Payam Akhavan will be speaking at the Yukon Arts Centre Sept. 13 as part of the CBC Massey Lectures. (Supplied photo/Peter Bregg)

Human rights activist Payam Akhavan opens Massey Lectures in Whitehorse Sept. 13

‘We are incomplete if we are insensitive to the suffering of others’

Payam Akhavan is a professor of international law at McGill University, a member of the International Court of Arbitration, a former United Nations prosecutor in the Hague, an outspoken proponent of human rights and — most recently — presenter for the 2017 CBC Massey Lectures. Akhavan will be in Whitehorse Sept. 13 at the Yukon Arts Centre to present the first of a series of five lectures entitled In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey.

“I think this is the first time (the lectures) will start in the Yukon,” said Akhavan. “When they asked me to do the lectures, I did what any respectable scholar would do,” he said with a laugh as he spoke from Oxford University in England. “I Googled it.”

Akhavan said he is honoured and excited to be a part of this year’s Massey Lectures, which after Whitehorse will see him in Vancouver, Montreal and Saint John’s before the tour wraps up in Toronto. In Search of a Better World is at once a series of essays on human rights, international politics and modern culture, and a memoir into which Akhavan weaves in his own personal experience and profound sensitivity to the human condition.

“You have a unique platform (when you do the Massey Lectures),” he said. “And you need to say something meaningful.”

Akhavan “thought for a long, long time” about the format his Massey Lecture would take before settling on this format, he said, which incorporates storytelling in a way a traditional lecture would not.

“I chose this medium very carefully,” he said. “I wanted to have an honest conversation.”

Storytelling personalizes his work and ideas, he said, and removes the “statistical anomalies” of the atrocities of war and genocide from the equation. He said the reality of human suffering — starvation, poverty, child mortality, violence — can be hidden behind mere numbers, and the onslaught of media reporting which brings facts but no real experience obsures the meaning of the events on an emotional and human level. What is not felt can be thought but not truly understood, Akhavan says. When you open yourself to feeling and seeing, “you begin to realize that human suffering is very real.”

“I hope that (through the lectures) I will touch people… We all have a share (in humanity) and we all need to struggle,” he said. “I have seen how … you speak about human suffering makes a very big difference in whether we act (on it) or not.”

Although this will be Akhavan’s first time in the Yukon, it’s not his first visit to the North. When he was 18, he spent both a summer and a winter, on separate occasions, in Baker Lake, Nunavut (then part of the Northwest Territories), an experience he says had a profound effect on his life.

“To me the Arctic is a very special part of the Canadian psyche,” he says. “One of the powerful things I learned (in Baker Lake) is that people who have suffered, who are seeking redemption and love will somehow magically find each other.”

Akhavan sees “a profound connection,” between his international human rights work and the events currently taking place in Canada’s Indigenous communities, both in the North and in the rest of the country.

“Pain is a kind of transcendent community and I connect deeply with the people of the North. We need to create a space for reconciliation beyond guilt and platitude-driven ideals … and have a genuine understanding and a genuine conversation…. Many First Nations people know the European culture but if there’s going to be a genuine dialogue we must learn their culture and listen to their stories,” he says. “Reconciliation only occurs when we truly connect with people.”

Akhavan calls the history of relations between Indigenous people and Canada “the biggest blemish on our human rights background,” and says it diminishes our moral powers as a nation.

“In order for (Canada) to have moral authority (internationally) we must clean up our own backyard,” he said.

The materialism and rationalism of modern Western consumer society is at the heart of the dehumanization of real human suffering in the world, he says. These values result in a culture which says much but does very little in terms of being active around human rights issues.

Akhavan says that “mindless feel-good activism” such as “liking” something in a Facebook feed does not combine thought with action and “is not how you save the world.” He sites cultural events like the “YOLOcaust” — a social media project collecting selfies taken at the Berlin Holocaust memorial — as evidence for “a kind of poverty” in our current culture where we “mistake a Facebook like for genuine change.”

“I’m fascinated by the idea of milking the macabre … by our need for the extreme to feel alive because we are terrified of being destined for mediocrity,” he said. “We have a great gift for self deception… We want to be virtuous but we don’t want to put in the hard work required. When we talk about human rights we talk about them in a really self-indulgent way.”

Akhavan says his first, opening lecture tells “a very personal story” and that he is interested in seeing what people in Whitehorse will think of it.

“It’s very important to me that the audience understands that … the story isn’t about me but about the common humanity that we all share and the common struggle of the difficulty of living a meaningful life,” he said. “In my journey, if I hadn’t felt suffering… I probably wouldn’t have lived a very consequential life. Until we suffer we never have the opportunity to move beyond our ego and move to our higher selves.”

“We are incomplete if we are insensitive to the suffering of others.”

A limited number of tickets for this event were still available through Arts Underground and YAC as of Sept 7.

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com