Personal Will, Anyone?

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.

Personal will

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.


Sally Armstrong

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].”

Hawking’s response

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.

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13 Responses to Personal Will, Anyone?

  1. Ken Durham says:

    B’Nai Brith, which has deep ties to the Jewish Defence League(a right wing terrorist group) is about the last place I would look for factual evidence.
    Any time someone makes a comment condemning the Israeli genocide against Palestine these groups call it antisemitism. It is not.
    The term antisemitism is a misnomer as the word ‘semite’ includes all peoples from a certain area no matter what religion or views they hold, including Arabs.

    Judaism is a religion, it is not a race.
    The important distinction here is that nobody gets to give their beliefs rights. Being jewish doesn’t give someone any more rights than being christian or being muslim.
    People have rights. Their beliefs do not.

    When I point out that the nation of Israel is committing acts of genocide against the people of Palestine, I am not engaging in antisemitism. I am pointing out a fact.

    I keep hearing reports of hate crimes against jewish people but have seen absolutely no evidence to support these claims.
    On the other hand, I still remember reading about a Canadian extremist walking into a mosque and shooting dead many peaceful Canadians, and still the bigotry against arab people increases.

    Here is a small list of the worst anti-muslim groups openly marching and committing hate crimes in public against a recognizable group.

    I don’t see any of them marching on city halls in Toronto or Calgary or Ottawa to condemn jews, but they sure are doing so against Muslims.
    I don’t see any Muslim groups trying to turn public opinion against jews, and yet the top anti- muslim groups are jewish.

    Anyone who is trying to tell me that one culture is not welcome here in my beautiful multicultural country is wasting their time.
    Everyone is welcome.

    • Ken, let me address the points you’ve raised:
      (1) I’ve found nothing to indicate B’nai B’rith is connected to the Jewish Defence League. The audit has been accepted as a credible data source by news organizations like the Globe & Mail, New York Times, Global and CTV. Side note, the Calgary chapter honoured Rachel Notley recently, other Canadians who’ve been are Stephen Harper, Larry McDonald, Harley Hotchkiss and Jason Kenney, so it looks like they’re pretty nonpartisan.
      (2) B’nai B’rith uses the term “antisemitism”, not “anti-Semitism” for the reason you point out. It says “the Semitic language family…includes “Jews, Arabs, Ethiopians, Maltese” and others. The term “antisemite” was popularized in Germany around 1879, it meant “Judenhass” or Jew-hatred.”
      (3) scholars on Judaism agree it’s a religion not a race. Interestingly, Jews who practice Judaism, unlike other religious groups, don’t have a history of forcing others to convert to their faith.
      (4) scholars like Michael Walzer agree one can criticize the actions of the government of Israel without being antisemetic “if it’s the kind of criticism that other governments would face”, however when the criticism “echoes older antisemitic allegations against Jews…conspiracies or …hidden Zionist power and influence in Washington or in London or in Paris; if it evokes the old blood libel,…[or] Israel’s Jewish character as an explanation for why Israel does supposedly bad things” then it’s antisemitic. Legitimate criticism isn’t antisemetic, calling for the annihilation of Israel is.
      (5) the audit gives examples of a Muslim leader trying to turn public opinion against Jews, (6) you need to provide backup for statements like “the top anti-muslim groups are jewish”.
      (7) I agree 100% with your statement that “everyone is welcome”. The Current (CBC) ran a story on the attack on Adam Armush by a Syrian asylum seeker in Berlin. Armush, an Israeli Arab, was told by his Jewish friend it wasn’t safe to go out wearing a “kippah”, Armush put it on to prove him wrong and got beaten up. A Canadian Jewish leader said that sort of incident hasn’t happened in Canada because we’re good at integrating newcomers. He said his synagogue sponsored a Syrian family and noticed they were very fearful when the synagogue invited the family to a potluck dinner. Once they got to know everyone they admitted they’d been brought up to detest Jews, however over the course of the year they’ve all become like family.

  2. GoinFawr says:

    Re: “When I point out that the nation of Israel is committing acts of genocide against the people of Palestine, I am not engaging in antisemitism. I am pointing out a fact.”

    Eg should the following map be considered “antisemitic”, or simply an illustration of fact?

    • Ken Durham says:

      Welp GF, I prefer my ‘facts’ to be supported by sources, links, and/or citations.
      Even though that is a well known and commonly accepted graphic, I still feel it would be helpful to provide a source that explains why and by whom it was created.

      So I found one and it turns out it was by jews (amongst other groups) in response to jews.

      Even still, I wouldn’t care if it was created by Yasser Arafat himself. I don’t judge information by its source, I weigh its credibility by its own merits.

      My apologies if I have tangented off the main topic, dear Susan. I blame my ADHD.

      • Ken: thanks for the link to the article on the bus posters. Marty Roth, the author of the article and a member of the Independent Jewish Voices group says the negative response came “not from the Jewish community, but only from that bullying sector that always responds fiercely to any criticism of Israeli policy.” As I mentioned above, academics who study antisemitism agree that legitimate criticism of Israeli policy is not antisemetic, but I’m not sure why Roth was so quick to dismiss the other concern about the ads, namely that the ads make the use of the buses unwelcome and unsafe, particularly for parents sending “a child off to school wearing a yarmulke on a bus featuring these ads.” This concern isn’t an attempt to insulate the government of Israel from any criticism, but rather an effort to protect yourself and your children from antisemitic harassment.

    • GoinFawr: interesting question. It would help if the map had dates on it. Jews have been in the region for centuries, immigration started picking up after the Russian pogoms in the late 1800s and of course after WW2. In 1947 the UN voted for a plan recommending the partition of Palestine into two independent States, Arab and Jewish and the creation of an international regime for Jerusalem. Zionist leaders accepted the plan, Arab leaders did not, resulting in a civil war which escalated into a regional war. The State of Israel was established in 1948. And the conflict has been ongoing ever since.
      This is a messy situation, and I agree with the academic, Michael Walzer, who said legitimate criticism isn’t antisemetic, but criticism laced with antisemitic allegations or calling for the annihilation of Israel crosses the line.

  3. Ken Durham says:

    In response to Edison, whose comment seems to have disappeared.
    Not sure if serious…

  4. Graham McFarlane says:

    Agreed, except let’s watch the adjectives and adverbs. Hawking should have said, “Trump is really bad”! (-:

    • Graham, I just got a mental picture of us telling Stephen Hawking how to say Trump is bad. I know his speaking device was slow, but I have a feeling he’d have cut us down to size in a nanosecond. Having said that, Hawking had the ability to admit when he was wrong, so who knows. 🙂

  5. NOTE TO READERS: This purpose of this post was to encourage people to object when they hear someone making antisemitic, racist, Islamophobic, homophobic or misogynistic comments; unfortunately the post attracted antisemitic comments. Antisemitism is a problem on the left as much as it is a problem on the right. In either case a statement that negatively targets an entire group (all Jews), is based on conspiracy theories or stereotypes will be removed and the commentator will be blocked.

  6. Harce says:

    I agree that we must support the sovereign state of Israel as created by the United Nations.

    • Harce, I think this is the first time we’ve agreed on anything.
      Like I said above, it’s not antisemetic to criticize Israeli government policy, but when criticism is couched in terms of conspiracy theories and concludes the best outcome would be the annihilation of Israel, it’s no longer legitimate criticism, it’s antisemitism.

    • GoinFawr says:

      “I agree that we must support the sovereign state of Israel as created by the United Nations.”

      So, the 1967 borders then? I think the Palestinians have agreed they would go for that…

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