For Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, violence takes many forms. It can be perpetrated by people, by language, by institutions, by climate, and by poverty.
And in a world filled with such violence, it takes a particular kind of bravery to face it without flinching. It’s a role that Higgins has committed his entire life to achieving — observing violence and feeling stirred to take action.
The final episode of Cry Power sees Hozier sit down with Higgins to talk about his lifetime of activism in an expansive discussion that deconstructs poverty, democracy, empathy, and more.
Higgins is a poet and sociologist who has served as Ireland’s President since 2011 — a ceremonial head of state role, rather than head of government. Although possessing few powers over policy, it’s a position that permits some freedom of expression — a platform Higgins has used to talk openly about global poverty, social injustice, and extreme wealth inequality.
Hozier is a big fan: he praises Higgins for his moral courage, inspirational oratory — and for being “one of the most well read leaders in the history of the state.” For his part, Higgins says he’s read more in the last decade than in the past 30 years. It all comes back to answering that pivotal question: how does one look violence in the eye and decide to do something about it?
Higgins argues that life teaches you to turn off from the violence of the world, the violence perpetrated by poverty or people. But he says that even from a young age, he could never do that. He saw great pain in the world that appalled him — “people being humiliated because of the absence of the basics of life” — and felt compelled to take action.
“All of the violences [must be] recognised,” Higgins tells Hozier on the ninth and final episode of the first ever season of the Cry Power podcast. “And not only interpersonal violence — I speak about that often. But the violences of institutions and the violences of language.”
“The choice after that is whether in fact one becomes involved,” he says. “Songwriters would know all about that: it’s about averting the gaze. Do you look away?”
“You can’t be just a voyeur on the grief of other people,” he adds. “The very best thing to do is to take your trained competences and be of value.”
Thank you so much @Hozier for being such a passionate and curious host 💞— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) February 25, 2020
The stories you've shined a light on with the #CryPower podcast has meant people have taken thousands more actions to fight poverty. By championing others you've made the most amazing difference 🙏💪✊ https://t.co/dhigqqpzN2
In his time, Higgins has been a Teachta Dála (the Irish equivalent of an MP), a Senator, the Mayor of Galway, and President of the Irish Labour Party. He’s published many books and collections of poetry — and on the podcast talks about his human rights activism in countries from El Salvador to Iraq.
Several of those books have involved gathering information about historical massacres. It links up to his work as President, investing time working with people to connect with memories of old horrors — “amnesia is deadly”, he says — and learn from that past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
The 78-year-old leader emphasises how he feels his race is almost run, however — and he now looks to the movements made by young people across the world to understand how those pillars of the future might be built.
“Particularly for young people, there is an incredible importance attached to empathy,” he says. “Empathy — the ability to be able to positively and sympathetically relate to other people — but also of course empathy relating to the natural world.”
The climate revolution, inspired in part by the immense dedication of 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg and many others like her, is an issue dear to Higgins’ heart.
He urged the people of Ireland to take individual action to reduce carbon emissions in his traditional Christmas message last year — and requested we all look after each other as “fellow global citizens.” It’s a campaign that touches on a personal priority of his as president.
“What people really need now is a new paradigm: a new paradigm of connection between ecology, economy, and forms of social cohesion,” Higgins says on the podcast. “In other words, being able to deliver the sufficiencies of life.”
“The most powerful thing now would be a form of economic literacy,” he says. “It protects you against fake news, it protects you against fake facts, it makes you able to exercise informed political choices... it enables you to have a responsible involvement.”
Later on the podcast, Higgins explores ideas around colonialism and migration, and draws on history to illustrate how notions of the “Other” have fuelled systematic discrimation from Europe towards Africa — “racism has to be called what it is”, he says.
“There’s an assumption that the world is sedentary — and it isn’t,” Higgins argues. “The fact is that there’s always been a majority of people on the planet who are moving. Therefore migration is in fact the common condition.”
It follows, then, that issues that affect one human being — from poverty to the climate crisis — affect us all. “Elimination of fear is the important thing”, Higgins says, and then we will feel truly free to play our part in a “widespread global movement” to tackle violence.
It’s all achievable, he insists, and will come sooner than we think. Indeed, his greatest hope is that the next generation will quickly come to eclipse the work he’s dedicated his life to.
He adds: “We always say the same thing: that hundreds of thousands of people will run past us, making better demands than we’ve been making.”
That’s a wrap for the first season of the Cry Power podcast! Head to GlobalCitizen.org/CryPower to check out all the episodes, take action on the vital issues discussed in the podcast, and to #PowerTheMovement to end extreme poverty.