Mishka Gora is the author of Fragments of War, an autobiographical novel about aid work in the former Yugoslavia, and the forthcoming fantasy The First Realm.She writes frequently about conscience, war, international justice, and the former Yugoslavia in publications such as 'Quadrant Magazine', 'Connor Court Quarterly', 'MercatorNet', and 'Online Opinion', as well as at her blog Eyes of the Mind. Her articles criticising the ICTY have drawn international attention, and this campaign for justice is featured in the 2012 Croatian documentary film Udruzena Nepravda (Joint Injustice). She worked as a humanitarian aid worker in the former Yugoslavia in 1993, holds degrees in American Studies, Philosophy, and History from Monash and Brown universities, and her doctoral work on conscience won the 2007 George Yule Essay Prize. You can follow Mishka and her work on Facebook.
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without much further ado, please listen to how Mishka responds to the question "Why is it important to write about things that matter?"
Actions may speak louder than words, but sometimes the action we need to take is to say something, and this is when words really do matter.
Three years ago, I saw a news headline that was all wrong. It announced that two Croatian generals had been found guilty of war crimes. I had considerable knowledge and experience of the war in question, a unique understanding for an outsider, but there wasn’t much I could do. The overwhelming evidence of their innocence had been ignored. I was just a stay-at-home mother in far-off Tasmania, and I thought I had put the war behind me. I didn’t want to return to a life plagued by nightmares and flashbacks. I didn’t want to disturb the tranquillity of family life in rural Tasmania.
I had my freedom, though. It was a basic freedom that had been denied to the generals incarcerated in a UN gaol. They weren’t just two innocent men either. They were two innocent men who had led the fight for freedom from Serb occupation, broken the Serb stranglehold on Bosnia to allow humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of starving civilians, and thwarted plans for further genocide in the wake of Srebrenica. My freedom taunted and ridiculed me. I could not remain silent.
But who would listen to me? What use was freedom of expression or the ability to craft words if no one would read what I wrote? What difference could I make?
But the whole point of doing the right thing is that you do it because it’s right, not in order to attain some goal or receive some reward, but simply because it is right. Those of us who remain free to do so have an obligation to speak out against injustice, no matter how futile it seems. So many are silent because everyone else is.
Ultimately, writing about things that matter is as simple as writing the truth. The truth always matters, especially if you are a believer, because God is the Truth. The object of faith is truth. Hope makes us wayfarers in search of truth. Love (or charity) is the “extraordinary force” that brings our faith and hope to life. “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity.” Without the truth, any writing I might do would be at best “interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments”. (Caritas in Veritate)
So I wrote my article, knowing that even if no one read it, that even if I were pilloried for it, it still mattered.
The day after it was published, one of the defence lawyers working on the generals’ appeal wrote to me. He told me my article had reached thousands of people in the international justice community, including “virtually everyone” at the Hague tribunal. It was a “bright ray of encouragement”. Then there were articles in a major Croatian daily newspaper, and a documentary film in which I featured alongside notables such as the actor Goran Visnjic and Margaret Thatcher’s adviser Robin Harris. The rest is history. I take no credit for the generals’ freedom, but I am glad to have provided encouragement and taken a stand, to have spoken the truth in love.
You may ask what love has to do with it, but the relationship between truth and love isn’t one way. They illuminate each other. Love, by which I mean the will for the highest good, the sort of love we are commanded to bear for neighbours and enemies alike, ignites our passion for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It sees the big picture and does not allow selective facts to represent the whole person or situation. It was true that General Gotovina ordered the shelling of the town of Knin, but those who consequently judged him guilty of a war crime ignored the prudence and temperance he exercised in what was a just military action in defence of his country and people. Love does not allow truth to be manipulated.
Just as the absence of love distorts truth, the absence of truth perverts love, turning it into mere sentimentality. Our assessments of men like General Gotovina become subjective and arbitrary, and our duty to be charitable cannot be lived out. Any compassion we might bear for an ‘enemy’ is an abuse of the very concept of love if we can only do so by sweeping the truth about them under the carpet. General Gotovina did not deserve freedom because hundreds of thousands of Croats adored him as their hero. He deserved freedom because he was innocent.
Feeling revulsion for someone, as is inevitable if we know the truth about our enemies, does not preclude loving them. If we desire the best outcome for a criminal, we desire justice here and now, so that they have the greatest opportunity to repent of their crimes. The pursuit of truth and justice in an atmosphere of lies and deception is an act of love, sometimes a sacrificial one. Writing the truth can lead to gaol or execution in many places, and yet it continues to be proclaimed. Love is the impetus behind this – nothing less than the love of God or man could inspire the laying down of one’s life for truth. There would be no point in dying for the truth if it could be disconnected from faith, hope, and love.
Yet so much of today’s entertainment, including what we read, is nihilistic. There are no moral principles and the absolute nature of truth is denied. We defend this entertainment as “realistic”, but this is just a euphemism for what used to be termed “shock value”. Even those who seek the highest good are not immune to the decay of truth in our society. While they do not deny truth, they constrain it with self-absorbed ramblings and attempts to mimic the pretentious ‘style’ of what’s popular with the literati. When we write staccato and disjointed prose, our attempt to write about the things that matter is unintelligible. There is little beauty, and what truth there may be is lost on the reader.
If we desire to write about the things that matter, we need not worry about the topic. Everything matters. The issue is how we write, whether we inspire and enlighten and do not leave our readers discouraged and confused. If we are to write about what matters, we must constantly ask ourselves what good we can do:
“For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one's contemplation than merely to contemplate.”
(St Thomas Aquinas, Summa IIª-IIae q. 188 a. 6 co.)