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Recognition and reconciliation – where are the relations?

Tore Frost, filosof UiO:
Lecture at the conference Zweifel 2007 in Berlin 7th October.

Living in a time wherein reconciliation processes are forced upon us in politics as opposed to earlier times where revenge, crusades and other atrocities were the main means of retribution, we are left with the question in what way we are willing to accept other alternatives and attitudes than those inherent in our culture. In many ways the reconciliation process in South Africa set a standard for solution of related challenges throughout the world. But in this respect one should bear in mind that the main issue of this commision was the fact that the reconciliation depended on a common will to bring the truth forward in all its aspects. Total amnesty was promised if the truth was on the table. This was the sole fact that made this process unique and successful. My point is that the reconciliation was made possible because all opponents showed a mutual understanding of how important it was to tell the truth, disregarding the consequences.

The Norwegian author, Jens Bjørneboe, faced this problem in a heartrendering way in his trilogy ”History of Bestiality”: Moment of Freedom (1966), The Powderhouse (1969) and The Silence (1973). My own generation was in a shattering way influenced by his desperate quest to reach a understanding of and reconciliation with the problem of evil throughout history. 

To my knowledge no one else within Norwegian litterature has confronted the problem of evil in a more penetrating way than Jens Bjørneboe did in the aforementioned trilogy, which definitely must be considered his main oeuvre. With these three volumes alone he has manifestated himself amongst the masters of European litterature. As a spokesman for the cause of liberty he has few, if any, competitors. In the title of my lecture today I have tried to give a tentative answer that may suggest that reconciliation may come through common recognition of differences. This is in opposition to Bjørneboe’s conclusion:”The destiny of man is that freedom is impossible and evil inevitable”.

Total freedom becomes dangerous and even liberty in its nature is an impossibility. On the other hand, however, human life would be without meaning if liberty were not the main premise. We are confronted with the same paradox in our struggle against evil. As soon as we engage ourselves in the service of a just and good society, we at the same time activate the opposite force: evil. Goodness attracts evil like its shadow. No one else has in a more painful way occupied himself with this paradox than Jens Bjørneboe.

Consequently my lecture today will dwell upon this main issue of his authorship: Recognition of human dignity – is it at all possible in a world which, in Bjørneboe’s own words, ”demasks itself with a cruel lucidity as the mixture of latrine and torture chamber it is”(Moments of freedom)?

Recognition of human dignity – what does it mean?

The conception ’human dignity’ has a long history. We are touching the very core of all western humanism. The demand for the recognition of human dignity has been the main premise for the rise and growth of western democracies. This demand is also well based in classical languages (gr. axia, lat. dignitas), therefore as central within the main traditions of values that have set the premises for the western view of man. By this I mean the Christian humanism and its antagonist throughout time, namely the non-Christian humanism stretching back to classical B.C.-times, gathering strength through Renaissance and the blossoming of liberalism and individualism, unto the humanistic ethics of our time.

If we should try to survey what these traditions meant by the concept of human dignity, we would soon find how precise this concept has been developed throughout the times. The past has, in contrast to our times, clear and concise answers to this issue. Not so that we meet the same answers within both traditions, because these two traditions have a widely different view when it comes to what it means to be human. The non-Christian humanism gives, nevertheless, its reason for this demand which has been one and the same for its more than two thousand years of existence. The Christian tradition is built on another, but equally unique, basis through the same period of time. One should, however, bear in mind that Christianity at this time in history, has a view that is concurrent with the two other monoteistic religions in Western history, i.e. Judaism and Islam. In the following I shall therefore refere to the religious humanism, wherein all three monoteistic religions are included.

To clarify what is included in the respective traditions of demand for recognizing human dignity, we could follow Jens Bjørneboe’s own analyses given in the forementioned trilogy. According to Bjørneboe this demand is built on the underlying concept that to be human is to claim having a unique form of life, different from all other kind of life. This is the only reason why man, and man alone, may demand to have a special form of worth and to claim respect for this quality. Which factor of human existence are we here refering to? What exactly has life given to us as humans to legitimate the concept of man being unique? Both traditions give crystal clear answers to this question and Jens Bjørneboe was aware of them all, treating them as a sort of historical background of our situation today, when we seem to have begun a new era leaving the ancient answers behind.

Rational humanism and the idea of human dignity.

When confronting the non-religious humanism demanding an argument for the postulate that to be human means to be a unique species of life, the argument has always refered to man as a rational creature. Only man can claim to be a rational form of life. This view has been underlined from Antiquity to the humanistic ethics of today, which in its program (originally written by the modern founders of Humanetisk Forbund in Norway, Kristian Horn and Gabriel Langfeldt, year 1954) states that science and rationality must be the basis of a humanistic view of life.

This basis results nevertheless in a new question, which also touches the core of Jens Bjørneboe’s main issue: How, in this tradition, can one decide who are the carriers of legitimate rationality, and who is not? By asking this question one sees immediately that it is not, and has never been, a private matter to decide who is rational, and who is not. It is decided by the authorities in our social community, in accordance with established conventions of rationality and by collective criteria of what is rational and what is not. These authoritarian conventions and criteria may have changed through times, today one has f.x. the demand for controls, for documentation, for intersubjectivity, and so forth. The main point here is, nevertheless, that rationality at all times are regulated by binding conventions of rationality. The common authority stands as a sort of guarantor for the life of rationality in each individual.

Against this background perspectives open up. This view of humankind is clearly familiar with the idea of human worth and dignity as a result of external relations, namely society’s authoritarian demand that each of us behaves in relation to established conventions of rationality.

As soon as this kind of repression is made clear, we are faced with the next question, pursued also by Jens Bjørneboe especially in the first volume of his trilogy, Moment of Freedom: In what way has one within the long tradition of rational humanism tackled the undisputable fact that very many human beings throughout history have collided with and become victims of the authoritarian conventions of rationality?
This is where rational humanism’s view of man becomes a bit tricky. This view of humankind has evidently never been perfectly secured against not being taken into account when it comes to the idea of a classified degree of human worth and dignity. Stigmatized human destinies have been treated in the name of rationality as people with minimalized human worth, sometimes ending up as non-persons. We know these human destinies in the past as well as in our present, and Jens Bjørneboe knows them almost too well: Political dissidents, people of stigmatized ethnicity, disabled people and so forth. They were, not to mention the abominable medical experiments in the Nazi camps, through rigid, compulsary methods, forced to see reason, to improve their human worth and dignity.

Extending the examples of victims given by Jens Bjørneboe in his three novels or, more exactly, protocols of the History of Bestiality, we could mention our Sami-people, who were exposed to discriminating handling through extensive experimentation when trying to make them ”true Norwegians”, a program that lasted well into the 1960’s. We could further on remind ourselves of the destiny of tinkers, gipsyes, retarded people, psychotic patients and so forth, which went on in many countries not so long ago, when it was legitimate to enforce sterilisation, removal of children, loss of civil rights, coming on the parish, isolation. There was no end to what it was legitimate to expose these stigmatized destinies to in a time where they in the name of rationality where considered human beings of minimalized human worth and dignity and therefore accordingly in need of help.

The religious humanism and the idea of human dignity.

As we concentrate on the three monoteistic religions, we shall see that we also here find clearly expressed the demand for recognizing the human dignity, based on the aforementioned assumption that man is a unique being. One should bear in mind that all three religions give the equal argument for this statement, an argument which, nevertheless, differs widely from the argument within rational humanism. The religious argument has its reference in the Old Testament, i.e. in Genesis, where it is stated that man is created in the likeness of God. The fact that man is God-like has through all times been the core of the religious tradition’s postulate of human worth and dignity.

The focal point is the idea that man has been illuminated by his Creator and given a holy dimension. In comparing the two tradition’s dissimilar reasons for what it is that makes man a unique being and qualitatively different from all other species of life, we shall, nevertheless, find a striking form of paralellity. Both traditions seem to be comfortable in seeing human worth and dignity as a result of an external relation. Within the religious tradition, however, it is not the rationality of social authorities which guarantees the presence of human worth and dignity in each person, but the authority of God.

It is on this background we easily with Jens Bjørneboe, especially in the second volume of the History of Bestiality: Powderhouse, retrace similar questionable traits within the religious tradition that we earlier found in rational humanism’s view of man. If we were to ask how this tradition throughout times has tackled the indisputable fact that ever so many destinies have collided with and been victims of the official view of their religion, we will again discover that it has also within the religions been extremely easy to degrade human worth and dignity. We do not necessarily go, as Jens Bjørneboe does, back to our horrendous past with Inquisition and wichhunts. It should suffice to return to our near past to see how easily human beings in opposition to one or the other of the two guarantors, the rational authority as well as the authority of God, may have their human worth and dignity diminished.

One thing we should bear in mind is that the equal rigid measures we today find horrendous, were effectuated by people who meant well, who believed in what they did, who believed in their effort to help and recognized each other as true humanitarian helpers. They were people like us. This should likewise explain some of the problems we today face when we sincerely atone for appaling treatments in the past.

The questionable traits of traditional view on humanity.

Within both rational humanism and religious humanism we find the similar questionable traits when it comes to their view of humanity, be they ever so different in substance. Both traditions are comfortable in basing their view of human worth and dignity on an external guarantor, and this fact has evidently resulted in that their view of humanism never has been well enough secured against the possibility of being used in justifying the idea of graduated human worth and dignity.

I wish to stress the point – perhaps this time in opposition or contrast to Jens Bjørneboe (I’m not quite sure of his real position in this matter, I must confess) – that I am not saying that the traditional views of man in themselves necessarily leads to ideas of graduated human worth and dignity. Within both aforementioned traditions we will find glorious examples of the opposite. I am here thinking of exemplary representatives for rational humanism, such as Socrates from classical times or Fridtjof Nansen in our time. As far as we know, neither of them came close to thinking that there might exist humans with degraded human worth and dignity. We find the same within the religious tradition, where likewise outstanding representatives, such as St. Francis of medieval times or Mother Theresa from our own time, demonstrate the opposite attitude. Neither of them came close to such thoughts.

The crucial point here is, nevertheless, that these facts has not stopped both traditions from legitimizing conceptions of opposite attitudes when it comes to stigmatized destinies. This is where we will find the questionable traits of the traditional view of humanity, namely where lack of sufficient quality security has been evident.

We have dragged these questionable traits from the past into the twentieth century, a century that participated in developing these traits into a threatening disease. Enough to remind us all of the growth of ideologies like the Italian Fascism and the German Nazism, ideologies which fed on the established view of man, both within rational humanism and christianity, and further developed the questionable traits within these traditions into a contempt of humans that explodes in form of the five years of Holocaust during the Second World War. The Euthanasia-program in Nazi-Germany, effective from September 1st 1939, was presented as an extensive program for helping all stamped as ”Menschen ohne Würde”. These were all patients with schizophrenia-related diagnoses, mentally retarded persons, people with senile dementia, and so forth. They were to be put out of their misery by receiving ”humanitarian” help to be annihilated. In the course of the less than three years the program lasted, almost three hundred thousand people were put to death, and then the program changed to include people of ethnic decent, as decided in the so called ”Endlösung” on the Wannsee-conference the summer of 1942. I hereby also refer to the experiments with prisoners of war performed by Nazi-doctors. Horror upon horror, well documented in Jens Bjørneboe’s two socalled ”Protocols”, Moment of Freedom and Powderhouse.

This infernal period of sickness in the middle of the twentieth century necessitated a definite break with the more questionable traits in our traditional view of humanity. We could not abide with them any longer. This is the task that is the background for all the political processes that starts in 1945, first and foremost in the extensive judicial work performed during the Nuremberg-trials, which was to be so decisive in the development of a new view uf humanity.

The last volume in Jens Bjørneboe’s trilogy, The Silence, handles mainly the destiny of humanity after Holocaust, but it is a pity that this final volume of the History of Bestiality only remains The absolute last Protocol, where no light is shed upon the future of mankind or any positive solution is to be found. I don’t think any kind of reconciliation is possible in the merciless analyses of evil in Jens Bjørneboe’s works. I am therefore forced to leave him in the following perspectives, where I am trying to scrutinize this huge drama in international politics. But first we have to outline the background for the new arena we now are about to enter.

The birth of a global humanism.

Anyone trying to make a survey of the historical premises for the birth of world society, will have to dive into the warridden 20th century. We, who have participated in the definite conclusion of this century, are all children of the great wars and carriers of a collective knowledge that the 20th century will enter history as the century of the extreme wars and the equally extreme development of weapon technology. No former century in the history of mankind has been more ravaged and ridden by wars than this. And the 2nd world war will in a very special way be representative of what this century has produced of horrors of war. I am thinking of the way these five Holocaust-years changed into a new conception of evil when the atom bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

A totally new perspective of catastrophy was thereby offered to mankind, a new nightmare of war experience which has influenced the global way of life during the last half of the twentieth century. After August 1945 all of mankind has had to live with the knowledge that we all, from then on, have been living on the edge of an abyss, in a global emergency situation known and acknowledged by everyone without exception.
I maintain that it is this global crisis that explains both the creation of UN, as well as the very speedy way in which this global community was realized. The creation of UN was effectuated as early as 24th October 1945, and in the course of the three following years this unique new creation in the history of mankind became a political reality when the General Assembly in Paris adopted and proclaimed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10th December 1948 (48 ”yes”-votes, 0 ”no”-votes and 8 votes abstaining). This declaration, consisting of 30 articles on human rights and universal freedoms, defined here as global rights – superior to all national, ethnic, cultural, religious, political etc. differences -, represents the birth of a new, hstorical formerly unknown, era. From this moment on humanity has had an institutional world society as its fundament.

The intentions behind the creation of this political colossus were from the very first moment stated clearly already in the second and third section of the Declaration’s  Preamble:

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

I am afraid that Jens Bjørneboe at the disclosure of his main work couldn’t see any other future for mankind’s heroic struggle for liberty and freedom than the position of individual rebellions in a world empted of hope or forgiveness. Here he is in accordance with, amongst others of his contemporary artists, Albert Camus.

It is, as we have seen in the excerpts from the Preamble, the sombre moment of destiny for the practical politics that serves as an explanation for the birth of the UN-community. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 serves as the constitutional act of this world community which, for the first time in the history of humankind, was tried realized through the systems of UN. Of course one can find clear forerunners through history back to the first declarations of human rights, and to the democratic ideas that form the background for the western national states from the 18th century. The Declaration of 1948 belongs totally within a western-liberalistic tradition, let it be no doubt about that. Perhaps it was this obvious fact that made Jens Bjørneboe negative and suspicious towards the human rights politics. But – in spite of this – it would be totally wrong to see the Declaration of 1948 as merely a result of the nationalism of the western past and its traditions of value. The main intention behind the Declaration of 1948 is formulated in the very first section of the Preamble and represents, in my view, an effort to legitimize a new historical point of departure for humanity, to mark the start of a totally new political era, where nationalism as a theory should play no role in international politics. Whether UN in itself has a potential to be something more than a union, that we in UN find the premisses for a future world state, are extremely important questions that I nevertheless will leave out of this concept.

The earlier Nuremberg-processes must, however, have been of the utmost importance for the shaping of the principles in the Declaration of 1948. Through the judicial processes that took place in 1945 – 1947 against the hundreds of thousands of people being accused of crimes against humanity, the basic principles were tested (through the Nuremberg-code) that in 1948 should form the ground pillars (not to be confounded with Franklin D.Roosevelt’s doctrine from 1941 over ”the four essential freedoms”!) of the new world community. I would also like to underline strongly the fact that the Nuremberg-processes also created a direct basis for a close connection between the modern judicial systems and the instruments of universal human rights.

Global humanism and its idea of the inherent dignity of man.

The basic premises for our modern times’ humanistic ideas are to be found, as I have mentioned, already in the first sentences opening the Preamble of the Declaration of 1948:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

This clearly states the following: Humankind represents one family – a beautiful thought in itself! – and all members of this family, i.e. every single human being within the world family, is a carrier of inherent dignity and can therefore claim respect for his (or her) equal and inalienable rights. The extent of such ”equal and inalienable rights” is in the Declaration of 1948 limited to 30 articles, later extended with the two UN-conventions of 1966 (The Convention of Civil and Political Rights and The Convention of Economical, Social and Cultural Rights) and with the Convention of the Rights of Children of 1989. These conventions are today recognized and mentioned as the second half of the declaration of the world community’s constitution. As of today they are incorporated in the Norwegian Constitution together with the European Convention of 1950, and are as such judicially binding in Norway.

It is, however, important to note that nowhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, neither in the European Convention of Human Rights of 1950, do we find any argument or explanation of why these rights are ”equal and inalienable for all” other than that they are so as a result of the ”family”-situation humanity is placed in through the global community. I interprete this as a further confirmation of the fact that it is the UN-institution that explains the universal character of human rights, and not vice versa. In the same Preamble to the Declaration of 1948 the language has somewhat religious overtones. It points out that UN through its Charter has established a faith earlier lost (clearly under nazism and fascism):…the peoples of the United Nations have in the Chapter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women …

I do not believe that this aspect should be ignored, as much as we just in relation to the humanism of global rights are faced with a kind of ethics that defines itself as superior to (or at least independent of) all other ethical systems of ethnic, religious or political origin (cfr. Article 2). It is obvious that they all are derivated from the very first statement in the Preamble: Recognition of the inherent dignity. I maintain that it is this claim (that each person has an inherent dignity), which alters radically all the former and traditional views of man. Everything rests on the interpretation of this innovative core concept. It has never been expressed before and appears as a new formulation in the Declaration of 1948 for the first time in mankind’s history.

The idea as such, however, has obviously its origin in the Nuremberg-processes, wherein a decisive ground for judgement was stated in the Nuremberg Principles and formed a basis for the prosecution of several hundreds of thousand german soldiers and doctors charged for crimes against humanity. None of the accused were permitted to declare themselves innocent, not guilty as charged on grounds of being under orders or commando. This basic premise cements the principle that each man primarily must be hold responsible in accordance with an ethical inherent authority – though the word inherent is not directly used in the Nuremberg Principles – which shall have priority in the judgment of the character of actions for which they were charged. From this follows that all effects of external commands and authorities have no weight or influence. It is within this concept the idea of inherent dignity is to be understood. I will now try to show how important this new vocabulary has been for the interpretations on which we base our globalized view of man.

The great gain: The idea of the inherent dignity of man makes the concept of classified worth impossible.

The main dramatic concept in the introduction of the new, globalized view of man is expressed in one word and one word alone: inherent. This new postulate of what makes man unique points in a quite other direction compared with the earlier traditional views of man. Human worth is no longer to be understood as a result of external guarantors. Independent of all external authorities, such as the Godgiven authority or all forms of rational authority, it is a fact, states the Declaration of 1948 in the very first line of its Preamble, that man has a dignity inherent in his own human nature. And this dignity belongs to each and every person from the definite beginning of life till it’s just definitive ending. Naturegiven as it is, this dignity will forever be intact and unmolested of all external relations and tribulations. It cannot be lost, no matter how stigmatized or infernal life might be. Neither illness, pain, suffering, mental disability or senile dementia will result in any loss of dignity.

Nevertheless it has been tried time and again during the last half of the 20th century to legitimize the concepts of classified human worth and dignity. We still bear in mind the Apartheid-regimes, in South Africa as well as in other countries, not to forget the horrifying happenings in Bosnia and Kosovo, where Milosevic tried to get international acceptance for the idea of an ”ethnic cleansing”. On the great arena of international politics many bandits have tried and will certainly trie again to legitimize contempt for exposed groups of human’s demand for respect for their worth and dignity, but till this day they have not succeeded. This new view of man has created a basis for a global overlapping consensus which, sometimes with drastic measures, has reacted with abhorence to every task to legitimize political programs of classified worth and dignity. We have, however, still a long way to go. As of today f.x. the politics of Israel  towards the palestinians must clearly be seen as a challenge for the global community, as well as the U.S.’ treatment of the prisoners of war both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It seems to me that we nowadays have come to time in the development of this globalized view of man, where we are beginning to feel comfortable that the idea of the inherent dignity of man has passed it’s test, in spite of all backclashes and trips down, f.x. what happened 11th September 2001. The time appears to be right for asking the old questions again: What is the meaning of life? Wherein lies the premises for a dignified life?

Jens Bjørneboe posed these same questions again and again throughout his whole life, finding no definite answers. With his penetrating trilogy into the History of Bestiality he is still continuing to shatter any attempt of selfconfidence or easy answers, pointing out that our answers of today are clearly not good enough. But at the same time I would like to remind you all, as readers of Jens Bjørneboe and believers of his sombre view of the inevitable evil, of the historical conditions that in our time have influenced all our questions and answers concerning the meaning of human life.

The answers given us by the institutions of human rights, forced their way through merciless necessity in a time when it looked as if man was heading for destruction. Our hour of need is not over, if it for the time being is not as acute here in our northern hemisphere.

Let me also remind you of the fact that the globalized view of man is open and with no authoritative answers. There is of course good reason to question the concept that man is unique by force of its nature alone. You will, however, find no apt answers to such questions neither from politicians nor from specialists on human rights. I belief it is extremely important in a time when pluralism and multiethnical societies are imposed upon us, not to try defining definite grounds for this assumption. We are nowadays living our lives in a context where the demand for recognition of man’s inherent dignity is a postulate without content. The magic of this postulate lies in the fact that we have succeeded in obtaining an overlapping consensus from all countries. The price we have had to pay for this success, is the fact that we have renounced getting clear answers, in opposition to the humanism of bygone times. Globalized humanism assumes a belief that man is unique as a result of our common belief in each man’s inherent dignity, independent of whether this postulate can be verified or not. This fact, and this alone, in my opinion, enables us to a reconciliation with our common destiny, in spite of our recognition of all invincible differences.