Norman Geras - the man who changed the way I think

Following the news of the untimely death at the age of 70 of thinker, teacher, writer and pioneering blogger Norman Geras, I have been re-reading his essay, The Contract of Mutual Indifference, first published in 1998.

It is a masterpiece of the form — just over 80 pages of knot-tight argument on the ability of human beings to live their lives in apparent contentment even when living alongside others who suffer.

Long before he started writing his Normblog in response to the apparent indifference of the Western liberal elite to the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam, Norman Geras — who was emeritus professor of politics at Manchester University — was expressing his concern at the West’s failure to intervene to stop genocide.

In his attempt to examine this “bystander phenomenon”, he listed examples of human rights abuses in Bosnia: a crucifixion, a girl raped with a bottle, lungs burst with a vehicle exhaust, children disfigured with hot irons.

“Here is the core idea,” he explained. “If you do not come to the aid of others who are under grave assault, in acute danger or crying need, you cannot reasonably expect others to come to your aid in similar emergency; you cannot consider them so obligated to you.” This is the contract of mutual indifference.

The starting point for Norman Geras was the Holocaust, but the context was contemporary international politics.
In one of his last blog posts, he wrote about Syria (as in the case of Iraq, Normblog supported intervention) and described a common attitude: “Something should be done about this; I hope somebody or other will do it (but don’t look at me).”

Professor Geras believed passionately in the principles of humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” under international law.

Personally, I couldn’t join him in support for the Iraq war. Nor could I sign the Euston Manifesto, a statement of principles for what became known as the “decent” left. But I recognise it as his greatest legacy.

Norman Geras changed the way I think. In particular, he forced me to recognise that those who chose not to support the Iraq war had to take responsibility for the moral consequences of their decision as much as those who called for military action.

In the week of Professor Geras’s death, we read of snipers in Syria targeting the bellies of pregnant women in a game to win cigarettes, while Facebook refuses to remove snuff films of beheadings from the web.

How can we remain indifferent to such horror? How can we not act?

This week I was reminded of the words of a Kurdish Iraqi refugee from an Amnesty appeal quoted in The Contract of Mutual Indifference: “When our children were dying, you did nothing to help. Now God help your children”.

Last updated: 12:23pm, October 24 2013