentivise and/or disincentive certain types of political interests or behaviour – require morally difficult decisions to be made. ‘Radical’ black abolitionists across Europe and runaway slaves themselves began the struggle to end slavery; despite their deep and sustained efforts it took compromises and deals by their allies to ensure powerful interests were assuaged to get the Slavery Abolition Act through Parliament. We might consider that morally culpable decisions may not be the only option available to ending an injustice, but we know that not taking any decision is not an option particularly where powerful, and even pernicious, interests cannot be overcome wholesale. 

We might ask today what morally difficult questions must we ask, what radical work is required and how steep are the compromises in ending injustices which require redress right now? We may be wise to plan, calibrate and develop effective strategies – considering the many permutations that lie within the range from radical to moderate – to achieve the desired or ideal outcome.

Practical democratic engagement: rule of law over the rule of the few

One of the most challenging aspects of working on individual human rights cases is acknowledging the fact that there is a huge amount that is outside the control of practitioners and their clients. There is seemingly no control over the: substantive or procedural rules that apply; court or tribunal mechanisms, if any, that may have jurisdiction over the matter; funding arrangements, if any, for progressing the case; public advocacy that may assist a particular wider cause; the possible media interest; and so forth. The practitioner is quickly faced by these apparently external obstacles which could have a critical bearing on the case. The key question, however, from a resilience perspective is understanding what exactly is within the ambit of one’s control. Knowing this and knowing the full extent of one’s power and agency, can place into perspective the difficulties one faces and the extent one might feel obliged to expend their finite and limited resources. 

Many of us presume that the law is synonymous with justice; yet at best it is an approximation and often a bad approximation. Laws and legislation frequently come about through poor procedure, inadequate thought and, inexcusably, contrary to accepted international rules and norms. The State and its agents, organs and officials may deliberately set out to diminish the rule of law, access to justice, and application of human rights for all manner of reasons and in the worst cases out of corruption, nepotism, and criminality. These create the environment within which practitioners (lawyers, investigators, psycho-social experts) operate on behalf of their injured clients; all individual citizens, if they are fortunate, of democratic states. 

In democracies, though, individuals can ascertain the reasons why a particular, and poor, environment or state of affairs exist. Citizens, far from having no control, can use all manner of means and methods to change such a state of affairs: contacting their MPs to change the law, contributing to consultations that propose legal changes, attending Parliamentary meetings, contacting international organisations such as the UN, raising awareness of rights, contacting media organisations, protesting, and even running for an incumbent’s office – all to bring into line State practice, policies or procedures with the law (in particular human rights) the State itself has agreed to be bound by on behalf, and in favour, of the people for whom they act. 

This is barely a revolutionary act but a simple (and still radical) exercise in democratic agency; one exercised all the time by the privileged, the powerful and, not so infrequently, the pernicious. Why then might individuals not exercise these democratic rights in favour of social justice, environmental protection, and human and environmental rights? It is a personal as well as a collective responsibility and one which puts into perspective a single case on behalf of an individual. Critically, exercising this responsibility expands the circle of what one might deem within the ambit of their control. Knowing that it is possible to change the terms of engagement and, indeed whether engagement is necessary at all, is an immensely empowering expression of hope. An active as opposed to a passive hope, a recurrent as opposed to an isolated endeavour, and a collective as opposed to an individual exercise. As Karl Popper simultaneously admonished and encouraged us in his brilliant The Open Society and Its Enemies:

“History’ cannot do that [progress]; only we, the human individuals, can do it; we can do it by defending and strengthening those democratic institutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends. And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice. Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes. And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control. In this way we may even justify history, in our turn. It badly needs a justification.”

 Confronting the causes of dislocation, disillusion, and despondency

 Much of the narrative in the human rights world is still sadly caught up with commercialised, individualised, and compartmentalised notions of self-care (that are increasingly being modernised, mainstreamed, and marketed into meaninglessness). Self-care, in the form of practical wellbeing initiatives (such as these identified by the New Economics Foundation) are, of course, extremely valuable at an individual level for preventing or addressing poor mental health, over-work, and poor working conditions. Deep yogic and meditation traditions can also be extremely potent to self-realisation and non-violence, and in the process allow us to internalise, actualise and transform political behaviour. But we might consider that certain modernised ‘tools’ of self-care deployed as individualised, instrumentalised and de-spiritualised forms (under the umbrellas of ‘yoga’, alternative medicine, exercise and meditation) may not necessarily be adequate means of addressing the root causes of social or environmental problems. In fact, they may sometimes be escapes from them; merely momentary islands of relief (or indeed retreats!) The root causes of human rights and ecology-related problems are often related to failures of: incentives or disincentives; collective bargaining; poor laws, structures and policies; and false ideological assumptions or presumptions. Failures which require redress in the form of action albeit emanating from powerful internalised states of being or transformation. Arne Naess in There is No Point of No Return exhorts us to not give in to despair and passivity, in fact quite the opposite:

“Should the world’s misery and the approaching ecocatastrophe make one sad? My point is that there is no good reason to feel sad about all this. According to the philosophies I am defending, such regret is a sign of immaturity of unconquered passiveness and lack of integration. The remedy (or psychotherapy) against sadness caused by the world’s misery is to do something about it. I shall refrain from mentioning Florence Nightingale, but let me note that Gandhi loved to care for, wash, and massage lepers; he simply loved it. It is very common to find those who constantly deal with extreme misery to be more than usually cheerful.”

Realisation of our own agency, power and potentiality and thereby engaging in action, as opposed to passivity, particularly in concert with others does appear to be an antidote to despair at the generalised state of the world. In a piece for the Justice Gap, I considered the complicity of UK lawyers today in perpetuating injustice in their domestic “justice system” for failing to take radical action to challenge structural and structuralised harm in a legal system which has been deliberately defunded and dismantled by the State. A state of affairs that is the root cause of much of the over-work, underfunding, exhaustion and vicarious trauma by those who work in the profession (increasingly a vocation); not to mention those dispossessed, marginalised and disenfranchised by the State as a result. 

 But this oppressive situation and the orientation it demands from those affected is not a modern phenomenon. Much of the modern self-care movement has directly emanated from the radical struggles of the suffragettes for women’s rights, from the non-violent movement for decolonisation, and the fight for civil rights. In those cases, self-care was not optional but frequently existential to the individual as well as the marginalised group of which they formed part: having equal and non-discriminatory access to justice mechanisms, to healthcare, to education, to fairly paid work and so forth. In the fight for rights and equality, self-care and resilience were essential for the long struggle and in fact was, in and of itself, an act of resistance: a move from silence to language and then action. It manifested in raising consciousness, collective mobilisation, provision of psycho-social support, and community-building. 

One, oft-forgotten, aspect of this active manifestation of resilience was the sharing of literature, culture, music, and poetry – poetry which facilitated the articulation of new language and narrative which presaged action. As Audre Lorde argued in her phenomenal Your Silence Will Not Protect You:

“[For women], then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives […] We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

The retreat in Somerset only served to highlight the importance of shared and lived experience – working the land collectively to grow the produce that would provide us our nourishing and nutritious food; navigating our way through difficult physical and personal spaces with grace, humility and non-judgment; sharing thoughts, ideas and poetry in a manner which accepts differing viewpoints; and thinking deeply about action and possibility. As Pat McCabe – a Dine’ (Navajo) activist, artist, and ceremonial leader – reminded us at one gathering on looking upon catastrophe through the lens of self-love and self-care: “all possibilities are still humming in the air.” Indeed, expanding the circle of what is deemed possible coincides with ever-greater circles of loving. For to love is to open up to difference. And to open up to difference and otherness, as Alain Badiou compellingly argues in In Praise of Love, opens the possibility that ‘the collective can become the whole world’. In a world of cynical self-obsession, division and destructive identity politics, self-love, self-care, and love for the other (and indeed for nature) are inextricably linked. 

“Living well, beautifully and justly are all one thing”

In Socrates’ view, love is the beginning of all philosophy and by extension that means all politics; politics permeates everything in much the same way love does. Lorde reminds us that the word erotic comes from the Greek word eros; “the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony.” And for our time, she helps to re-articulate the connection love has to understanding of self (as political and spiritual being) and ultimately of others:

“The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic – the sensual – those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings.

Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase ‘It feels right to me’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what it means is the first and most powerful guiding light towards any understanding […]

The erotic functions for me in several ways and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”

Yet, many practicing in the social justice field (or in the wider polis) are often conflicted – we presume to advance the cause of justice, peace, and beauty but we are highly disjunctive, and indeed sometimes seem incapable, of being virtuous (in any of those senses) to ourselves, our environment, or our immediate neighbours. Questions over pursuit of well-being have not changed greatly since Socrates, Plato and then Aristotle were considering them over two thousand years ago – the suggestion that acting virtuously must go hand-in-hand with being virtuous – but how can we possibly do justice somewhere far away when we cannot even relate to our friends and colleagues with justice? Our rules of ethics as lawyers might mandate us to be upstanding, law-abiding, and ethical but how many of us truly cultivate virtue in any sense?

Answers to these questions, far from being incidental, are indispensable to resilience and well-being. We might never be truly present, satisfied and content with ourselves in waiting for that great fame, fortune, or power we hope to achieve rather than realising the deep and lasting change which had originally compelled us. Likewise, the deep change we had hoped to bring about may be sabotaged and hindered by the very qualities that presently dis-align us from acting collaboratively, compassionately, and cooperatively. So perhaps we might rethink our compartmentalised career/work/vocation narratives encouraged upon us by conventional structures and systems outside of our control and reassert life-affirming and more wholistic and internalised modes of living, working, and thinking. 

Perhaps the most recent articulation of being an authentic and certainly sincere paragon of human rights is death row/prison lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. In his inspiring book, Just Mercy, Stevenson provides five lessons on how to tackle the weaponization of fear, mass incarceration, and difference – for instance, one third of black males born in the US this century will go to prison – and the gradual erosion of the rule of law. Stevenson suggests that cultivating a compassionate identity, being proximate to injustice, challenging false narratives, having transcendental hope, and doing the uncomfortable are key drivers of change: “Our work is always about swimming against the tide. If we don’t do it now and build capacity, change will inevitably falter. You must keep fighting. You judge a society by how it treats the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” 

The answer need not be complete self-abnegation or self-abandonment; this trait might be exceptional among human beings. One might even readily accept and incorporate into our models of action the idea that humans do value (perhaps inherently) recognition, remuneration and rewards even if only in moderation and restricted to one’s immediate community. Indeed, divorcing action completely from a person’s enlightened self-interest (which includes joy, love, and care for oneself) may be highly damaging. Naess reminds us that unselfishness may be based on alienation and a narrow perception of self:

“[We need environmental ethics], but when people feel that they unselfishly give up, or even sacrifice, their self-interests to show love for nature, this is probably, in the long run, a treacherous basis for conservation. Through identification they may come to see that their own interests are served by conservation, through genuine self-love, the love of a widened and deepened self.”

Naess is echoed by more modern conceptions of pragmatic unselfishness such as Peter Singer’s “effective altruists” in his fascinating book, The Most Good You Can Do. Such altruists give of themselves less out of emotional empathy but more because of rational calculations on whom, and how many, they can benefit in the most efficient way. But pragmatic unselfishness has far older and deeper roots; ones that intimately connect a wider conception of Self to all living beings (Gandhi’s Atman or universal self). Much of the striving in selfless action, according to this conception, is to reach self-realization, diminution of ego, and ever wider conceptions of Self. 

 In A Perfect Planet, Attenborough opens with the startling fact that the Earth, our home, is the only planet in the known universe we know of that has life. That ought to give us some perspective – of the nature of our being, our impermanence, and our fragility. As Naess puts it:

“Through the wider Self, every living being is connected intimately, and from this intimacy follows the capacity of identification and, as its natural consequences, practice of non-violence. No moralizing is needed, just as we do not need morals to breath. We need to cultivate our insight: The rock-bottom foundation of the technique for achieving the power of non-violence is belief in the essential oneness of all life.”

In this age of flux, a powerful disposition may well be the certainty of knowing oneself in ever wider conceptions, ascertaining one’s potentiality and cultivating or (constantly) re-appraising the virtues one aspires to ascribe to. The ever-changing imperatives of morals, laws and rules in society may be juxtaposed with the ever-present inclination of people towards joy, beauty, and compassion. Here internal and external ways of being may merge to form a single pathway. In taking that path, we might be wise to tread gently – put one simple foot in front of another – and walk side-by-side with others of similar, selfless, and skilled dispositions. In the pursuit of justice, stubborn, consistent, and spirited steps leave for us plenty to witness, learn and appreciate on our journeys. Indeed, in the gradual act of walking, vast distances may be traversed, great ascents may be scaled, and precipitous descents may be navigated. This might give rise to the potential that those perpetrating injustices hard and fast today may, in fact will, be apprehended through the forgiving and gentle steps of tomorrow’s injured. In support of justice, we may choose to be gentle on the journey – living well, beautifully, and justly – but not gentle in any way in its pursuit. 

Aarif Abraham is the Author of ‘A Constitution of the People; and How to Achieve It’ (CUP, 2021), Acting Director of Accountability Unit and International Criminal Law and Human Rights Law Barrister at Garden Court North Chambers. Gratitude and thanks are owed to Jacqueline Jahnel who kindly reviewed and commented on this article although errors, omissions and mistakes are the author’s alone. All views are the author’s and not of any organisation. 

Kind Note to Readers: I am not a medical doctor nor am I a psycho-social expert of any kind. There are medical ailments (physical and mental) that can arise working in the fields of human rights, criminal law, and ecology. There are brilliant specialists and experts that may assist with all manner of issues before they became acute or problematic. Please do reach out to them or contact the St Ethelburga’s Centre’s webpage for further resources and information. 

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Mishal Baig

Research Intern