Friday, April 29, 2016

"The myth of the universality of human rights"

In today's IPS lecture, Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan discussed the myth of the universality of human rights. That is to say, the concept of 'human rights' exists as an ideal we aspire to, but because it is also a mental construct, its application and implementation are very much dependent on context and wide open to interpretation.

I think we know what 'rights' means. The problem is that we can't define 'human' satisfactorily enough because we are too close to the subject matter. Human rights are easier to conceive of when we think of it in terms of the very broadest ways in which we humans differ from one another: the physical, the psychological, and the identity of self. For example, in our national pledge we are all equal 'regardless of race, language or religion'. Whomever we are, we can be identified as human despite of our race, language or religion, and no one is likely to dispute that -- unless our society totally breaks down and we become paranoid and insular.

But when human beings begin to define themselves by increasingly narrow criteria, they run the risk of defining themselves outside of what the majority can roughly agree is identifiably human. If you define your needs as so particular that I don't identify your needs as my needs, then we are going to have a problem agreeing that you have a right to meet those needs of yours.

Minority groups have this problem of getting their particular needs met and recognized by mainstream society. Paradoxically, perhaps the best way to help minorities is to not recognize minority differences at all. Recognizing minority groups legitimizes and therefore draws attention to characteristics of those groups that make them different from everyone else. The more marginal the difference, the less mainstream society is likely to sympathize as whatever need arises from that difference, it really isn't mainstream society's problem to deal with.

It's a two-way street, of course. Mainstream society is just as likely to identify minor differences in certain groups of people and exclude them from the mainstream and the privileges therein, like legal protection, education, opportunities and otherwise a decent way to make a living for oneself. In which case, if mainstream society sees itself as being overrun by minorities, it usually is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where we see difference, there is difference.

What is a democratically-elected government to do when the people are fractious and tense because differences are everywhere? I guess you start with doing right by the majority of the voters, since your mandate comes from the majority, but make policy such that people are treated fairly across the board within the broad definitions of what we can agree are what makes us all 'human' -- such that we no longer see the differences between 'us' and 'them', and 'they' no longer see how different they are from 'us'.

Too idealistic? Too naive? If we leave dealing with difference at policy level, it means the ground isn't ready to make any meaningful progress where it matters the most. Complying with policy is not the same as making a personal choice at the individual level to extend understanding and support to the people among us.

In the end, perhaps rights can be defined as the privileges we are willing to give up in favour of doing right by the other person. What could make us more human than that?

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