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Gaude and Garrigos

Writer Laurent Gaude (l) and Amnesty’s Genevieve Garrigos launched the “stop torture” campaign in Paris

‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):  On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

The spectre of torture as effective and desirable is back in the news again. I feel it worthwhile again to republish a pair of blog posts from two years ago, the first today, the second tomorrow. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

Amnesty International Survey Findings

On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:

Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”

. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.

The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.

It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:

. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.

The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:

People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.

There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.

The Main Moral Objection

Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.

Mixed Dictators v5Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.

We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.

The Efficacy of Torture

Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.

There is one excellent place to begin such a search: Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.

What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’

At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):

  1. Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
  2. How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
  3. Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
  4. If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?

interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1

A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):

. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’

I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.

Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):

‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’

Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.

Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”

He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):

. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”

The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):

After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.

This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.

And so?

If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled.  There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.

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Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

(From Geoffrey Nash Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)

. . . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.

(From the Preface to Such Stuff as Dreams)

My recent post on how fiction can enhance the empathy of those working with people experiencing psychotic phenomena suggested it would be worth republishing this piece from 2o12.

Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. I won’t rehearse the arguments he quotes from Plato onwards to suggest that fiction should be banned. Most of us have heard them all too often already. More interesting by far are his reasons for feeling this is unfair and the reasons for attacking fiction are basically unfounded. So, what justifies my relief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who

regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art.

He also recognises that not all kinds of fiction are beneficial either (page 177):

The literature on possible effects of violence and of sexuality in the media is huge, and this is not the place to review it. Recent articles are by Paul Boxer et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of media violence, and Deborah Fisher et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of televised sexuality. Although there are questions as to how conclusive these bodies of research are, there is cause for concern that some forms of fiction may have harmful effects.

So, clearly enemies of fiction can select either pointless or damaging examples. However, the fiction that corrupts and destroys is not the kind he is considering. Real fiction, in his terms, is an art and is not to be dismissed as merely a pastime, a waste of time or worse an inducement to destructiveness. He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 174):

. . . . art – I’ll offer a criterion –does not recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way.

He unpacks this idea further in many places, for example (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral. How does it work that way?

Fiction, Empathy and Relationships

His case is richly expressed so what follows is a selection of the key points in it that most resonated with my own preoccupations.

One of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question ((page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees  fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar (see video below for an interview with him), he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

But empathy is not all there is to it. His discussion of these other aspects is equally rich but there is not space here to unpack them (page 169).

A second theme in potentially beneficial effects of fiction is in understandings of relationships.

(His third theme I’m not sure is very different from his second as it concerns the dynamics of interactions in groups and is for me an aspect of relationships in general.) There is one more (page 170):

The fourth theme of fiction that can potentially prompt self-improvement is in understandings of the self.

Other Complicating Factors

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

The Brontes

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

You could decode that to be saying that tormented lives are seedbeds for major fiction and perhaps the writers would be worse people if they did not write. That would be a hard hypothesis to test in practice and the funding might be hard to come by as well.

Still, on balance, I feel Oatley makes a very good case for the value of great fiction. Let’s hope no one gets killed in the boundary disputes where one person’s masterpiece is morphing into someone else’s potboiler.

Related Articles:

The Compass of Compassion

Practising Compassion 1/2 & 2/2

Perfecting the Life or Perfecting the Art (1/2) & (2/2)

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Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

Given my recent interest in Shelley and the poetry of protest, this piece in last week’s Guardian by  caught my eye. It also contains a reminder of a poem by Auden on Sigmund Freud which I must have another look at. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

am on my way to Newcastle. It’s pleasing to note that the city’s university awarded an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King in his lifetime and that the unexpected and impromptu speech with which he received it in 1967 is up there with the legendary “I have a dream” of four years before. It was filmed, then lost for many years, before its rediscovery in the annals of the academy. It was shown to me some years ago and you can view it online. Is it a great speech, though, or more aptly described as a thunderous political poem against racism, poverty and war?

So what better place for a poetry festival, and especially to discuss human rights and the “poetry of witness” with Carolyn Forché? Forché is a celebrated US poet, translator and human rights defender and I am fascinated by the way that this combination of skills and experience must have shaped all aspects of her work. I love her refusal to accept the bifurcation between “personal” and “political” poetry and to embrace instead a notion of the “social” that describes human rights thinking, so much great art and also, surely, the human condition itself. Aren’t we in essence all both individual and social creatures? Our rights and freedoms reflect the yearning for freedom, autonomy, privacy and conscience, but also our need to associate and express as family, community and society. A politics that ignores or suppresses the intimate sphere will allow or even ensure abuses of power in the home, on the streets and in its own institutions.

The poetry of witness has long compensated for censored or corrupted news media when truth must be spoken to power – think of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade or Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Poetry and human rights are very often tied together; think of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry, which are intimate while also tackling the huge themes of feminism, equality and being Jewish after the Holocaust. The civil rights poetry and activism of Langston Hughes are completely inseparable.

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Trucks line up to demolish the Bahá'í cemetery in Shiraz, Iran.

Trucks line up to demolish the Bahá’í cemetery in Shiraz, Iran.

A post by Moojan Momen and  Jason Pack on the Newsweek site raises serious questions about the current flurry of activity aimed at securing trade deals with Iran, a country whose human rights record is seriously flawed. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

In July this year, British Airways will relaunch six weekly direct flights from London to Tehran. And if you sit in first class, you are likely to see well-heeled Western executives jetting off to try to establish joint ventures or sell their high-end technologies in what is one of the only remaining lucrative and relatively unpenetrated markets.

Just this week it was the turn of President Matteo Renzi of Italy to take two hundred Italian business leaders to Iran. In preparation for the trade mission, Italian letting agencies have extended a 5 Billion Euro credit line to the country.

Similarly reliant on government financing to prime the pump, the American aeronautical giant Boeing has just entered into negotiations with Iran, hoping to land its highest profile deal of the decade.

This flurry of activity stems from Iran and the West settling their long-running nuclear dispute when the multilateral negotiations were signed on 2 April 2015. The multilateral sanctions were then lifted on 16 January 2016.

Iran has enormous oil and mineral wealth and is, therefore, set to become a large and rapidly expanding market just at a time when the most of the world’s economies seem to have stalled.

The Situation in Iran

But doing business in Iran raises the ethics question. Businesses like to demonstrate that they are not only profitable but also benefit the community. Many feel compelled to show that they are green, gender equitable, ethnically diverse, philanthropic—and ethical. . . . . . .

Many accuse Iran of human rights abuses, even “crimes against humanity,” also identifying it as one of the world’s most corrupt societies. They accuse it of genocide, ethnic and cultural cleansing, torture and human rights abuses against journalists, lawyers, women and ethnic and religious minorities.

In the freedom indexes published by Freedom House, Iran scores in the lowest two categories in all areas: civil liberties, political rights, press freedom and Internet freedom and is in the lowest quartile of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

The U.N. General AssemblySecretary-GeneralHuman Rights CouncilInternational Labour Organization and Special Rapporteurs have repeatedly reported over the last 30 years their deep concern at serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “over reports of targeted violence and discrimination against minority groups”Governments and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch express grave concerns, while the World Bank reports Iran among the world’s worst three countries for the legal position of women.

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Gaude and Garrigos

Writer Laurent Gaude (l) and Amnesty’s Genevieve Garrigos launched the “stop torture” campaign in Paris

‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):  On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

I felt it worthwhile republishing a pair of blog posts from two years ago after reading, in last Wednesday’s Guardian, about a flawed piece of research suggesting that support for torture is widespread in the States. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

Amnesty International Survey Findings

On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:

Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”

. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.

The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.

It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:

. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.

The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:

People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.

There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.

The Main Moral Objection

Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.

Mixed Dictators v5Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.

We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.

The Efficacy of Torture

Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.

There is one excellent place to begin such a search: Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.

What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’

At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):

  1. Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
  2. How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
  3. Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
  4. If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?

interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1

A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):

. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’

I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.

Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):

‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’

Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.

Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”

He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):

. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”

The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):

After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.

This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.

And so?

If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled.  There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.

Read Full Post »

 

766px-Members_of_the_first_Universal_House_of_Justice,_elected_in_1963

Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963 (For source of image see link)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the last post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (8 The Universal House of Justice). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Essential Background

After the passing of the Guardian in 1957, nine Hands of the Cause selflessly steered the Faith towards the next key development in its unfolding destiny. They organised the process by which the Universal House of Justice would be elected, and then stepped back to allow that institution to lead the Bahá’í community exactly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had envisaged in His Will & Testament, though sadly, given that Shoghi Effendi had appointed no successor, with no possibility of the continuance of the Guardianship.

Century of Light describes the moment when the Universal House of Justice came into being (page 81):

On 21 April 1963, the ballots of delegates from fifty-six National Spiritual Assemblies . . . . brought into existence the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Cause conceived by Bahá’u’lláh and assured by Him unequivocally of Divine guidance in the exercise of its functions . . .

They point towards the difficult decision Shoghi Effendi had had to make (pages 82-83):

. . . . it is clear that Shoghi Effendi early accepted the implications of the fact that the Universal House of Justice could not come into existence until a lengthy process of administrative development had created the supporting structure of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies it required.

It is important we begin to understand the full significance of this election and what it presaged (page 92):

The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice . . . . . very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community’s chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence . . . . . that in any way resembles this achievement.

The House then had some significant decisions to make given that it did not have the authority to appoint new Hands of the Cause but their function needed to continue (pages 97-98):

. . . the House of Justice created, in June 1968, the Continental Boards of Counsellors. Empowered to extend into the future the functions of the Hands of the Cause for the protection and propagation of the Faith, the new institution assumed responsibility for guiding the work of the already existing Auxiliary Boards and joined National Assemblies in shouldering responsibilities for the advancement of the Faith. [In 1973 there was] another major development of the Administrative Order, the creation of the International Teaching Centre, the Body that would carry into the future certain of the responsibilities performed by the group of “Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land”, and from this point on coordinate the work of the Boards of Counsellors around the world.

The Period Since Then

There has been a twin impact in terms of the Faith (page 97):

During these crucial thirty- seven years the work proceeded rapidly forward along two parallel tracks: the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community itself and, along with it, a dramatic rise in the influence the Faith came to exercise in the life of society. While the range of Bahá’í activities greatly diversified, most such efforts tended to contribute directly to one or other of the two main developments.

A sequence of seven plans of various durations followed (page 98-99) until ‘Twelve Month Plan that ended the century.’ The strands of activity in each plan built upon those of Shoghi Effendi and the Founders of the Faith: ‘the training of Spiritual Assemblies; the translation, production and distribution of literature; the encouragement of universal participation by the friends; attention to the spiritual enrichment of Bahá’í life; efforts toward the involvement of the Bahá’í community in the life of society; the strengthening of Bahá’í family life; and the education of children and youth.’

The opportunities created were beyond the capacity of any individual to manage (page 100):

. . . it became necessary to ‘launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers.’ Teams of teachers were created and the Faith reached ‘entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands.’

As a result ‘members of Spiritual Assemblies . . . . had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.’

The role of the youth was central – not for the first time in the history of the Faith (ibid):

. . . one is reminded again and again that the great majority of the band of heroes who launched the Cause on its course in the middle years of the nineteenth century were all of them young people. The Bab Himself declared His mission when He was twenty-five years old, and Anis, who attained the imperishable glory of dying with his Lord, was only a youth. Quddus responded to the Revelation at the age of twenty-two. . . . . Tahirih was in her twenties when she embraced the Bab’s Cause.’

More challenges followed. Mass enrolments exceeded the community’s capacity to nurture those who had declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh. Also (page 101)

. . . Theological and administrative principles that might be of consuming interest to pioneers and teachers were seldom those that were central to the concern of new declarants from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Often, differences of view about even such elementary matters as the use of time or simple social conventions created gaps of understanding that made communication extremely difficult.

Though the Bahá’í World Centre emphasised that expansion, the bringing in of newly declared Bahá’ís, and consolidation, their deepening in the Faith, were ‘twin processes that must go hand in hand,’ the ‘hoped for results did not readily materialise’ and ‘a measure of discouragement frequently set in.’ Enrolment slowed ‘tempting some Bahá’í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.’

The main impact of the setbacks was to clarify that (page 102) ‘the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic.’ It became obvious that ‘the easy successes of the initial teaching activities . . . did not, by themselves, build a Bahá’í community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating.’

(End of Presentation: any questions? The video immediately below gives a sense of how the Bahá’í Faith has responded to these challenges: the original can be downloaded at this link.)

Key Questions

Pioneers and new believers faced questions previous experience offered few answers (ibid: my bullet points).

  • How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established – and once established, how were they to function – in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth?
  • How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice?
  • How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed?
  • What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions?
  • How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members?
  • What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community?
  • How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures?
  • And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
  1. How many of these questions do we feel relate to our own situation?
  2. Do we have answers? If so, what are they? If not, what might those answers be?

Page 102: The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members needs to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Bahá'í House of Worship in Delhi, India

The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi, India (for source of image see link)

The Integration of Social Action

Page 103: The fact that the Bahá’í message was now penetrating the lives not merely of small groups of individuals but of whole communities also had the effect of reviving a vital feature of an earlier stage in the advancement of the Cause. For the first time in decades, the Faith found itself once more in a situation where teaching and consolidation were inseparably bound up with social and economic development.

An Office of Social and Economic Development was created at the World Centre in October 1983, and ‘Bahá’í communities throughout the world were called on to begin incorporating such efforts into their regular programmes of work.’

Page 104: The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

The successive Plans yielded the greatest harvest in India. By 1985 the growth of the Faith there had reached a level a more sharply focused attention was needed ‘than the National Spiritual Assembly alone could provide. Thus was born the new institution of the Regional Bahá’í Council, setting in motion the process of administrative decentralisation that has since proven so effective in many other lands.’

In addition (page 105) ‘India’s House of Worship has become the foremost visitors’ attraction on the subcontinent, welcoming an average of over ten thousand visitors every day, . . . [which] has given new meaning to the description by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of Bahá’í Temples as “silent teachers” of the Faith.’

Its reputation was now such that the National Spiritual Assembly of India was able to host, ‘in collaboration with the Bahá’í International Community’s newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, a symposium on the subject of “Religion, Science and Development“. More than one hundred of the most influential development organisations in the country participated.

Malaysia began to follow suit. Then Bahá’í communities in Africa (page 106) achieved remarkable spiritual victories, havingsurvived war, terror, political oppression and extreme privations.’

In 1992 (page 107) ‘the Bahá’í world celebrated its second Holy Year, this one marking the centenary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the promulgation of His Covenant. Truly remarkable was ‘the ethnic, cultural and national diversity of the 27,000 believers who gathered at the Javits Convention Centre in New York City’ together with together with the thousands present at nine auxiliary conferences acorss the world.’

At Ridván 2010, the Universal House of Justice’s message explained that ‘all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly.’ The Office of Social and Economic Statement (OSED – page 2) amplifies on this:

Most central to this vision was the question of capacity building. That activities should start on a modest scale and only grow in complexity in keeping with available human resources was a concept that gradually came to influence development thought and practice.

They continue (page 4):

Bahá’í activity in the field of social and economic development seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background. . . . Its purpose is neither to proclaim the Cause nor to serve as a vehicle for conversion.

Page 5: To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Page 6: Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.

The ‘scope and complexity’ (page 9) of such activity must be ‘commensurate with the human resources available in a community to carry it forward.’

Page 13: when an effort is participatory, in the sense that it seeks to involve the people themselves in the generation and application of knowledge, as all forge together a path of progress, dualities such as “outsider-insider” and “knowledgeable-ignorant” quickly disappear.

Capacity Building

Pages 108-09: One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially – if at all – to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.

As a result, ‘the lessons that had been learned during earlier Plans now placed the emphasis on developing the capacities of believers – wherever they might be – so that all could arise as confident protagonists of the Faith’s mission.’ The means to achieve this had been developed from the 1970s in Colombia, ‘against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.’ A ‘systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings’ had been devised and was ‘soon adopted in neighbouring countries.’

By the time the Four Year Plan ended (pages 109-110) ‘over one hundred thousand believers were involved world-wide in the programmes of the more than three hundred permanent training institutes.’ The process was moved on a stage further ‘by creating networks of “study circles” which utilise the talents of believers to replicate the work of the institute at a local level.’

  1. The word ‘modest’ effectively occurs twice in the quoted passages about social action. Why do we think that is?
  2. How does the idea of ‘capacity building’ translate into this context?
  3. How easy is it for us to step outside the assumptions we have acquired in our ‘industrialised’ (note OSED does not say ‘developed’) society? Why is it so necessary that we do so?
  4. Much of the work within the Bahá’í community has been aimed at breaking the prevalent pattern of passivity and involving an ever-greater proportion of people in its activities. Why do we think this can be so difficult to achieve? What are the influences that militate against this attempt? What are the benefits of breaking this pattern in however small a way?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes.

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan

Not Just the Bahá’ís

Page 110: The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.

Various threads intertwine here.

  1. Involvement in the UN

Pages 115-16: The birth of the United Nations opened to the Faith a far broader and more effective forum for its efforts toward exerting a spiritual influence on the life of society. [In1948] the eight National Spiritual Assemblies then in existence secured from the responsible United Nations body accreditation for “The Bahá’í International Community” as an international non-governmental organisation.

In 1980 (page 117), ‘the attempt by the Shi’ih clergy of Iran to exterminate the Cause in the land of its birth’ catapulted the Bahá’í relationship with the wider world to a new level.’

The Bahá’í response was unusual (page 119):

The persecuted community neither attacked its oppressors, nor sought political advantage from the crisis. Nor did its Bahá’í defenders in other lands call for the dismantling of the Iranian constitution, much less for revenge. All demanded only justice – the recognition of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the community of nations, ratified by the Iranian government, and many of them embodied even in clauses of the Islamic constitution.

  1. Justice.

The word ‘justice’ occurs a number of times in Century of Light. It is ‘the best beloved of all things’ in the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh writes. It entails seeing with our own eyes and not relying on the eyes of others. To get a clearer sense of how the Bahá’í community sees this principle operating at the highest level of the wider society it is perhaps worth pausing to look at a statement that has been twice presented to the UN before we continue with the issue of the human rights of the Bahá’ís in Iran.

In terms of both the individual and the legal system the Bahá’í position is as follows (from Turning Point – pages 10-11 – and from Prosperity of Humankind – pages 6-8):

In any system of governance, a strong judicial function is necessary to moderate the powers of the other branches and to enunciate, promulgate, protect and deliver justice. The drive to create just societies has been among the fundamental forces in history and without doubt no lasting world civilization can be founded unless it is firmly grounded in the principle of justice.

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected. An age that sees the people of the world increasingly gaining access to information of every kind and to a diversity of ideas will find justice asserting itself as the ruling principle of successful social organization.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or his group.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision-making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Such a conception of justice will be gradually reinforced by the realization that in an interdependent world, the interests of the individual and society are inextricably intertwined. In this context, justice is a thread that must be woven into the consideration of every interaction, whether in the family, the neighbourhood, or at the global level.

  1. Persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran

While progress was slow and complete reversal of the persecution was not achieved (page 121), ‘In time, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, however slow and relatively cumbersome its operations may appear to some outside observers, succeeded in compelling the Iranian regime to bring the worst of the persecution to a halt. . .’

As a result of the persecution the Bahá’í community (ibid) has learnt ‘how to use the United Nations’ human rights system in the manner intended by that system’s creators, without having recourse to involvement in political partisanship of any kind, much less violence.’

  1. Promoting Peace

In 1985 (page 122), as the Iranian crisis was unfolding, the Universal House of Justice issued through National Spiritual Assemblies the statement The Promise of World Peace, addressed to the generality of humankind. In ‘unprovocative but uncompromising terms’ the document expressed ‘Bahá’í confidence in the advent of international peace as the next stage in the evolution of society.’

  1. The Bahá’í International Community

The Bahá’í International Community (pages 122-23) ‘became, in only a few short years, one of the most influential of the non-governmental organisations . . . Because it is, and is seen to be, entirely non-partisan, it has increasingly been trusted as a mediating voice in complex, and often stressful, discussions in international circles on major issues of social progress. This reputation has been strengthened by appreciation of the fact that the Community refrains, on principle, from taking advantage of such trust to press partisan agendas of its own.’

  1. Publications

Page 140: This process [of spiritual empowerment] was immeasurably strengthened in 1992 through the long-awaited publication of a fully-annotated translation into English of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, a repository of Divine guidance for the age of humanity’s collective maturity.

  1. The Unity of the Bahá’í Spiritual and Administrative Centres

Page 142: In contrast to the circumstances of other world religions, the spiritual and administrative centres of the Cause are inseparably bound together in this same spot on earth, its guiding institutions centred on the Shrine of its martyred Prophet. For many visitors, even the harmony that has been achieved in the variegated flowers, trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens seems to proclaim the ideal of unity in diversity that they find attractive in the Faith’s teachings.

Final Questions (hopefully 30 minutes!)

It is clear that on the world’s stage the Bahá’í community has achieved increasing prominence over the years, first through the travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then through the campaigns launched by Shoghi Effendi, later by our involvement at the UN and finally by increasingly effective programmes of expansion, consolidation and social action.

  1. Where does that leave us now – whether as members of the Bahá’í community or of the wider society?
  2. What are our respective roles?

3. How do we play our different parts in the context of what we have learnt about the world right now?

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Seven Years

There is an amazing video which I have only just come across on the Australian Bahá’í website, hence my posting too late for the key dates. To go to the website, follow this link. The one they’ve provided below didn’t work for me.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/128436370″>In loving support of seven leaders who have been unjustly imprisoned in Iran for seven years</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/austbahai”>Australian Baha’is</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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