The Evolution of Public Understanding of Human Rights

I accidentally got preaching to my friends on Facebook this evening, and after the fact I realized that I had written a blog’s worth of material without sitting down and intending to do so. So since I’ve been posting so sparsely here otherwise I thought it would be worth taking a few more minutes while I’m at it to copy-paste together those diatribes and put it up here for all of your reviews and comments.

The basic issue being discussed was prejudice, racism and what we should be doing to stop them. (The stimulus for discussion was this video.) Part of the discussion from there had to do with problems associated with race, and whether black civil rights activists of the current generation are to blame form flaming racial tensions. I find that to be a rather absurd charge, and one that is constructed for ignorant use as an excuse for all sorts of abuse against darker-skinned people: “But they’re being even more racist!”

I jumped in on a rather heated discussion that arose over this matter by commenting: “As long as conservatives talk about the problem of ‘black-on-black crime’ race remains an important construct in their minds by which they differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It isn’t any Sharpton or Jackson forcing them to see the world that way.” I hold to that: race is not something that black people have constructed and reinforced in the public imagination. It’s not something that lighter skinned folk can just randomly pretend doesn’t exist when it comes to protecting basic rights (“There’s only one race: the human race; it’s just these activists like Jackson and Sharpton who are keeping people from seeing things that way”) and then invoke when it comes to explaining away problems in the structure of society (“All of these problems black people are having are not caused by white oppression so much as other black people”). I find this sort of inconsistency in rhetoric morally disgusting, and I hope to discourage ignorant people of good will from falling into such hate-mongering narratives.

From there, in the flow of heated rhetoric that I wasn’t actively participating in, the issue was raised –– somewhat as a red herring and somewhat as a clarification of a previous side issue –– of the United States historic role in promoting civil rights and human rights. This rhetorical tack is generally used to claim that since the American tradition has been the source of so much good we shouldn’t critique it too harshly, even when it leads to things like obscene levels of economic polarization, imprisonment of large percentages of the population, lack of legitimate opportunity structures for people born into the wrong sort of families, and excusing of blatantly hateful attitudes projected against darker skinned people merely because they have darker skin (regardless of the barrage of excuses routinely employed for such).

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this "American heritage" deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture.

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this “American heritage” deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture?

OK, what is uniquely valuable about American cultural heritage as such? What sort of new developments did the United States introduce into world culture? How are the other 6.7 billion people of the world better (or worse) off because of the existence of American political culture? It’s a question worth considering more carefully than it usually gets considered.

My very separate friends Aaron and Vinnie (who have never met each other and who have nothing more in common with each other than both being from the eastern United States and both being acquainted with me in some distant way) were going after each other on this point: Vinnie taking the position of defending “American Exceptionalism,” and Aaron downplaying this claim by way of introducing historical precedents and context. To this, in the midst of a bit of back-pedalling, Vinnie replied, “The American constitution was a large improvement on those documents. […] I am under the impression that the US constitution was a major evolution in the rights of human beings. […] I still stand by the US bill of rights being a major evolution in human rights built upon the magna carta, [sic] English documents, and French republican ideals.”

This was my cue. My reason for posting the video that started this whole discussion was that it included a tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as standard for making blatant expressions of racism unacceptable. If the US documents in question were “a major evolution in the rights of human beings” over their predecessors, the UDHR in turn represents at least as large a leap forward in terms of human rights compared to American writings of the 18th century.

So on this basis I wrote:

“[My point] in starting this thread was to point out to many, conservative Americans in particular, that there have been a vast number of improvements in human rights legislation since the slaveholders wrote the US Constitution, that people in the US simply haven’t been tracking on — larger improvements than the US Constitution represented over its French and British predecessors. Under these circumstances it’s even a bit absurd for the US to position itself as the global human rights police, when so many Americans are so utterly clueless about the subject. Reading the UDHR and getting its principles operational within the US should be a moral prerequisite for preaching to other nations about human rights and trying to enforce them as an excuse for invading lands whose natural resources we covet. End of this evening’s sermon.”

But for better or for worse, mea culpa, I found myself unable to stop there. I had to give my personal perspective on what was in fact unique and revolutionary about the writings of the American “founding fathers” in these regards:

“BTW, the major revolutionary aspect of the US Constitution was not its emphasis on rights in general, but its break with what scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the tradition of ‘little christendoms’: This new little nation was not officially seeking religious justifications for its power structure, as had been the European tradition, nor was it allowing religious authorities to reinforce themselves as providers of the basis for civil authority. IOW the truly revolutionary thing was the degree to which the US was not founded as a Christian nation! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tea Party sympathizers.”

Vinnie, sincere open-minded thinker that he is (and I say that completely sincerely) then put forward the next important question: “I believe that we want to ask, how is the UDHR superior to the US const and is there any deficiency?”

This I answered at length:

“The UDHR was built on the premise that the multiple tragedies of WW2 in particular were based on the problem of people not being treated with the sort of dignity that all people deserve to be treated with, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE PEOPLE. It was also built on the premise that, when it came right down to it, NONE of the nations involved could claim that they were treating all of their people with the full dignity to which they should be entitled. (The US was, by our current understanding, shamefully segregated still at that time, and couldn’t claim any high moral ground, in spite of FDR’s idealistic inspiration for the project.) Thus all the nations involved officially pledged to take their agreements on the matter forward by learning from and teaching the content of this document. The US in particular has failed to live up to that commitment. (The Soviet Union did too, which largely led to its demise.)

FDR's four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

FDR’s four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

“Substantive issues that the UDHR raises in comparison with the US Constitution is that it codifies positive rights for individuals. FDR famously spoke of basic rights to freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The first two of those were spelled out in the US Constitution. The latter two had yet to be properly codified. How should people, by virtue of being people, be protected from fear and want? What sorts of fears and wants do people deserve to be protected from, and by whom? (Fear of getting old or gaining weight is not something that people are entitled to protection from. Want is something that comparison-based cultures will never know the end of.) The UDHR explores these issues from a broadly multi-cultural perspective, trying to, for the first time, establish a set of standards for what people are entitled to as people that could be equally applicable in Russia, China, Japan, African nations, Arab nations, European nations, and yes, in American nations; acknowledging that all of these cultures had serious improvements to be made, and that none of them could claim the moral high ground in showing the others how they should learn to treat people.

“The primary problem with the US currently is an unjustified triumphalist mentality that the current (and transitory) period of global economic domination that American businesses have enjoyed for the past couple of generations is somehow a divine reward for a job well done. That attitude needs to be unlearned, and Americans need to get on board with the understanding that the point of governments isn’t to enable businesses to steal, kill, rape and plunder at will, but to insure that their people are respected as people. People need to seriously stop and think about what that responsibility for governments entails. They need to read through the UDHR and think critically about the issues it raises. They need to learn to hold their political leaders responsible to such standards, and in order to do that they need to learn what those standards are.

“A few hints in relation to the UDHR –– things that are self-evident to people in most other parts of the world, which the US hasn’t really caught on with yet:

– Corporations are abstract forms of human cooperation, not people which are entitled to rights as people.

– Being equipped to kill other people at will is not an essential right for all people as people.

– An education which enables the person to make informed decisions in the democratic process is something that every government must insure that all of its citizens have free access to, and which they are somewhat required to participate in.

– Insuring that workers are (primarily through their work) able to achieve a standard of living sufficient for housing, nutrition and health care for themselves and their children, is part of the governments moral responsibility as a government. These are not matters that the economically powerful should be allowed to grant or not grant to those they employ/enslave as they see fit.

“For further information on such matters start by actually reading the UDHR for yourself!”

Now in all fairness, Vinnie and Aaron are both among the minority of Americans who actually have read the UDHR for themselves, and who have started actively discussing the issues it raises. I hope the virus spreads from them to many others. I hope they respectfully learn from each other as they keep discussing such matters. I may even have reasonable grounds for such hope.

So what does everyone else here think?

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Racism

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