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A conversation with Stuart Rees about his new book - Cruelty or Humanity

September 12, 2020

By Bonnie Cassen

On the surface, there is much that reassures us in our everyday life. The sun shines, the ocean sparkles blue, the trees splash green across the countryside, and someone somewhere can raise their mouth upwards into a smile.

But scratch below the surface and a cruel world is not far behind. Cruelty has long been a feature of states’ domestic and foreign policies but is seldom acknowledged. Governments voice respect for human rights yet promote discrimination, violence and suppression of critics.

Stuart Rees is a local Shoalhaven resident and a regular contributor to The New Bush Telegraph. With his new book Cruelty or Humanity due out in bookstores in Australia on 23rd September, I spoke to him about his new publication and whether 2020 will be the catalyst for change we so desperately need.

Cruelty or Humanity by Stuart Rees SEP 2020.jpg

“I’ve seen so much cruelty around the world, but it is ignored in social, economic and public policy,” Rees tells me. “Cruelty is a priority in domestic and foreign policy in almost every form of government in every country. The more I got into it, the more intrigued I became.”

A lot of policymaking in our world today stigmatises one group over the other. It makes a distinction between worthy people and allegedly unworthy people; a tactic that has been going on for centuries and is spread across every culture. It is so deeply engrained that it happens in all societies - democracies and dictatorships and bureaucracies. 

If you stigmatise the other, whether it’s Indigenous people, or unmarried mothers, or asylum seekers - people who are not ‘like us’ - it gives governments, politicians, and the people who represent them, an entitlement to be cruel. That’s why it happens; that’s how it happens, and that is how it continues. Let’s unpack this a bit.

Most of the cruelty, Rees believes, is committed by men, so it is men’s behaviour that has to change, and it has a lot to do with the language we use and whether it is violent or nonviolent.

“There’s a great familiarity with the language of violence, whether it’s with words or with fists or with guns,” he says. “At the same time, there’s a great illiteracy with the language of nonviolence, so we have to learn this unfamiliar language.”

The message is strongly presented throughout the book using a combination of stories, poetry and experiences readers can hold onto while processing the overriding message of compassion and humanity.

“There is a matter of urgency because the cruelty isn’t only being done to human beings and animals,” he urges, “but also to planet Earth. We have been very aggressive and destructive, towards the only means of existence that there is. So, the need for change is urgent.”

The very values needed for change, are largely lacking in the political centres of the world; London, Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Canberra. Rees has a lot of concerns for how things will pan out following the very strange start to both 2020 and the new decade. 2020 is after all the crucial decade for changing the fate of the climate and ecological crisis facing us all. Rees feels this perhaps more strongly than most, big picture philosophy very much his field of expertise.

Dreaming of the Blue Self of the World, Kim Min-Chan, 12, Korea, 1st place in 9-12s, Barbara Petchenik's Children's World Map Drawing Competition 2019

The Vaccination Illusion

After any big global uncertainty – perhaps a war, market crash, drought or pandemic – opportunities fill the air, and the outcomes, the future, depends on who emerges the champion and leads the recovery brigade. In this case, as Rees sees it, the ‘vaccination illusion’.

“There is a great deal of talk about a vaccine as if the arrival of a vaccine will cure everything. That’s an illusion. There’s a great deal of talk about returning to a normality; in other words, a return to the conditions that contributed to the virus in the first place.” 

We have just seen evidence that Trump lied to the American people to downplay the severity of Covid-19 so as not to panic the people. Here, recovery has become a political battle towards an economic benchmark with federal and states battling across the divide.

Agenda is everywhere and people are left with no idea of what is really best for them or in their best interests. What is censored, what is truth and what is lies has become blurred and who exactly is calling the shots and making decisions and why, may never be known.

“There’s not much evidence that the mainstream media know how to write about bullying, aggressive behaviour, or to challenge it,” Rees reflects, pausing to release a sigh. “Of course, there should be great opportunities in 2020 because of what’s happening, but my concern is that the illusion about the vaccine and the noise about returning to normal, makes me feel a bit pessimistic.”

Rees sees political education as the key to providing a way forward – realising that everybody is the product of power relationships and that numerous agendas cloud the way.

The conclusion to this story is about the need for a language of humanity. We can’t plan a more socially just future unless we have the language with which to do it.

“The essential part of that language is what I call the language of interdependence,” Rees explains. “Interdependence that makes people realise that when you have a massive worldwide pandemic, talking about the national borders is irrelevant. The interdependence that makes you realise that climate change affects everybody, every nation, every culture.”

The interdependence that we are all one race and that there’s not much difference between us.

There is a quote towards the end of the book from the wonderful visionary historian Howard Zinn, where he says if we could imagine that all the world’s children were our children, war would never be committed. That is what Rees means by the language of humanity, the language of interdependence. It is about seeing things differently to what our conditioning has taught us. It’s about seeing past imposed limitations, seeing possibilities and a fresh future, where things are better and not worse, and where we are more connected, rather than isolated and disconnected.

The Queen of the World (Bianca Belovic, 5, Slovenia).jpg
The Queen of the World, by Bianca Belovic, 5, Slovenia. 1st prize in under 6s, Barbara Petchenik's Children's World Map Drawing Competition 2019.

A Language for Humanity

The language of humanity is the language of nonviolence. Rees sums it up in saying, 

“What Mahatma Gandhi said is that it’s not just a way of living but a law for life. Nonviolence is about the way you dress, and it’s about great music, it’s about great hospitality, all the things that make life worth living and give a sense of joy to people. It’s about using power in a completely creative non-destructive way. The very opposite of the behaviour of gun lobby in the United States, for example. Or the very opposite of men who like to argue with their fists. Or the very opposite of the derisory headlines that fill the Daily Telegraph almost every day of the week.”

Rees uses poetry throughout the book, as a means to illustrate experiences a world apart, both geographically as well as in terms of lived experience. It is about life as theatre because that’s what poetry and other creative mediums introduce. It could be your poetry, or it could be William Shakespeare’s poetry. What poetry does is it allows all of us, if we make time for it, to imagine visions that don’t usually occur. It opens our mind to possibilities.

The Indigenous poet, activist and educator, Oodgeroo Noonuccal has answers for all the problems in the US and for racial injustice in Australia. In her poem All One Race, she writes the words, “I’m for all humankind, not colour gibes; I’m international, and never mind tribes.” This is the very language of humanity.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal

All One Race
Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown,
From where the sun jumps up to where it goes down,
Herrs and pukka-sahibs, demoiselles and squaws,
All one family, so why make wars?
They’re not interested in brumby runs,
We don’t hanker after Midnight Suns;
I’m for all humankind, not colour gibes;
I’m international, and never mind tribes.

Black, white or brown race, yellow race or red,
From the torrid equator to the ice-fields spread,
Monsieurs and senors, lubras and fraus,
All one family, so why family rows?
We’re not interested in their igloos,
They’re not mad about kangaroos;
I’m international, never mind place;
I’m for humanity, all one race.
From Oodgeroo Noonuccal's book - The Dawn Is At Hand (1966)

“You can hear in her words the sense of rhythm, and you can feel the humanity – it could be poetry, it could be great art, it could be great music, it could be great cooking if I come to your house for example. It is all an expression of humanity at its best in a creative non-destructive way. I happened to use poetry because I’m no good at cooking.”

I ask Rees how we can get to that point of humanity from where we currently are, and he tells me it is all about stopping the greed and the selfishness that is part of this violence.

“I was taught that policy should be the domination of altruism over egoism, yet I was outside the Supreme Court in Sydney the other day to speak on behalf of Julian Assange. The building inside was full of well-heeled lawyers and yet not one of them turned up to support this persecuted Australian citizen, and the journalists didn’t turn up either. So the question on unselfishness on behalf of the other is something that has to be learned; not necessarily from school, but from university, from newspapers, from conversations.”

A big ask when breaking away from such established dogmas. The dominant message of the free market, of neoliberalism, is that you have to think economically; that talking about the needs of society is only something that women do on the weekend. The dominant message is about getting ahead financially, thinking economically.

“There’s not much room for hard work for human rights if that’s your formula for living.” Rees recognised that society has a long way to go with change. “And a lot of people realise that far too late. It doesn’t seem to be dawning in America at the moment. It doesn’t seem to be dawning at all.”

The Place of Courage

Using stories helps readers to pick up on the tales of life so different from ours across the other side of the world. Rees tells the story of a man locked away in a refugee camp for 30 years with his family and fellow countrymen, who said he only wants a chance to prove that they are human beings. Simple, humble words.

The book also contains stories of courage in public life. Rees believes it is important to have the courage to speak up in any society, but particularly in police states. He describes his admiration at the courage of young men and women, particularly young women, in the streets of Belarus at the moment. Their courage is so compelling, you would want to go there and follow them and support them, such is the infectiousness of their conviction and passion. 

Historically cruelty has been central to the way states behave, democracies, dictatorships and so on. On the other side of the coin is the potential to build a great sense of optimism about the future.

“The determination is to not hand over a cruel legacy to future generations. The language for humanity is the way ahead, it’s the optimistic message, but it has to be coupled with knowing the past, not by pretending that the past didn’t exist. Not pretending that we didn’t slaughter the Indigenous peoples. Not pretending that we haven’t been enormously cruel to asylum seekers. And not pretending that we don’t run an economic system where there is guaranteed massive inequalities. You have to understand the past in order to build the optimism that is in the last half of the book.”

He continues “We have to have complete equality between the sexes. We can’t have the continued male domination, which is a problem in Australia and a massive problem in so many parts of the world. Still. The language of nonviolence is disproportionately the language used by women, and so women will be crucially important in bringing about this change.”

In Cruelty or Humanity, Rees documents case studies from around the world, highlighting cruel motives and the resulting actions we can take to change these outcomes in the future. He uses first-hand observations from his travels to war zones, refugee camps and persecuted communities and draws on the insights from international poets. While the content is hot, the reading is easy going and soothing.

Rather than leave us hanging, Rees provides practical solutions for courageous action we all can take to support nonviolence in every aspect of public and private life. Anyone who holds concern for the survival of people, animals and the planet should read this book.


Stuart Rees in conservation with his friend and colleague Dr Lydia Wanja Gitau and well known artist Tracy Verdugo
Video produced by Marco Verdugo, Cantamar Studio, Huskisson

Cruelty or Humanity by Stuart Rees, will be available in bookstores across Australia from the 23rd September. 

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney, a human rights activist, poet and author. Rees is also a recipient of the Jerusalem Peace Prize, and the Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation. We also recognise the honour of a London publishing house picking up this important book for worldwide distribution. 

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    One comment on “A conversation with Stuart Rees about his new book - Cruelty or Humanity”

    1. This conversation between Stuart and Bonnie is so important at this time. Far from leaving me despaired... I am energised and determined to read 'Cruelty or Humanity'. In particular to find ways we can each effect change for humane and equity values at political levels. Very much appreciated.

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