The Human Rights Legacy Of Robin WIlliams


This week we learned that comedian and actor Robin Williams took his own life after a long battle with addiction and depression.

It is clear from the reaction worldwide that Williams was a much-loved individual and, from the obituaries published, that each person seemed to have his or her own 'relationship' with Williams.

Some have written about the generous acts he undertook in support of individuals, friends, and causes.

There are anecdotes aplenty about his approachability, kindness, and care. In themselves, these things would be enough to cultivate a sense of love and respect for Williams.

My 'relationship' with Williams arose from the ways in which he used comedy and performance as vehicles through which to advance themes about human rights, agency, and the nature and vulnerability of the human condition.

Devastating as his death was, it is not surprising to learn that Williams battled with personal demons.

His performances are inexorably underpinned by a depth of empathy, pain, and love that to my mind could not arise from 'good acting' alone.

His choice of roles did not seem random. Given that he is commonly credited with ad-libbing and improvising, Williams was more than the acting stereotype of a good 'talking prop'.

He used scripts as tools with which to challenge audiences – his comedy was not for laughs alone.

I think I saw Dead Poets' Society twice in the week it was released. Saccharine as it was, I'm an educationalist and always a sucker for 'teacher as inspiration' movies. Stand and Deliver cemented my lifelong adoration of Edward J Olmos, just as Dead Poets' Society built my love for Williams.

Dead Poets' Society was an exploration of the human soul. It illustrated the ebullient joy that can flow from the expression of one's passions and desires – creative, intellectual, technical – and the pain that can arise from social expectations of, limitations on, and darknesses in, the soul.

In characterising these experiences of the soul as a two-sided coin, it is a poignant reflection of Williams' own struggles.

Good Will Hunting was not dissimilar. When Williams lectures Hunting about his lack of life experience – the immaturity of Hunting's real world soul – we feel truly connected with the complexities of Williams' own experiences.

During that beautiful speech we are brought face-to-face with the depth, humanity, and knowing only available to souls with passionate and tortured experiences.

It has been opined that the brilliant, thoughtful, and creative are more likely to be tortured by mental illness than others.

Perhaps it is because their ways of knowing and understanding sit outside the box. Perhaps it is because they feel alone. Perhaps it is because they inhabit experience in a different way to others. In the cross between his thoughtful mind, his complex heart, and his brilliant performance, Williams was just such an individual.

Humor was often a mechanism through which Williams delivered more challenging messages about the meaning of agency in ethically fraught or emotionally charged situations.

In Awakenings and Patch Adams he cultivated a deep sense of empathy for the patient experience, challenging how we thought about institutional constructions of the patient.

He cultivated our sympathy for the plight of characters who challenged the system at personal cost.

Good Morning Vietnam delved into themes of war, politics, and McCarthyism.

The joy and exuberance initially portrayed by Williams' Cronauer is contrasted starkly by the limitations placed on him in telling his truths.

Cronauer's struggle with doing 'what is right' posed a personal challenge to audiences – how do we decide what matters and how do we weigh the personal cost of taking action or not against the greater good.

Williams' portrayal of Mrs Doubtfire was also fabulous, posing serious questions about gender stereotypes through physical and verbal comedy.

Of most interest to me amongst Williams' repertoire are the themes raised in Bicentennial Man – one of my 10-year-old daughter's favourite films.

Science fiction often deals with topics of agency, for example Star Trek's engagement with the human rights status of its android Data. In Bicentennial Man, Williams plays a robot who evolves beyond his programming to desire the experience of full humanity.

The film tracks the evolution of his character, concomitantly through physical transformations and transformations of consciousness, reflecting on the responses of stakeholders around him.

This film critiques the benevolent bestowment of rights by power, arguing that human rights are innate. It grapples with questions about the very nature of being human – consciousness, emotions, thought, pain, experience, love and perhaps the most defining elements of the human experience, birth and death.

Ironically, in the context of this week's events, the Bicentennial Man argues for his right to die in order to be fully human.

For the character, it is an expression mired in a joy and commitment to be fully human and to experience all that humanity entails.

By contrast, Williams' death this week arose from a sad, isolating, and challenging experience of the human condition that continues to confront us and, quite frankly, demand more of us as a community.

Through his performances, Williams helped us grapple with the big questions.

Instead of confronting us, he slipped beneath our defences with humour and good grace in order to make us think.

I cannot imagine the things he was feeling on that dark day this week. It seems many of us wish we could have been there for him – the way he has been there for us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.