Massey Lectures

Why Payam Akhavan says the responsibility to change the world falls on all of us

The lawyer, professor and author discusses how and why he wrote In Search of A Better World.
Payam Akhavan is a UN prosecutor, human rights scholar and the 2017 Massey Lecturer. (House of Anansi Press)

Payam Akhavan knows first hand what it's like not to have a voice. Since fleeing his homeland of Iran for fear of religious persecution and coming to Canada, he has become a scholar of international law, a UN prosecutor and one of the world's leading voices on human rights. 

The lawyer, professor and author is behind the 2017 Massey LecturesIn Search Of  A Better World. In the series — which is also available as a book — Akhavan warns of the dangers of apathy and political cynicism in a time of global upheaval and human rights abuses.

On the unique challenges of writing the Massey Lectures

"The fact that it's a book and a lecture and a radio broadcast made it especially challenging. Having to write five chapters, which must stand alone as lectures but must also fit into a cohesive whole, was very difficult. You need an arc which unites all of them. You want to make sure they're not repetitive but that they are still linked together. But that wasn't the biggest challenge for me. The biggest challenge was going from a narrow academic audience to speaking to the Canadian public. And the even bigger challenge was that the world had changed to dramatically from the time I was selected, to the time I was going to be giving the lectures.    

"Trumpocalypse, Brexit — all of these happened as I was writing these lectures. It was an incredible journey because I decided, first of all, instead of recycling liberal platitudes I am going to try my best to speak about human rights in a way that will convey reality. The reality isn't just grim, it's also inspiring — and we find inspiration in struggle. We find the power of light in the darkest abyss."

Masseys as memoir

"I chose the memoir format not to make this a platform for my ego, but to say that I'm no different than anyone else — that's the point. I had a point in my life as a teenager where I was at a crossroads. I was confronted with this horrible injustice of my teenage contemporary being hanged in Iran because of having written an essay critical of the government's human rights record. And here I was, an immigrant teen in Toronto, worrying about my popularity. I realized how mundane my concerns were. That was a crossroads and I decided that I'm going to commit my life to fighting for human rights. I think the memoir format shows that we all come from humble origins."

No simple answers

"It's complex — life is complex. There's the good and the bad, there's the heartbreaking, there's the incredibly humorous and all of that is part of what makes for this journey. What was important for me was not to leave people in despair, but also not to give some kind of simplistic solution, such as [believing] if we only vote for left-of-centre parties, the world will be better. Struggle is always messy. It has taken us a long time to get into the mess that we're in and it's going to take as long to get out of it — but we can."  

Masseys as therapy

"As I wrote these chapters I found that it was a deeply therapeutic process. I must admit, I cried — a lot. I'm not one that easily does that and at some stages I was just weeping uncontrollably just by putting into words those experiences. I realized that our experiences are much more important than we imagine them to be when we're going through them. Our experiences are, in a sense, historic. We all have our own micro-histories, which cumulatively fit into greater events that happen in the world."       

Overcoming apathy

"I wanted to be courageous and I wanted to really speak from the heart and accept the consequences. For me what is important is not the adulation of the audience. I will consider this a success if this book and these lectures can inspire and motivate people to rise up and become engaged. My despair does not come from the extremists of the world — whether it be the jihadists that forced us into exile or the white supremacists — my concern is with apathy, with the silent majority, that is what horrifies me. The extremists are always going to be there, but they take over when people are indifferent to injustice. 

"I have much more faith in the average person. We have lost an understanding of the power of our own empathy — the power of our own engagement. At the end of the day, when we raise our collective, cultural level, when we have this deep-seated consciousness of our shared humanity — that is what really transforms the world in a lasting way."

Payam Akhavan 's comments have been edited and condensed.

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