The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

<em>The Quest for a Moral Compass</em>: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”

Slavery, apartheid and morality

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Peter Gabriel, ‘Biko’

There was a moment in a recent TV documentary about the Asante kingdom (located in present-day Ghana) when a Ghanaian academic, asked about the Asante proclivity for selling captives from neighbouring tribes into European slavery, said, ‘Well, we didn’t have any morality then’.  It didn’t sound right.

It was only later, watching a film about the international movement to boycott and isolate apartheid South Africa in sport, that I figured out what was wrong.

Of course the Asante of the 18th and early 19th century did have a moral code – it was just that, exactly like European morality at the time, it applied only to Asante and not to others.  Certainly there were those in the anti-slavery movement who argued that ethical standards on how we should treat human beings should apply not just to fellow-countrymen but also to those widely regarded at the time as belonging to inferior races – but they had a mighty struggle getting their views accepted.

One love 
One blood 
One life 
You got to do what you should 
One life 
With each other 
Sisters 
Brothers 
One life 
But we’re not the same 
We get to 
Carry each other
– U2, ‘One’

What gained traction in the 20th century (paradoxically, in a century of such great inhumanity) was the concept of moral universalism – that ethics apply universally, for ‘all similarly situated individuals’, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality or sexuality.  For some, the source or justification of a universal ethic lay in Christian or other religious beliefs, in Enlightenment reason or socialist values.  Whatever the source, Noam Chomsky stated its meaning crisply:

One of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.

Watching the current (brilliant) series of documentaries about the worldwide effort to destroy South African apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, I recognised a principle that drew countless numbers around the world, myself included, to protest on behalf of others we would never meet, but whose circumstances and treatment were judged intolerable.

Notwithstanding their European origins, . . .[i]n Asia, Africa, and South America, human rights now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.
– Jurgen Habermas

In South Africa, opposition to apartheid was led by the African National Congress, founded 100 years ago on 8 January 1912.  The ANC in its constitution and membership represented the ideal of universalism, being an organisation open to all, irrespective of race, colour and creed, its 1955 Freedom Charter stating that all should have equal rights, be equal before the law and enjoy equal human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, asserted the same principles globally. By that time, the idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights was challenged by those struggling against colonial oppression or trying to build new nations.  The barbarities of war and genocide fuelled the yearning to safeguard rights within the nation-state, as well as limiting external aggression and war.  ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behaviour which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs’, said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a Pakistani  delegate on the UN drafting committee in 1948.

This was impressive, given the experience of the previous decades.  The Encyclopedia of Genocide records that:

In total, during the first eighty-eight years of [the twentieth] century, almost 170 million men, women, and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved,frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad other ways governments have inflicted deaths on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. Depending on whether one used high
or more conservative estimates, the dead could conceivably be more than 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague.

Michael Perry, in Toward a Theory of Human Rights by (Cambridge University Press) underlines the significance of the change that took place in the second half of the 20th century:

In the midst of the countless grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, however, there is a heartening story, amply recounted elsewhere: the emergence, in international law, of the morality of human rights. The morality of human rights is not new; in one or another version, the morality is very old.
But the emergence of the morality in international law, in the period since the end of World War II, is a profoundly important development.  Until World War II, most legal scholars and governments affirmed the
general proposition, albeit not in so many words, that international law did not impede the natural right of each equal sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects.  The twentieth century, therefore, was not only the dark and bloody time; the second half of the twentieth century was also the time in which a growing number of human beings the world over responded to the savage horrors of the twentieth century by affirming the morality of human rights. The emergence of the morality of human rights makes the moral landscape of the twentieth century a touch less bleak.

Coincidentally, in the same week that these thoughts were provoked by watching two TV documentaries, on Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor spoke to Kate Nash, a sociologist from Goldsmiths College who was about to present a paper, Charity or Justice: What is the suffering of strangers to us? to a conference on Humanitarianism.  What is the suffering of strangers to us? What is it that makes us care for people we have never met and who have very different lives from our own?

Nash argues that such feelings can be prompted either from a sense of justice or an impulse for charity. Laurie Taylor asked her to explain the distinction.  She responded:

Charity is related to humanitarianism.  It’s the idea that we respond to the suffering of others because they are suffering – its basis is compassion.  Justice on the other hand is more a response in terms of common expectations: we respond to the suffering of others as we expect that they would respond to us, to help us out, because we share common conditions and because we share what’s sometimes called a ‘community of fate’.

Nash sees justice as rooted in the nation state – the ‘community of fate’ is firmly rooted in the nation, and our sense of commonality is based on the nation:

It’s a much thicker sense of commonality – that we belong together because of common language, common origins and common history. But generally, when we think about the suffering of those beyond our borders, with the exception of certain political movements, mostly what is being asked for is a charitable, a compassionate response.

That proviso – ‘with the exception of certain political movements’ – is important.  It reminds us of the crucial part played by campaigns from the anti-slavery movement to the anti-apartheid movement in advancing and solidifying a global vision of justice and human rights.  Nash argues that the media – including Internet and social media – will play a key role in strengthening support for international justice and human rights in cultural politics.  But to me it seems that the role of international solidarity campaigns will remain paramount.

The series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, currently being shown on BBC 4, is a superb, probably definitive, cinematic history of the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid. Filmed by Connie Field throughout the world over ten years, it features interviews with many of the major players, and archive footage of the struggle, much of it never seen before on television.  An American series, it has been adapted for screening on British TV, with a different second episode.

That second episode looked at how athletes and activists around the world hit white South Africa where it hurt – on the playing field. Knowing that fellow blacks in South Africa were denied even the most basic human rights, let alone the right to participate in international sports competitions, African nations refused to compete with all-white South African teams, boycotting the Olympics and eventually forcing the International Olympic Committee to ban apartheid teams from future games. By the 1970s, only South Africa’s world champion rugby team remained, and citizens across the world took to the streets and sports fields to close the last door on apartheid sport.

In 1970, the struggle focussed on the Springbok tour of Britain, with protests such as the one outside Manchester’s White City ground.  A few months earlier, November 1969, Peter Hain had come to the Student Union at Liverpool University, where I was a student, to address a meeting and gather support for the demonstration (above).  Jon Snow, who was arrested on the demo, wrote about the impact of the movement in his account of his early years and his career in journalism, Shooting History:

It was Peter Hain, subsequently a Labour Cabinet Minister, who finally identified our cause. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had spent the previous months preaching change through ‘economic engagement’ with the South African apartheid regime. Wilson and others had gone soft on economic sanctions, and the apartheid state was consolidating its hold amid calls from Nelson Mandela’s beleaguered African National Congress (ANC)  to black South Africans to burn their passbooks. British culpability and collusion with apartheid were clear, but what was Liverpool’s connection?  […]

In November 1969 Peter Hain, himself South African by birth, came north with his ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign. The South African Springbok rugby team were already in Britain, while a cricket tour was to take place in the summer. Hain’s ultimately hugely successful campaign recognised that sport was very close to the heart of the apartheid regime. It was the public, competitive and white face of South Africa. We might not be able to spring Mandela from Robben Island, but we could at least stop his jailers from playing sport in our green and pleasant land. Hain’s target was the Springbok match at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film came with its account of how, in 1981, the epicentre of the resistance moved to New Zealand, where massive protests met the Springboks when they toured the country.  At Rugby Park, Hamilton, protesters pulled down fences before invading the pitch and ultimately forcing the cancellation of the game (above and top).

The third episode dealt with the international reaction to the brutal suppression of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 and the murder of student leader Steve Biko – events that turned South Africa into a worldwide emblem of injustice. As most western governments refused to heed Oliver Tambo’s calls for cultural and economic boycotts, a new generation of young people – in South Africa and across the world – continued the struggle for justice.  I had not been aware previously of the significant movement in the Netherlands, original homeland of the Afrikaners, where activists such as Conny Braam (below) turned the tide of Dutch conservatism.

Returning to the Asante and their part in the Atlantic slave trade: that account came in an episode from the second series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by art historian Gus Casely-Hayford. There is a scarcity of written records documenting Africa’s past, Casely-Hayford presents a vivid account by drawing on the culture, artefacts and traditions of the people. Across the two series, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford has explored the rich and vibrant histories of 8 complex and sophisticated civilisations: the kingdom of Asante, the Zulus, the Berber kingdom of Morocco and the kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda in the current season, and West Africa, Great Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Nubia in the previous one.

See also