RSA BLOG 28 Mar 2017
The world we have created reflects our nature, thus it will never be a perfect place, but it can be a better one. Nations still invest in weapons, some even promote the possession of guns, and today — even in democratic Europe — women have to defend their rights again. We seem to still have a long way to go before we learn our lesson. In this rather unsettling political and economic context, positive reminders and encouragement from role models who dare to challenge the status quo are of particular value. Events such as those initiated by the RSA and 92Y create opportunities to exchange ideas and to learn from one another by focusing on the constructive, such as the wonders of human genius.
For the last couple of years, western democracies have been going through a period of challenging transformations. The fast flow of information enabled by the Internet has brought about many changes, including those allowing geographically distant and culturally diverse people to exchange knowledge and services. New opportunities have opened up hermetic cultures to foreign influence, increasing cultural diversity and making political borders seem more arbitrary. Individuals began to be looked upon as people, rather than representatives of nations, validated through stereotypes and explicit biases. Freedom of movement let people learn from one another, see the world from many different angles, and appreciate this opportunity. This positive tendency is currently undergoing a serious crisis.
The situation, confusing to those who got used to the comforts of open societies, makes more sense to historians. Since the very beginning of our civilization, societies have been going through cycles of progress punctuated by periods of regress. Social sciences provide various context-dependent explanations for that dynamic. Today our leaders bring about what many perceive as a regress that threatens the not-so-distant progressive status quo. Politicians in power again undermine what has been achieved by their predecessors, and try to limit human rights rather than expand them. As if history was echoing Faulkner’s words “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”, many contemporary leaders, as it already was in the past, try to cajole us into accepting their myopic, short-term pseudo fixes.
When large social groups try to build on fears, we need stronger positive incentives and encouraging examples of individuals and ideas. As a response to these current waves of change, RSA Global invited its Connectors to join the 7 Days of Genius festival initiated by the US based organisation 92Y. The events organised within this festival in Poland reflected some of the contemporary social anxieties, simultaneously revealing the powerful evolutionary need to sustain the state of progress by hanging onto the creative, rather than destructive, powers of human genius. The events oscillated mostly around women’s issues and presented portraits of inspirational individuals. We ‘celebrated the genius’ of people and ideas who can serve as a counterbalance to the voices disturbingly reverberating across EU calling for various kinds of separations.
The events were held in Lodz and Poznan. Lodz, a city situated in central Poland is well known for its Jewish past and numerous outstanding Polish and Jewish residents, such as Arthur Rubinstein (pianist) or Ludwik Zamenhoff (creator of esperanto). It is also well known for its film school with several Oscar-winning alumni and a film festival. The speakers at the festival, mostly academics and people related to academia, introduced some well- and some lesser-known individuals, whose broadly understood ‘genius’ inspires and makes an impact on both local and global communities. The talks ranged from the genius of Hannah Arendt through the genius of Helena Wieckowska to David Attenborough and enthusiasts promoting ideas related to space exploration.
The festival created an opportunity to bring together the diverse communities of Lodz, and to evoke individuals who dared to improve reality, also during difficult historic periods and in the face of multiple obstacles. One such individual, an example of a genius selected for the event, was Helena Wieckowska (1897–1984). Mostly known in her local community of Lodz, Wieckowska made an invaluable contribution to the post-war scientific community there. Soon after WWII, she rebuilt the university library by collecting books from various sources, many of them donations from anonymous individuals. The books were often thrown onto the horse carriages and literally dumped onto piles on the library courtyard, and then individually selected for library repositories. Helena Wieckowska, a Polish Jew, despite her personal tragedies (she lost her daughter in Warsaw Uprising), managed to help others, created an impressive library, today an imposing edifice with over 3 million books. She was also active in the Society for Women with Higher Education. Despite being a woman in post-war communist Poland, Wieckowska grasped opportunities that came her way, and managed to prove herself as a skillful leader — one of the few women executives of her times. Her industriousness impacted many lives, and gave people access to rich literary sources, something we take for granted today.
The second city which took part in the 7 Days of Genius festival was Poznan, halfway between Warsaw and Berlin, famous for its landmarks, croissants (Rogale Marcinskie), and international connections such as the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. The festival’s motto of “celebrating human genius” was popularized during a TEDx event hosted by the Adam Mickiewicz High School, one of the leading educational institutions in the city. I started my keynote opening the TEDx event with a reference to Stephen Jay Gould, who once pointed out the correlation between genius and people’s access to opportunities. The talk focused on three threads: inspiration, opportunities and the importance of self-belief.
As a contemporary example of ‘genius’ I chose David Attenborough, as his person seemed particularly apt in the context of current campaigns against the mass logging of trees in Poland. I presented him as an example of a talented individual who has inspired generations of nature lovers, and tried to highlight the importance of his contributions to wildlife protection. After a humble beginning, Attenborough became a role model, who has inspired numerous individuals and organisations around the world.
The second thread of my talk was based on my personal experience during a science expedition organised by the Austrian Space Forum in the Sahara desert, which I took part in back in 2013. During the simulation of a Mars mission on Earth, I met many great people, enthusiasts obsessed with Mars exploration, and I was astonished by their attitude towards the projects they were working on. Even though many of them know that they themselves will probably never be able to go to space, they enjoy the process of working towards a bigger goal and encourage others to collaborate and unite together around great ideas such as space exploration.
I closed my talk with the quote from Vergil’s Anaeid: “Possunt quia, posse videntur”, often translated as: “They can because they think they can”. This quote often helps me to remember that the source of actions comes from within, something we all need to remember in these times.