Human Rights must be known, if they’re to take hold. They must be yearned. And learned. And taught. And respected. And applied judiciously, with acumen and common sense.
Ding, there go the alarm bells, right on cue. Teaching human rights sounds a lot like cultural or secular supremacism. Who decides what the right way to live is, after all? Dare we say there is only one way to behave properly?
Tricky question. One person’s demand is another’s bruised lifestyle. We can’t pretend to know the best way to live. Isn’t this how Christianity morphed from the teachings of a wise sage to institutionalized mind control in the name of salvation? Isn’t this why Islam is going down the same path, under the banner of saber-rattling, hate-inducing, finger-wagging fanatics? Dare we try the formula again, betting that it will work this time, all on account of it being based on secular righteousness?
Tricky, tricky argument. One person’s progress is another’s setback. Devout believers tend to see open society as an anathema, a miasma that chisels away at the soul’s sanctity, and which renders humanity prey to the unsavory elements of life. It may sound like a stereotype, but there’s truth behind their insight, the side-effects of which are evident. From theocracy to absolute monarchy, from liberalism to secularism and open society, progress came at a price, and that price was irreverence.
Many people have a problem with the price we pay, deeming it poisonous. Dare we prove them wrong by pressuring them to see our point of view by force? Wouldn’t we be proving them right if we forced them to see things our way? Shouldn’t we change their attitudes by showing them how the price is worth it, and that we’re going to try hard to mitigate it, learning from it as we go along? That there’s an upside to all this, one that may be worth it?
See, progress also came with the minimization of war and the prolongation of life. It promoted enterprise and innovation, spawning technology, science and knowledge. It provided education for all and redefined the way administration works, making individual wellbeing paramount. Life is better and sounder on many levels because of it.
So here we are, trying to figure out where to draw the line and defend progress without crossing the boundaries. We want to make sure we’re moving forward rather than to the side, or backwards. Breaking the rules in order to safeguard them has only spelled trouble so far, and we know it. The more we force people to accept that people have certain indisputable rights, the more we’re breaking the rule, enforcing our point of view on them on the grounds of mental righteousness. Teaching people what their rights are is a gentle way of being culturally presumptuous. We can’t afford to do that.
Or can we? I mean, we do it everyday to keep ourselves safe, don’t we? We use the law to methodically and systematically enforce justice and deter crime, maintaining order and civility in society. Aren’t human rights part of international law after all? Why shouldn’t they be enforced then? Why should we feel bad for doing what is in line with international justice?
So here we are, at the root of the problem. Human rights may have been slow to catch on because not all cultures find them agreeable, because some settings are hostile to them. Because it’s hard to implement the idea where the idea hasn’t taken hold of yet, where other moral structures are in place.
This opens a can of worms. Do we accept cultures hostile to human rights as they are, acknowledging their “right” to operate within the confines of their traditions, flying as they do in the face of progress, civility, and basic human decency – ranging from Saudi and Afghan oppression of women; Egyptian intimidation of Christians; Turkish abuse of human rights; Chinese collective coercion; American racial discrimination; European culture-centered pride and prejudice; African administration rooted in tribal politics; Arab administration rooted in tribal complexities; you get the picture. Or do we influence these players, to each their own, and change their outlook, through education and economic stimulation if possible, indoctrination and brute force if necessary? Does the way in which we do this matter, and does the method affect the outcome and justify the attempt? Do we do it because we have the right to do so – the obligation to do so – the need to protect ourselves from harm and prejudice, or do we do it just because we can?
Most important of all, who are “we”? With every culture’s hands dirty, it’s evident that this is a partisan issue, where alliances are formed according to cultural similarities and political expediency. Causes are noble but subjective, fought for across state lines, or at diplomacy tables and state dinners.
And the situation will stay like this, hostage to the partial, the corrupt, the single-minded, unless and until citizens around the globe unite in an unprecedented movement that transcends national boundaries, laying claim to world affairs in the name of, well – whatever wins the day.
I happen to think that open society with room to maneuver is what the future is all about. Let common sense prevail in the wake of mutual respect, let courage flourish in the face of intransigence. To break free from mindless deadlocks should they arise – as they often do in democracy, let alone autocracies and other authoritarian, absolutist regimes – we have to be willing to disagree, but more than that, to find solutions.
To do so, we have to put aside our egos. It’s not about who’s side is right. It’s about moving forward.
To move forward we need to ensure the rights of all peoples, but this leads us back where we started. Some people disagree with that, citing their culture or religion or upbringing to challenge that assumption, claiming there are other ways to live.
I disagree. One way or the other, human rights are scared, and need to be protected, one way or the other, and if someone has a problem with that, I’m willing to take them on, and so are many others. Call it what you will, this is where I stand.
The trick is to apply human rights in a way that doesn’t turn into a postmodern religious dogma of sorts, where instead of promoting wellbeing and function, we’re crushing everything under an increasingly self-righteous dogma. We need to be careful how we apply ourselves, if we’re to keep improving. No creed is immune to corruption and downturns, not even humanism.
Eyes open, mind sharp.