Text of the acceptance speech by the former Czech president and noted writer Vaclav Havel who received the Gandhi Peace Prize 2003 on January 5, 2004
Recently my wife and I treated ourselves to something special -- a trip through Europe by car. The last time I did something like that was 35 years ago and our idea was inspired by my memories of that trip. I was astonished by how much everything had changed since then. We drove mostly on the roadways and saw very little of the countryside, the forests, or the towns and villages. Now that in itself is not a bad thing, for at least motorway traffic does not destroy human settlements. We can hope that nature — its fauna and flora — will survive the drastic carving up of the countryside by motorways.
What was terrible, however, was the fact that those motorways were teeming with thousands upon thousands of vehicles, lorries in particular, most of which were breaking the speed limit and passing one another without warning, even on bridges spanning deep valleys and in tunnels. Moreover, quite absurdly, it seemed to me, they were transporting identical products from one place to another, enabling a Dane to butter his bread with Italian butter, and an Italian to butter his bread with Danish butter — the two kinds of butter travelling thousands of kilometres, following no other logic than the blind laws of market economy. Such activities, alongwith many others, are responsible for the completely unnecessary pollution of the air by exhaust fumes, and for the depletion of the remaining reserves of crude oil.
One image from that trip remains firmly fixed in may memory. We had left the motorway to go into a large South European city where, needless to say, we got hopelessly lost. We ended up driving through a strange port district with hundreds of huge decks, warehouses, hangers and low-income apartment buildings. Not a soul was in sight. Then we saw a lonely pedestrian walking on the sidewalk, a mobile phone clamped between his shoulder and car, making him look slightly crippled. And suddenly I saw in this person a major symbol of man’s loneliness in an era when personal contact, direct conversation, and looking one another in the eye are being replaced by an increasingly sophisticated technology that in the end does not bring people closer together, but rather promotes further alienation.
This technology allows people to speak or write anything to anyone at anytime. But does it enable people to know one another any better? Do they understand one another better? Do they like each other more? I don’t think so. People are only losing their privacy. Of course, while lying in a bath-tub in Alaska, you can listen to friend speaking to you from a bazaar somewhere in India. Yet the human significance of such a contact — that is, what is valuable and precious in human contact — diminishes or vanishes altogether. A tone of voice, a smile, a look, a gesture: all these elements inherent in every human act of communication are replaced by some kind of telegraphic, simplified depersonalised universal newspeak.
Less than a year ago, my term as head of state came to an end after 13 long and truly revolutionary years. One consequence among many: I had to learn how to use a different, and needless to say, a more up-to-date, computer than the one I’d been used to all these years; I had to learn how to use a state-of-the-art mobile phone and how to handle a different car than the one I had known at a time when I had no driver. Such gadgets seem to me so sophisticated they can do anything and everything. But for someone as unfamiliar with such gadgets as Mowgli, to learn how to use them, he has to read a pile of manuals as bulky as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Thus I often feel that even though these devices are intended to save time and labour, in reality they steal time from us and keep us from more serious matters than the reading of manuals, such as meditating upon the meaning of our existence, upon the miracle of creation, or reading Gandhi’s speeches. Naturally, neither the devices nor their inventors are to blame. It is the consequence of modern man’s incapacity to keep pace with himself.
There are, however, more serious matters than the ones I have been talking about. We all know how irreversibly our civilisation is destroying the climate, how it is derailing the entire planet from the path that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years. We know how recklessly it is plundering natural resources and how, in a kind of free fall, it is deepening — without wanting or having to — the enormous social gaps between its different spheres. We know how thoughtlessly it imposes a uniformity on the life of nations and cultures, offering them, quite subtly, the same tempting and, at the same time destructive, way of life.
At the same time, the world is becoming wonderfully interconnected, although this is happening in a strange, and I would even say, highly ambiguous way. Nowadays, for instance, it is quite usual for people to call themselves entrepreneurs, and no one is really interested to know what line of business this involves. The times when people were innkeepers, mine owners, landowners or car manufacturers seem to be slowly receding into the past. Ownership and specific human labour are drifting apart and the biggest owners have almost stopped managing the specific production of tangible goods; instead, they manage billions of dollars worth of assets that circulate in digital form around the world. At present, the world economy seems to profit by it, at least that is what the measurable factors indicate. Yet in the long-term perspective, this growing gap between the generation of profits and the generation of values cannot be beneficial.
Let me repeat: I am not against human inventions, against telephones, lorries, nuclear power stations, or computers. I am impressed with them all, and as a matter of fact, the less I understand them, the more I am impressed with them. What I’m talking about is the fact that global civilisation can’t seem to cope responsibly with its own products. Despite the thousands of intelligent books on the subject, nothing changes. We know what dangers confront us, yet though we know, we continue to exert the least possible effort to confront those challenges or to avoid them.
By now you have certainly realised why I am talking about this. I have been thinking about Mahatma Gandhi, of course, and what he would say were he faced with today’s so-called globalisation. I daresay I know, or can imagine, what he would say. He would warn us as he warned India about the Manchester textile mills or about the railways. Without a shadow of doubt, he would sound the alarm, his voice filled with compelling urgency.
What is perhaps less obvious and worth emphasising, is the message that Gandhi often repeated to his fellow citizens, as he reminded them of their responsibility for everything that was plaguing them. He certainly did not see colonial rule and the material exploitation of India as an unavoidable catastrophe, something that had come down from the sky like an enormous meteorite. Instead, he saw it as something everyone, including the Indians themselves, allowed to happen, a process in which everybody participated in one way or another and thus helped to perpetuate and develop.
I believe this is exactly how things are today, too. I am convinced that it is absurd for us to rant against a particular company for flooding the world with disgusting fast-food -- thick, mouth-wrenching and constantly disintegrating sandwiches which we continue to eat without qualms. Yes, such food is probably less expensive but the question is: how high is the price we will all have to pay one day for the cheapness?
Big transnational corporations are often branded the main culprits, responsible for all the bad things in the current state of civilisation. But isn’t blaming them simply a red herring that turns them into substitute culprits whose indictment relieves us of taking responsibility for our own lives? Aren’t we ultimately all responsible for the noxious aspects of their activities, because, by our behaviour, we make such activities possible? Actually, Gandhi’s passive resistance alone can successfully confront such activities! Of course, it is also true that such a course of action is anything but easy.
Indeed, how can we complain that car manufactures the world over are flooding the earth with more and more automobiles, heedless of deplorable consequences of such an action, including the congestion of most large cities in the world. How can we be upset with companies that have petrol stations behind every tree all around the world and yet be incapable of imagining life without being able to move around in anything other than a car of our own of the latest model even though we may be the only person sitting in the car for hours as in the vast majority of all other cars, too?
Let me put this in other words, returning to a theme I have been trying to put across for a long time. It is this: that the deepest roots of most of the problems of contemporary civilisation lie in the sphere of the human spirit. It is up to us alone, those of us living today, whether we, or those who come after us, will be swallowed up by our own civilisation. Humanity’s ability to brave the dangers that confront it today hinges entirely on our attitude to eternity, to life and its gifts, to death, and on the degree to which we accept responsibility for ourselves and the world.
So each and every one of us must look within ourselves, and however insignificant our influence on the general march of events may seem to be, strive to contend with both seen and unseen threats to the world. This, it seems to me, is the eternally fresh message of Mahatma’s lifelong work and activity.
Exactly ten years ago, it was my honour to receive the Indira Gandhi Prize in this very city, the Capital of India. Recently I re-read the text of the speech I gave on that occasion, and except for the over-confident tone of my arguments — a tone I would certainly not use today — I am happy to say that in essence I can still agree with what I said then. There is no need, therefore, for me to repeat myself. Instead, let me mention an issue I did not raise then, one that in any case cannot be avoided.
That issue is fanaticism, dogmatism, aggressive sectarianism, and, last but not least, terrorism. Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv all died at the hands of fanatics. These are terrible, almost unbelievable things.
However, the situation today appears to be even more serious than at the time of these murders. Fanatical terrorists do not send only the people they hate, and themselves, to their death — they take with them a great many people who have nothing whatsoever in common with their cause. Once again, modern inventions make it possible for them to commit evil on a large scale, possibly on a scale that is unprecedented in history.
There are probably many different ways to combat this enormous threat. Actually, throughout the world, both the media and politicians are engaged in fascinating debates on the subject.
However, let me draw your attention to something that relates to what I have just spoken about. I feel strongly that the reckless, unbridled course of civilisation today, in which almost all of us are, to some extent, involved is one of the contributing causes of terrorism. While the rapid tendency of civilisation toward uniformity attracts both individuals and entire human communities, it is at the same time a source of deep, and often unconscious frustration.
In the face of these civilisational pressures, the immense capitulation of the human spirit, of human responsibility, and of human religiosity necessarily fosters, in some environments, sensations of deep emptiness and despair. Whatever the intentions of the terrorists or their leaders, one thing is obvious, and makes their criminal activities easier: they can always expect sympathy or support of sorts primarily from a vague — and, I would even say, a metaphysical — despair.
All the more reason to seek an improvement of the world, first of all in the field of the human spirit, of human conscience, of human responsibility, that is above all in ourselves, in our own spiritual development, in the cultivation of our self-discipline, in our capacity to resist all temptations and, naturally, in the inspiration such attitudes might provide for the people around us.
It is a great honour for me to receive today this prize that bears the name of one of the best sons of your country and of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Deep in my heart, I may wonder whether I am worthy of such a prize. I have no doubt, however, that the ideals I espouse are worthy of it.