Rethinking the Relationship Between The Words We Use, The Actions We Take, and the Thoughts We Think
Part 3. The Thoughts We Think
Continued from Part 1. The Words We Use
and Part 2. The Actions We Take
Civil Rights vs. Human Rights
Legal rights ground legal claims to protect already established legal entitlements. Human rights ground moral claims to strengthen or add to existing legal entitlements. That does not make human rights stronger or weaker, just different. (Donnelly, 2003, pp. 12-13)
Our lives—and the rights we need to live them with dignity—do not fall into largely separate political and socioeconomic spheres. Economic and social rights usually are violated by or with the collusion of elite-controlled political mechanisms of exclusion and domination. Poverty in the midst of plenty is a political phenomenon. Civil and political rights are often violated to protect economic privilege…we must overcome the dangerous illusion…that the state can be a neutral instrument of technocratic management and an impartial arbiter of politically neutral rules of social order. Those who wield political power often do not rise above their personal, group, party, or class interests. Rarely do they exercise their power completely uninfluenced by such affiliations. (Donnelly, 2003, pp. 32-33)
To continue the reductive analogies of earlier dichotomies, the way we approach rights, whether it’s a commitment to human rights, or a more traditional legally rooted belief in government-endowed civil rights, we can say that rights are of the mind. Our understanding of what is within our rights, influences both the words we use, and the actions we take. Our beliefs determine who we are in relation to the world around us. In the United States, by definition of the Constitution, there are three rights endowed upon all people—although much debate, and blood, has been shed to determine who is in fact a person—by their creator: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are amorphous rights, ill defined, and subject to great subjectivity. The Constitution does not serve necessarily to define these natural or human rights, rather its purpose is to outline the rights of citizens endowed upon them by their government. The U.S. Constitution was prescient in many ways, and by preceding the United Nations and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) by 167 years, formed the baseline for many nations and definitions of rights-based governance.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes a series of rights that all human beings are entitled to, based on “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” These rights range from political rights such as equal access to public services, to legal rights such as freedom from arbitrary arrest or cruel punishment, to economic rights such as ownership of land and equal pay for equal work, to social rights such as choice of one’s spouse, to intellectual rights such as the right to education. (Smith & Castleman, 2010, p. 2)
Following the atrocities and horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, the formation of the United Nations and ratification of the [non-binding] Universal Declaration of Human Rights brought a framework for human rights to the world’s stage. The Cold War exacerbated, and perhaps caused a split between the subsequent [legally binding] U.N. treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The split can be seen as having further entrenched political and social values into the United States, namely that capitalistic enterprise—the “free market,” and wealth generation above human cost and dignity—will be supported and defended by the full might of the State.
There is little argument that the United States is a land of civil rights, although the expression of those rights is often debated and fought for in the streets and then in courtrooms. We are comfortable with civil rights discourse. We understand the framework, even if we find it tedious having to put up with the incessant ranting of those we disagree with, because, after all, they have a right to their speech. We may disagree as to what should be protected under the umbrella of free speech—I say that people blocking a highway with their bodies counts, but the political contribution of a corporation to a super PAC does not—but at the end of the day, the right to speech itself is not up for debate. On the other hand, there is not a universal understanding or baseline agreement on what a right to life or liberty actually means. Does it mean a right to water free from lead poisoning? Does it mean a job with a livable minimum wage? Does it mean sexual autonomy and the right to choose a partner in the bedroom, at the altar, as a co-parent, in the hospital room, with equal rights and access regardless of any number of demographics? Does it mean a dependable future for oneself and future offspring free from fear and near certainty of climate disaster, nuclear fallout, or economic collapse? If you said yes to any of those, you, I would argue, are falling on the side of human rights. If you said no to any one those, then I have not sufficiently convinced you yet.
I forget where I first heard the following argument regarding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr that I am about to repeat. Dr. King was assassinated by the U.S. government years after he had firmly established himself as a leader in the nationwide Civil Rights Movement, because his rhetoric, tactics, and goal were moving beyond civil rights, to human rights. The Civil Rights Movement was successfully challenging institutionalized power, in ways that were seen as acceptable, such as voting rights and access to good schools. But Dr. King was growing less interested in the rights endowed by the government upon its citizens, and more interested in the rights citizens have empowered their government to fulfill and protect.
In 1960, Martin Luther King spoke out in the United States against the Sharpville Massacre in South Africa and against American policy that was soft on apartheid. He thereby married the civil rights narrative to that of human rights and the global anti-apartheid struggle…Then, in 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for his leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement. He thereby linked the fight for American civil rights to the international peace movement. Throughout 1965 and 1966, King began to speak out against the Vietnam War, from peace, Ghandian and civil rights perspectives. In 1967 King delivered his Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War. From 1967 to 1968, King began to plan his March on Washington against Poverty, and thus framed the necessity of the legal authority of economic rights as co-equal with that of political rights. (Richardson, 2007, p. 475)
The conditions that King was working to address through the Poor People’s Movement and the planned March on Washington Against Poverty persist today. Largely, the conditions of the Jim Crow South remain, but have taken on altered or new faces, including, but not limited to, mass-incarceration and extrajudicial murder by police. The motivations are largely not racist, classist, or sexist as an end goal, but they are fundamental to capitalism, that is, as bell hooks has named it, code for a system of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
The three Triplets are a unified evil. King might have projected them today as follows: racism, materialism, and militarism. First, racism consists of racial profiling and racial fight column thinking. Second, materialism involves protecting capitalism in the community. Under this mentality, the value of people and groups are measured by their utility to producers of goods. People exist for markets and markets do not exist for people. Third, militarism consists of the national security claims of war, including a propensity to make such claims. It incorporates an instrumental view of dissenting peoples from different cultures, and presumes them to be the Other and therefore potential enemies. Eliminating the Triplets must depend upon shifting from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. This mentality is the best defense against terrorism…The United States is playing the role of making peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. The status quo of “terrorists” is defined and set up in opposition to any possibility of the existence of freedom fighters against governmental or private oppression. By imposing democracy on other countries, Washington appears to be defining the world in terms of demanded law and policy in order to make the world safe for foreign investment and capitalist expansion. King held that, for Vietnam, democracy could be supported, but not imposed. (Richardson, 2007, p. 480)
The conditions of 1967 U.S. America, looking abroad to its involvement in Vietnam, while struggling with the domestic conditions of its marginalized people, aligns with 2017 U.S. America. Today the U.S. is looking to its involvement in the Middle East, while struggling on any number of fronts domestically, not limited to poverty, the war against women’s bodies and reproductive injustice, rights for the queer community and trans* folks, and the war against black bodies. Based on these realities at home, it is hard to give any spirited support to the argument that the War on Terrorism, for example, is a war against fundamentalism, authoritarianism, or tyranny or to support the human rights of oppressed people abroad, and not simply a war to open foreign markets and oil fields to investment and imperialism.
With power and authority thus doubly concentrated, the modern state has emerged as both the principal threat to the enjoyment of human rights and the essential institution for their effective implementation and enforcement. (Donnelly, 2003, p. 35)
Domestically, in an era of looming U.S. American fascist totalitarianism, the discourse can and must shift from government-endowed civil rights to inalienable human rights. In an era sure to be categorized by diminishing quality of life for huge segments of the population––from climate disasters to poisoned water to disappearing health services for women to increased policing of immigrants and communities of color––maybe even the vast supermajority of the population, it will be more important than ever to assert that the sole purpose of government is to ensure the protection and fulfillment of human rights.
Claims of human rights thus ultimately aim to be self-liquidating, giving the possession paradox a distinctive twist. Human rights claims characteristically seek to challenge or change existing institutions, practices, or norms, especially legal practices. Most often they seek to establish (or bring about more effective enforcement of) a parallel “lower” right…No less important, though, human rights authorize and empower citizens to act to vindicate their rights; to insist that these standards be realized; to struggle to create a world in which they enjoy (the objects of) their rights. Human rights claims express not merely aspirations, suggestions, requests, or laudable ideas, but rights-based demands for change (Donnelly, 2003, p. 12)
It will be difficult to appeal to the State for rights in a time of fascism. As we watch the most vulnerable of our community take the frontlines of the State’s offenses, fear for our own lives and livelihoods are likely to force acquiescence and subjectivity. A framework of human rights—rooted in the very foundations of the schools of thought upon which the United States was founded—supersedes the authority of any individual state and places its responsibility to not only its citizens, but to every person within its borders and territories, within a context of human dignity that if failed upon, calls into question the very legitimacy of the State itself.
This more positive human rights vision of the state also goes back to the 17th and 18th century social contract theories. Contractarians such as Locke, Kant, and Paine emphasize that the rights one possesses naturally, simply as a human being, could not be enjoyed in a state of nature. Society and government are essential to the enjoyment of natural or human rights. In fact, within the Contractarian tradition the legitimacy of the state can largely be measured by the extent to which it implements and protect natural rights. (Donnelly, 2003, p. 36)
Fear of the rise of fascist authoritarianism in the United States often results in analogies to Nazi Germany, largely because it is (and please forgive the unfortunate pun) the trump card of political analogies, because of the scale of the atrocities committed, the complicity of the nation’s masses, and to be frank, the whiteness of the people in question. Nazi Germany is the pinnacle of the failures of western democracy. The rise of fascism in Western Europe required intervention by the Allied Powers of the world. Who is to say what sort of intervention would be required to counteract the rise of fascism within the United States and its government? It is difficult to believe that an appeal utilizing human rights discourse would be enough, especially because in many regards, human rights are not embedded or defined within the legal code of the United States, and where they are, such as marriage equality and abortion rights, these rights are narrowed by the laws of individual states, or subject to complete negation through legal challenge taken to the Supreme Court. “One can—and usually does—go very far before human rights arguments become necessary. An appeal to human rights usually testifies to the absence of enforceable positive (legal) rights and suggests that everything else has been tried and failed, leaving one with nothing else (except perhaps violence)” (Donnelly, 2003, p. 12).
It required a righteous violence of the Allies to end the oppressive genocidal violence of the Axis Powers. We do not know yet what form the violence of a fascist Trump era will take. We can speculate, supported by recent and ongoing violence targeting the Muslim community, people who present (whether they are or not) as Latinx immigrants, trans* folks, women and in one way or another pretty much anyone who does not present as a white man. We can assume what sort of “violence” might be required to protect our friends, loved ones, neighbors and community: fists and bats and the united might of the righteous standing shoulder to shoulder speaking in one voice saying, “not in our name, and not in our community.” Human rights not only establish the foundations on which our states are authorized to govern, but they will form the foundations on which we build our resistance.
Bringing It All Together
To believe in the dignity of all people, regardless of our differences, whether geography, culture, skin color, spiritual practice, partner or lover, genitalia, presentation, spoken language, or any other signifier of birth, choice, or inclination, is to believe in the fundamentals of human rights. To believe in human rights is to believe that the only solution to a problem or concern is worth an investigation into, and addressing no less than, the root cause of the problem. To believe in human dignity and the necessity of understanding root causes is to believe that language matters, and that people’s preferences or needs are not merely about minimizing offense, or paying lip service to correctness. Our language reflects our values. To value dignity means to use our language with intentionality, and to chose language that respects one another.
This extended exercise is in part intended to meet you wherever you are, and an attempt to reconcile the three dichotomies. I believe that whichever argument resonates with you—whether it be understanding the need for anti-oppressive language, or a frustration with the State’s charity-based relief following disasters both at home and abroad, or a belief that government-sponsored civil rights discourse is not enough to protect the most vulnerable as fascism begins to sweep across the United States—that is a starting point to understand, internalize, and believe in the other value of the other two arguments.
It may seem unnecessary, or a needlessly complicated thought experiment. But I believe that words matter, just as I believe that our actions matter. Both are influenced by, and have influence upon, our beliefs. Contrary to what may seem clearly intuitive, beliefs do not necessarily need to come first. The things we understand as true, even before they take root in our psyche, can influence our lasting beliefs. We may know in our minds and hearts that racism exists and that stereotypes give us false impressions of people we encounter or communities we do not often visit. But that does not necessarily prevent racist thoughts from forming, or stereotypes from shaping the way we approach a person or situation. By choosing to use anti-oppressive language that recognizes and values the dignity of other people, our brains will gradually rewire. By believing that it’s not enough to address the symptoms of a natural or man-made disaster, but rather it is essential to understand and address the conditions that allowed for the disaster in the first place, we are valuing human life and dignity. We are connecting actions with belief. A human rights lens is not first required to want to prevent disasters. Wanting to prevent disasters, whether they be natural or man made, begins to inform a belief in human rights. The words we speak, the actions we take, and the beliefs we think all shape our world. Approaching them with intention is an important and necessary step in the face of authoritarianism that appeals to our base instincts. We must stand together, believing in the dignity of our neighbors, or we will be turned against one another, one by one, until we are so very alone.
Donnelly, J. (2003). Universal human rights: In theory & practice (Second Edition ed.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Patrick, J. (2006). Parliamentary System. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from Annenberg Classroom: http://www.annenbergclassroom.org/term/parliamentary-system
Richardson, I. H. (2007). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an international human rights leader . Legal Studies Research Paper Series , 52, 471-485.
Smith, S. C., & Castleman, T. (2010, March). Ending extreme poverty: Securing human rights can be decisive. Retrieved October 10, 2016, from Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228276009_Ending_Extreme_Poverty_Securing_Human_Rights_Can_Be_Decisive
Wikipedia. (2017, January 4). Parliamentary system. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_system
Edited by Alejandro Varela, Alexandria Ward, and Carrie Morrisroe
 But that is not to say that there is not vast room for improvement in the U.S. model. It should not come as a surprise that every nation that has formed since the United States, through revolution, through shedding the bonds of imperialism, through dissolution of monarchies, etc. has taken the form not of the two-party, presidential-system of U.S. American Republicanism, but of a variety of forms of legislative Parliamentarianism, originated in Great Britain (Patrick, 2006) (Wikipedia, 2017).