WITH THE DEATH OF ELIE WIESEL I find myself wondering if the world is in the final stages of going silent. There was once the great pantheon of moral voices that housed individual so gigantic on the world stage that their very words could summon generations to action. We know who they were: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a few others. Most became Nobel Peace Prize winners and went on to challenge their world to stop taking things so easily.
A Holocaust survivor, Wiesel became the clarion voice against human injustice in these last few decades. Everything he said and wrote came from the backdrop of Auschwitz – memories from which he had to endure until his final breath at 87 a few days ago.
He reminded me a lot of Canadian Romeo Dallaire. They were voices of the modern generation haunted by experiences they could never escape. They fell into despair often, but always for the sake of a better humanity they pulled themselves out of their darkness to speak to a world once more that they feared was losing its ethical spine. At times they were difficult to endure because we could see on their faces the incredulity that came with watching the rest of the world walk away from the tragic lessons of history.
Increasingly, Wiesel’s inner despair came not from the past but from the present. Around the world entire groups of people, along with individuals, were undergoing great hatred and oppression and yet so few were raising their voices as a result. Yes, governments needed to act with alacrity, but individuals appeared to be losing their will to fight for others.
Ironically, Wiesel came to terms with where he could see that courage lived out – among the victims themselves. As he would say so eloquently about Auschwitz in a 2002 speech:
“People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”
These are powerful and uplifting phrases, but Wiesel had increasing difficulty finding this kind of courage in a modern era, where people jumped daily from one cause to another, quickly losing the thread of progressive humanity. Just as Stephen Hawking has come to see hatred in the modern era as the greatest threat to humanity, Wiesel wondered why we would permit both individual and collective hatred to leak its way back into a civilization’s bloodstream without raising our voices to deal with it effectively.
In a world where everything was flattening out – money, deep romance, love of humanity, employment, politics – Wiesel fretted that the same thing was happening with hatred. We were becoming very good at tolerating it. We were finding it easy to just not get involved in fighting outright racism or even poverty. In remaining remote from it all, we were becoming less human as a civilization, assuming that we had little part in it all. And yet Wiesel understood from experience that such actions, or lack of them, merely left the field open to the haters.
He watched as wicked attacks took place on Twitter or other social media venues as people shook their heads in shock at the vitriol emerging about race or vulnerable women, about alternative lifestyles or noble causes, and wondered why we weren’t raising our voices to stop it. He understood instinctively that our refusal to speak up about such things, to mire ourselves in our isolation, meant that the bad guys would win – they always win in such situations. And so he wrote: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I asked someone here in Scotland this week, a seasoned observer and activist in humanity at the University of Saint Andrews, just who were the great moral voices of our day. She struggled and struggled. Yes, there was Malala or maybe someone like the Dali Lama, but the great ones are disappearing rapidly. From the great church of humanity from which the moral voice of our great quest for peace and justice emerged, has come an increasing silence. What will replace those voices? Twitter? Facebook? Celebrities? Pundits? They are not the same as a Mandela and we are losing our way in their absence. Wiesel is gone and the silence is tragic in its own way.
“I must do something with my life,” he said recently. “It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”
In the absence of the great voices of moral clarity must come the great collective voice of individual citizens joining to cleanse our world of hatred. We’re not there yet.