Writing in the New Yorker about Turkey, the novelist Elif Şafak begins thus:
The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”
This is, I think, an under-explored aspect of human rights… or rather, human rights violations.
When one is in the business of defending human rights and free speech in other parts of the world, it’s easy to slip into a simple dichotomy: The censorious government is bad and corrupt; the dissidents are noble and good.
In reality, things are far more complicated. Not all activists, journalists and writers have the courage or even the means to fight back. Those outliers who continue to write what they think—and damn the consequences—are few and far between. This makes it easy for the Government to identify them and pick them off.
Most people aren’t that brave and instead find themselves corrupted in some way: As Şafak explains later in her essay, this might be through direct complicity with the regime; silence (a sort of sin of omission); or else a corruption of their literary output as it flees into metaphor and ambiguity.
My interview with Anjan Sundaram about what he saw happen to journalists in Rwanda is relevant to Elif’s analysis: he saw the full spectrum of reactions to authoritarianism, from cringing complicity to outright defiance.
More generally, the corruption of the person and the state that comes when human rights are denied is a crucial argument against any weakening of rights protections. As we prepare for a battle against a British Prime Minister intent on destroying our hard-won protections against state power, this is one of the arguments we must marshal: when the rights of some are abused, we are all diminished.
How to say this in a way that persuades?