Speaking in a rich, musical voice, Wole Soyinka urged the standing room-only crowd to preserve human rights, especially for those who cannot fight for their own protection.
“Impunity always breeds greater impunity. …The gates of hell fly open when the strong overwhelm the weak and innocent,”said Soyinka, a novelist, poet and dramatist, and the first African to win the Nobel Prize in 1986 for Literature.
A striking figure with a head of shocking white hair, Soyinka urged people to think of dignity not as a mere abstraction, but as an “absolute”—something that involves a person’s entire being, space and rights. In his Nov. 29 talk, “Human Rights and Cultural Alibis,” presented by the Office of the Provost and the African Studies Center as part of the Provost’s Spotlight Series, Soyinka provided a historical perspective of human rights abuse, citing examples from the Age of Enlightenment to the Sudan.
But he saved his most stinging criticism for the pairing of religion and politics. “The most aggressive face of intolerance today, alas, wears the mask of religion,” he said. “It is a fundamental right of all humans to seek or not to seek religion.” Soyinka added that crimes committed in the name of religion rank as some of the worst ever. As people retreat behind a wall of culture, theirs becomes a completely hermetic existence, he said.
Soyinka, a native of Nigeria, has served as a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London, taught drama and literature at Yale, Oxford and Leeds and is a professor emeritus at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and fellow at the DuBois Institute at Harvard, among other positions. In 1965, Soyinka was arrested after challenging the Nigerian government, acquitted, and then arrested again in 1967. Imprisoned for more than two years, much of it in solitary confinement, he wrote his thoughts on scraps of toilet paper and cigarette wrappers. These scraps were compiled in his 1972 book, “The Man Died.”
Soyinka also strongly condemned the war in Iraq, calling it, “the most expensive coup d’etat the world has ever known,” while emphasizing that few around the world miss Saddam Hussein and the atrocities of his regime.
The Iraqi war comes at a great cost, added Soyinka, because the moral authority of the U.S. has been eviscerated across the world and drastically lowered in the United Nations. “Democracy is not a mystical, complicated or Western concept,” Soyinka said. “In the hands of the powerful a democratic culture can degenerate into a culture of militarism.”
Before the talk, Penn President Amy Gutmann presented Soyinka with a Medal for Distinguished Achievement and called him “a truly remarkable man” who transcends his culture even as he is a part of it.
For future Provost’s Spotlight Series lectures, go to www.upenn.edu/provost/provost_spotlight.html.
Originally published on December 9, 2004