Question: What do Stephen Hawking and Shamsia Husseini have in common?
Answer: They both know the power of personal will.
Ms Soapbox has been thinking a lot about “personal will” since she heard the term used by Sally Armstrong in a speech at the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan) Breaking Bread event.
First let’s sort out the players.
CW4WAfghan is a Canadian non-profit organization that supports education and educational opportunities for Afghan women and their families. It was started 20 years ago by two Calgary women who wanted to do something for Afghan women suffering under the Taliban. It’s been tremendously successful in improving the lives of Afghan girls and women.
Stephen Hawking was a world renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist who didn’t let the debilitating effects of motor neurone disease impede his quest for knowledge or his biting sense of humour.
Shamsia Husseini is a woman living in Kandahar who was 15 when a man threw battery acid in her face to stop her from going to school. She recovered from the attack, returned to school and became a teacher, eventually upgrading her skills at the CW4WAfghan’s teacher-retraining program. Then-president Hamid Karzai promised to arrest and execute her attacker. He did nothing. Husseini is unfazed. She says she’s punishing her attacker far more than the president ever could–she’s teaching the girls.
Sally Armstrong (aka “La Talibanista”) is an award winning Canadian journalist who covers zones of conflict and reports on what happens to women and girls.
Armstrong says there are three kinds of will: political will, public will and personal will. All three forms of will involve advocacy for a cause. Political will and public will require collective action while personal will is a solitary activity that demands personal courage, the level of which will vary depending on the circumstances.
Armstrong provided three examples of personal will: Husseini returned to school after recovering from the acid attack even though her attacker was still roaming the streets; a Nigerian girl who’d been captured by the Boko Haram leapt off the kidnappers’ truck and hid in the woods, knowing she’d be murdered by the militants if they found her and a 12-year old Somali girl who couldn’t go to school because she was pregnant identified the man who raped her at a public meeting.
Rarely are Canadians called upon to demonstrate such courage, consequently we’ve become complacent–it’s easier to go along to get along than cause a ruckus.
Personal will in Canada
Complacency is easy, but only if we turn a blind eye to reports like the annual B’Nai Brith audit of antisemitism. The audit shows a dramatic increase in antisemitic vandalism, harassment and violence–1,752 incidences in 2017. Before we dismiss this number as an aberration, we need to put it into perspective. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,986 antisemitic incidents in 2017 in the US, a country that is “almost nine times bigger and with a Jewish population 14 times larger.”
The numbers and the trend are worrisome because as Abe Silverman of the Alberta chapter said, when incidents targeting the Jewish community rise, there’s often a concomitant rise in incidents against other minority groups.
And this is where personal will comes in.
While it’s unlikely you’ll be asked to be as brave as the girls of Afghanistan, Nigeria, or Somalia, it’s highly likely that you’ll be chatting with a friend or acquaintance who says “I know this isn’t politically correct” or “I’m not a [insert racist, homophobe, misogynist, antisemetic, Islamophobe, etc], but…[insert slur here].”
Now you have a choice. You can turn a blind eye to hatred, prejudice and stupidity or your can address it.
If you decide to address it, you can choose the full-Hawking or mini-Hawking response.
When Hawking was asked for his opinion of Donald Trump he said Trump was “a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator”. This confused the public who took to Google in search of the terms “demagogue,” “denominator,” and “Stephen Hawking”.
Trump’s campaign manager dismissed Hawking’s assessment: “For a so-called genius, this was an epic fail. If Professor Hawking wants to do some damage, maybe he should try talking in English next time.”
In a satirical piece for The New Yorker, Andy Borowitz reported that Hawking later clarified his comment by telling a reporter, “Trump bad man. Real bad man.”
So those are your choices. You can tell your friend/acquaintance what he just said was racist, homophobic, misogynist, antisemetic, Islamophobic, and explain why, or if the circumstances don’t allow for the full-Hawking, deploy the mini-Hawking and tell him “What you said is bad, real bad.”
This achieves two things: (1) your friend/acquaintance may not understand why his comment crossed the line, but he’ll know that reasonable people won’t stand for it and (2) you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done your bit in standing up for humanity.
When someone promotes injustice, all of us must speak out.