It was LDOC, and I was sitting in my last class of the year, crying.
The sounds of partying on the quad filtered in with cheery sunlight through the windows. The room felt festive. Yet there I was, tearing up.
It wasn’t for the reasons you might expect. I wasn’t dealing poorly with sentimental endings due to excessive alcohol consumption. I hadn’t just broken up with a senior boyfriend who was heading out into the real world. I hadn’t received a grade in organic chemistry that killed long-cherished medical school aspirations.
No, I was living another stereotype: the college idealist who comes to realize that her lofty hopes of changing the world are a child’s fantasy. My international human rights professor was prompting this realization as he stood at the front of the much-smaller-than-normal class, delivering his final lecture.
It had been a frustrating semester. In the class, we were exposed to a horrifying account of modern history filled with disturbingly frequent atrocities. Then we learned about incredibly committed people who devoted their lives to bettering the world. We saw them spend decades fighting to make these atrocities illegal under international law and find a way to legalize intervention to stop them. And we saw them fail.
We learned about people like former Duke Law professor Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who escaped to the United States in 1941 to witness the Holocaust from across an ocean. He lost 49 relatives, including his mother and father.
He dedicated his life to making genocide illegal under international law. Eventually, he got the U.N. to pass a resolution for a Genocide Convention. It took him years of unceasing work. Renowned historian Samantha Power tells of the aftermath of the Convention’s adoption, writing, “Journalists finally tracked [Lemkin] down, alone in the darkened assembly hall, weeping. … He had been victorious at last, and the relief and grief overwhelmed him. He described the pact as an ‘epitaph on his mother’s grave’ and as a recognition that ‘she and many millions did not die in vain.’”
It’s a story we all want to believe in: A man goes on a quest to change the world, and he succeeds.
Yet we learned in class that this perceived victory turned out not to be such a victory after all. Faced with overwhelming opposition, Lemkin could only negotiate language with little legal force, and that made the crime almost impossible to convict. For half a century, not a single person or state was convicted of genocide—despite atrocities in Somalia, Iraq, Rwanda, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and so many more.
Lemkin devoted his entire existence to making genocide prosecutable under international law. He did it as the horrors of the Holocaust were coming to light, and the international community was as amenable as it ever would be to the resolution. It was the ideal set of circumstances for social change. And still, he essentially failed.
My professor stood before us and spoke softly in a voice that nevertheless carried over the sound of people shouting on the quad outside.
He said that he knew many of us were fueled by a desire to change something about our world—problems with the environment or public education or oppression of the weak. He told us that these problems were nearly insurmountable, and we were going to fail, even if we gave up everything in the attempt, like Lemkin did. But he also told us—and this was the beautiful irony that brought me to tears—that things only ever change when people try nonetheless.
The political scientist Anthony Downs describes a “paradox of voting.” He argues that voting is irrational because the costs of voting almost inevitably exceed the benefits, so small are the chances that your vote matters. Even five minutes isn’t worth your time—it’s more likely you’ll get hit by lightning this year, for instance, than that your vote will decide the next president. Similarly, trying to change the world may seem irrational, so small are the chances of any meaningful success.
But Downs misses something crucial. I think people vote not to decide elections but because they want to live in a society where people vote, where crucial decisions are made by the people who are affected by them. Analogously, we try to change the world because we want to live in a world where people care, where everyone tries to make the world a better place. We can’t will that world into existence. All we can do is be one small part, one water molecule in the slow-moving wave that brings this world closer and closer to the place we imagine it could be.
Humanitarian law is weak and ineffectual. But, thanks to millions of people quietly dedicating themselves to the work, it exists today, and it didn’t 70 years ago. It gets stronger every day.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Friday.