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Big Thinker: Eleanor Roosevelt

by The Ethics Centre
11 October 2018
BIG;
BIG THINKERS;
EXPLAINER

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was an American diplomat and longest serving First Lady of the United States, best known for her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was affectionately dubbed “The First Lady of the World”. The thread running through her massive body of work is this single idea: fear threatens our lives and our democracies.



To live well means to live free from fear
 
Roosevelt lived in a world reeling from fascism. Though the Second World War had ended, the horrors of Nazism, the Holocaust and Stalinism revealed the depths people would succumb to out of fear and insecurity. 
 
It wasn’t your garden variety type of fear she was concerned with. It was the type of widespread fear that debilitates courage, rewards conformity and stifles “the spirit of dissent”. By succumbing to this immobilising fear, Roosevelt said, we waste our lives.

 

"Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.”

 
Roosevelt wanted all people to know their values but as an influential public figure and patriotic American, she especially wanted this for her country. This wasn’t without reason. The growing fear of political others (McCarthyism) and racial others (the push for segregation) mobilised Roosevelt and emboldened her stance. She didn’t want conformity to win.

 

 “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your own surrender, less of a human being.”

 
Find a teacher in every person you meet 
 
Roosevelt felt the danger of fear and conformity went beyond the trauma of war. It could quash “a spirit of adventure”, a way of viewing and experiencing everyday life that made you a better person. 
 
Roosevelt wasn’t talking about a thrill seeking, you-only-live-once, way of navigating the world. She meant close mindedness – denying your life experiences the opportunity to change your mind and mould your actions. 

 

“Learning and living are really the same thing, aren’t they? There is no experience from which you can’t learn something. When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense. And the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

 
This means treating everyone you meet – not simply those you immediately relate to or respect – as repositories of knowledge. Everyone has something to teach you, said Roosevelt. And, she said explicitly, youare the ultimate beneficiaryYour character, your actions and your democratic polity.
 
You might think this is selfish. After all, shouldn’t we do good simply because it is good? Being motivated by what Kant called “good will”, or a moral duty, is a higher ideal to strive for. 
 
That may very well be true. But Roosevelt wasn’t concerned with principles the vast majority of a traumatised, distrustful nation would find impossible to reach. She dealt in the everyday. 
 
A principled life
 
The most remarkable thing about Roosevelt aren’t necessarily her ideals. It was her moral gumption to act on them even if they were unorthodox for the times or grossly unpopular. 
 
She lobbied for greater intakes of World War II refugees when immigration was not supported by many Americans still reeling from the hardships of the Great Depression. She criticised her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, for a policy intended to address the post-Depression housing market crash that segregated black and white citizens. She broke with tradition by inviting African American guests to the White House. She spoke out against the internment of Japanese soldiers to the very population grieving the 2403 Americans they killed at Pearl Harbour (in comparison, it’s reported 55 Japanese lives were lost). 
 
Roosevelt’s reputation for loving all has not gone unchallenged. She has been accused of taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she worked on. While famous for wanting to protect displaced post WWII refugees, who were often Jewish, she felt the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was to resettle indigenous Palestinians in Iraq – the suggestion being she had a Zionist bias. 
 
Roosevelt nevertheless maintains her name as a pioneer in humanitarian efforts who walked her talk. Fast forward to today’s polarised political spectrum, and her story reminds us the tools to make it through are there.

We need to be courageous enough to use them.

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