On Signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On Signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important component of the Long Peace. Since the end of WWII, most armed conflicts have been relatively minor. There haven’t been any major wars between great national powers. The war in Ukraine is the largest armed conflict in Europe since the end of WWII and the most powerful countries in the world have not fought against each other since the end of WWII. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker demonstrates how enlightenment ideas represented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have changed the way that people think about war, ultimately contributing to the greater peace and stability we see today.
Pinker includes a short recap of the first three articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and these following opening sentences are worth noting:
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration…
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”
These principals, Pinker argues, are more than just words on paper. They reflect humanist ideas and move rules and concepts of the nation or people to the back seat behind the individual. Pinker writes,
“In endorsing the Enlightenment ideal that the ultimate value in the political realm is the individual human being, the signatories were repudiating a doctrine that had reigned for more than a century, namely that the ultimate value was the nation, people, culture, Volk, class, or other collectivity.”
The value of life shifted from being part of a collectivity to being an individual. While this has its own consequences that we are still working through today, it shifted the political calculus of war. It is much harder to convince people to go fight in a war for their country when the individual and the life and experience of the individual, is the supreme value for everyone in a society. When people are little more than the subjects of an ultimate ruler, it is easier to send them  to war. When people are the embodiment of a collective, they are expected to go to war. When people are unique and free individuals, directing them to a war in which they may die is harder.
In Ukraine, we are seeing a lot of people chose to fight to defend their country. In Russia, we are seeing massive disinformation campaigns intended to delude the population. Russia has had to rely on misinformation to convince people to go to war, and reports are that many of them never knew they would be in battle (I don’t know how accurate that statement is). It does not seem as though thousands of soldiers can easily be marshalled for the conflict in Ukraine, demonstrating how much the Enlightenment ideals of the individual have changed the approach and calculus of war since the end of WWII, even in a country like Russia which has a host of problems in terms of being a real democracy.
This all makes the world a safer place in terms of violent conflict. Life is not a perfect utopia where no crime, violence, or murder ever takes place, but we haven’t fought major wars with death tolls in the millions in over 60 years. The Enlightenment values of the individual, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, helps us understand why.
History and Culture

Culture and History

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behavior patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.”
Across the globe humans have different ways of living, different ways of relating to each other, and different ways of understanding the universe. Harari would argue that many of  these differences stem from different realities invented at different times by different peoples across the globe. I would agree with him. We can argue over whether some differences are good or bad, whether some some differences are fair or unjust, and whether some differences reflect the nature of reality more or less accurately, but in the end, a great deal of what we call culture is more or less random, based on invented realities that fit the time.  History is the study of how these invented realities and associated customs and behaviors change.
I have written before about the fact that human rights do not exist. At least, and Harari would agree, they are not anything tangible that you could identify in the real world if you autopsied a human. Ultimately, human rights fall into the same category as spirits and the human soul. For many years humans investigated the human body, trying to find the soul, trying to weigh the soul as it left a dying human body, and trying to confirm that it was indeed a tangible thing. In the end, reasonable scientists had to conclude that the soul was an invented reality, not an objective reality, and human rights fall in the same category. They are an invention that we make real through institutions, customs, and behaviors. The idea of human rights helps us understand how we relate to each other and the systems and structures of governance that we have established in the United States. They have been helpful in organizing society and helping us develop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they reflect a true reality about the universe, or that they always will serve humans well. They are a specific product of culture that has grown out of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.
Humans have not always had human rights, as we can see by studying and exploring history. Cultures, and the values that cultures cary, such as human rights, have altered through time. Harari argues that these changes are unstoppable, and that new invented realities are constantly arising to fit the new developments and needs of human beings. Much to the chagrin of those who lean toward conservatism, desiring a stasis rather than a progression, culture doesn’t stand still, the stories we invent about reality don’t stay the same. cultures move, invented realities morph, and history progresses. Ideas that serve us well in one cultural setting may not serve us well in the future, and may evolve into something entirely different.
A True Democracy

A True Democracy

A while back I wrote about Cory Booker’s autobiography, and a quote he included from a housing advocate in Newark. Booker, learning from this advocate, talked about how important it is that everyone have access to housing. Both men believed that housing was a human right, just as we have rights to property, we have rights to stable, affordable, healthy housing. The reason housing must be a human right is because we cannot survive without it. We cannot flourish, we cannot store necessary medications, and we cannot live out our democratic responsibilities without a home. A true democracy helps its people do more than survive – it helps them participate, grow, and be valued members of society. A home is a necessary component of a true democracy.

 

A quote in Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream brought these ideas of a true democracy to my mind this morning. Housing is a first step toward solving many of the problems we see in society, but it also depends on how we think about our society and see our responsibilities within society. Right now we are too quick to cast out others and to see their lives as valueless.

 

Writing about drug users and people addicted to drugs, Hari writes, “In a true democracy, nobody gets written off. Nobody gets abandoned. Nobody’s life is declared to be not worth living.” We write off the lives of the homeless, of drug addicts, and of our nation’s poorest people all the time. If we were to be a true democracy, however, we would have to think more critically of our shared stories, futures, and connections, and work to lift up those who we have pushed down. A true democracy doesn’t limit you to your worst quality or mistake, it helps pull you up beyond your lowest point.

 

The quote makes me think about how important housing is for a democracy. You can’t participate in local politics without a local home. You can’t engage meaningfully with your society if you don’t have a place within society that you can call your own. You also, I think Hari would agree, can’t triumph over drug addiction without a home where you can be safe and have the necessary protection from the terrors and pressures which may push you back toward drug use. If we want to be a true democracy, we need to think about the ways in which homelessness leaves people behind, and we have to decide that their lives matter, and that they can’t be written off, even if they have used drugs or committed crimes in the past. Writing them off and shutting them out of our democracy doesn’t help them and doesn’t solve any problems, it only further entrenches the problems that already exist.

Incarceration

Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

 

A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.

 

A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff  Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.

 

Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.

 

There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.