Rights: April 15, 2001
"Let's talk about your human notion of 'Rights,'" said Fear.
"Okay. May I open this conversation?" I asked. "I want to be sure that we're discussing the same notion of 'human rights.'"
"Be my guest," said Fear with what appeared to be a genuine attempt at courtesy.
"Thank you. In medieval literature, brave knights came from across the land to be considered for membership at the Round Table. King Arthur designed its circular shape to democratically arrange the knights and give each an equal position. When a knight was granted membership at the Round Table, he was guaranteed equal stature with everyone else at the table and a right to be heard with equal voice.
"Today, however, one understanding of a 'right' is a legalistic, human construct based on some sense of moral privilege. Although a right in a democratic system of government is created by people and defined and guaranteed by law, access to a right may not be equally distributed across society. Conversely, a right does not apply to any person outside the select group unless that group purposely confers such a right on a specifically recognized individual, such as the disenfranchised.
"In a true democracy, the whole protects all of its parts and the parts give obedience to the will of the whole. Ostensibly, therefore, a right in democracy gives everyone equality by sanctifying and impartially protecting certain socially acceptable behaviors while controlling unsanctioned ones. There is, however, a price exacted for having rights, even in a true democracy.
"Rights have responsibilities attached to them. Thus, whenever a law is passed to protect the rights of the majority against the transgressions of the minority, everyone pays the same price—a loss of freedom of choice, of flexibility—because every law so passed is 'equally' restrictive to everyone. Although this notion of equality might seem even-handed in one sense, it's unfair in another. Put succinctly, we give up personal freedoms in order to gain personal rights, even if we have obeyed every tenant of the law."
"That," said Fear, "is to my advantage because the more freedom people give up, the more adamant they are about their 'rights,' which, of course, they usually want without having to accept any responsibilities."
"How is that to your advantage?"
"Rights without responsibilities cause conflict with winners and losers, which means I can manipulate how people think and lead them to the dark safety of my kingdom."
"The dark 'safety' of your kingdom! What kind of euphemism is that?"
"Oh, all right! The unconsciousness, the thoughtlessness, the…. Well, whatever other ugly word you want to add!"
"Look, you know as well as I do that it's always best for a person to address a thing by its proper name, because fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself. But then, the use of euphemisms is a controlling mechanism of yours, isn't it?"
"Indeed. Brilliant, don't you think? And I love how you use my name in your sentences, even if you don't capitalized it. But we're off track," admonished Fear.
"You must admit," continued Fear, "that the Chinese leadership of today assumes 'rights' while simultaneously withholding those same rights from the people at large. Clearly, they're afraid of losing power if they extend the right of choice they reserve for themselves to the Chinese people as a whole. It's the same with all dictators, even those who hide behind the trappings of democracy. So when you Westerners talk about Chinese abuses of human rights or some other's abuses of human rights, what are you talking about? How can human rights be abused when they've not been granted in the first place?"
"Can you give me a more concrete example?" I asked.
"Yes," replied Fear without hesitation, "the Palestinians and the Israelis."
"Well, what about them?"
"Israel's 1948 war of independence and the subsequent fighting in which the Israelis captured Arab territories," began Fear, "caused the families of some four million Palestinian refugees to flee or be driven from their homes. Some Palestinian refugees still have old iron keys to homes destroyed long ago. Others have yellowed, crumbling deeds to what was their land. Still others have faded sepia photographs, and all have their own memories, which are handed down like family keepsakes.
"In 1948, the Israeli's stole the homes and land from the Palestinians whom they displaced, pure, plain, and simple. Since then, they've taken more land from the Palestinians and other Arabs, mostly through wars that the surrounding Arab neighbors started in an attempt to dislodge and drive out the Israelis from what used to be Palestine but is now Israel. But then, you remember at least one Arab-Israeli war in the latter half of the 1960s because you were in Egypt."
"Yes, I remember it."
"What you don't know is that all this time the Palestinians have been harboring the dream of returning to their homes and lands in Israel, but the Israelis want to trade peace for the Palestinians 'right of return.' In other words, if the Palestinians will give up their rights to their own lands, which the Israelis now claim as their own, the Israelis will agree to peace."
"But," I asked, "aren't the Israelis openly admitting by such a statement that they just outright stole the Palestinian's lands from them in 1948? That doesn't seem very bright."
"At least it's honest, and that's more than most governments are. However," chuckled Fear, "they might not realize what they're admitting to. Besides, the Palestinian refugees know it's unrealistic to dream of returning to their homes and lands. And even though some Israelis admit that the plight of the Palestinian refugees has been horrible for decades, the Israelis feel no obligation to fulfill the Palestinian's dreams.
"So, unless the Israelis restore to the Palestinian's their rights of property ownership within the borders of Israel, nothing is likely to happen in the peace process from the Palestinian point of view. As long as the Palestinian's cling to their dreams of going home and reclaiming the rights they enjoyed when Israel was Palestine, nothing will likely happen from the Israeli point of view, because they will not give up property they now own under Israeli law—Israeli property rights. So you people have 'rights,' but where is justice within those rights? After all, ownership is power, and power, as we both know, concedes nothing without a struggle."
"I see your point, and you're correct about one thing," I conceded, "rights, as granted by humans to one another in daily life, including in the United States, China, Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere, are based not on equality but rather on access. Access is determined by some notion that one race, color, creed, sex, belief, or age is superior to another, which means that differences and similarities are based on our subjective judgments about whatever those appearances are. In American society, for example, men are judged more capable than women in most kinds of work because society has placed more value on certain kinds of products, i.e., those demanding such masculine attributes as linear thinking and physical strength as opposed to those demanding such feminine attributes as relationship and physical gentleness.
"With notable exceptions, the stereotype holds that perceived differences in outer (superficial) values become social judgments about the inherent (real) values of individual human beings. Superficial characteristics are thus translated into special rights or privileges simply because the individuals involved are different in some aspects and either perform certain actions differently or perform different actions. The greater the difference I perceive between another person and myself—assuming I listen to your reasoning, of course—the more likely I am to make black-and-white judgments about that person's real value as expressed through my notion of that person's rights.
"Such judgments are made against the personal standard I use to measure how everything around me fits into my comfort zone. I thus judge people as good or bad, depending on how they conform to my standard of acceptability, a standard taught and reinforced by my parents and later by my peers, teachers, and my particular ethnic background. Such judgments are erroneous, however, because all I can ever judge is appearances. In addition, my standard is correct only for myself; it's not validly imposed on anyone else. Nevertheless, I use socially constructed, hierarchical couplets of extrinsic differences (white male versus white female, white male versus black male, human versus Nature) as a basis for judging the equality of such things as one race versus another, men versus women, secular versus spiritual, right versus wrong, good versus evil, and so on.
"The most extreme example of personal judgment is the use of superficial differences to justify a social end. One group of people thus declares itself superior to another group because it wants what the other group has. The 'superior' group tells to the 'inferior' group that they have no rights, and through this denial of rights, justifies its abuse of fellow human beings."
"But of course one group of people is superior to others," contended Fear. "Why else would one nation be 'developed' and another 'developing?' After all the masses are ruled by emotion, not reason. Demagogues know well this fact and thus influence public opinion by playing on the emotions of the people through the ploy of keeping them focused on the uncertainties of the future.
"Despite what I just said, and despite our earlier discussion about equality, you're telling me that all people are truly equal. No, you couldn't be. But you are, aren't you?"
"Yes, all people are equal before the Eternal."
"How," asked Fear, "can you say that when people are clearly so different?"
"That's just the point," I countered. "All we can ever judge is appearances. There's nothing else. An appearance is an outward aspect, an outward indication. And judgment is the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing. Our judgments are necessarily wrong, because nothing is as it appears since appearance is external.
"Consider, therefore, that those whom we define as enemies are those whom we perceive as different and thus necessarily beyond our realm of acceptability. In this, as in many other appearances, we make a mistake, which means to make a wrong judgment of character or ability based on inadequate knowledge. What are we afraid of—change, loss of something we value through circumstances we can't control, or someone who is black if we are white or white if we are black?
"Because I'm afraid of deviations from my standards, because I'm afraid of change, of loss of power, I try to cope with my fears of being out of inner control by remaining the same and controlling outer circumstances so that other people will have to risk change, but not I. If the 'other' person is unwilling to change, he or she becomes my enemy whom I judge as not being okay, even inferior, because he or she does not live up to my standard of acceptability. No enemies are 'out there,' only people frightened of change, of being out of control, of being powerless, and therefore mistakenly rejected by their fellow human beings."
"I don't buy it," said Fear with an air of authority. "There are enemies. Those are people who hate each other, and I see plenty of them. Just look around the world today."
"Yes, I know. There are many, many people who are desperately afraid of one another, and that fear is based on the appearance of differences, which, of course, is the very idea you foster. But all people need food, water, and shelter to survive. All people need Love, trust, respect, and dignity to truly live. And all people bleed when stabbed with a knife or shot with a gun. The point is, would we treat one another this way if we saw one another a true equals?
"When, for instance, the invading Spanish conquered the Pueblo Indians in what today is the state of New Mexico, they could not accept, let alone acknowledge, that they and the Pueblos were equally human. Had they acknowledged that truth, they could never have justified the wholesale murder of the Indians and theft of their land. In turn, when the invading Anglos conquered the Spanish, they could not accept, let alone acknowledge, that they and the Spanish, who by then were called Mexicans, were equally human. Had they acknowledged that truth, they could never have justified the wholesale murder of the Spanish and theft of what the Spanish by then considered to be their land. As modern conquests continue, so does the cycle. Look at the all wars around the world today.
"The same principle holds for the indigenous peoples of the South American tropical forests. If the cattle barons ever admitted that the indigenous peoples living in the forests were their equals in terms of being fully human, they could not clear-cut and burn the forests to gain pasture for their beef herds. I say this because in creating the pastures, the cattle barons destroyed an ecosystem and stripped the indigenous peoples not only of their current livelihood but also of their future options and those of their children. If the cattle barons were to admit that the indigenous peoples were in every way their equals as humans, then they would have to treat them as their equals. And that, in turn, means sharing control of their mutual social destiny.
"It's not a question of who's better than whom. Rather, it's a question of who's more afraid of whom. It's a question of who has internalized all the assumed differences and therefore perceives another human being as an unknown entity. It's a question of who is so afraid of losing control of their perceived rights that they will do anything to keep control, regardless of social and environmental consequences. In the end, therefore, it becomes a question of the equality of differences."
"Now you're, ha, ha, ha, really stretching!" choked Fear as it dissolved into convulsions of laughter. "The 'equality of differences,' ha, ha, ha. How absurd can you, ha, ha, ha, ha, get? You're going to have to explain this one to me, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, if you can, that is ha, ha, ha."
"I'm not surprised you think this funny. Tell me when you're done laughing, and I'll explain as best I can."
"I'm done, ha, ha, ha, laughing."
"Ya, sure you are."
"I, ha, am. Really, I am."
"Okay. Then listen. Notions of superiority and inferiority are based on personal, familial, and societal judgments about the intrinsic values of extrinsic differences. To illustrate, consider two questions about garbage collectors and medical doctors: Is collecting garbage as a social service of equal value to that of treating sick people? Is the social stature of a garbage collector equal to that of a medical doctor?
"If you're ask me," said Fear, "that's a stupid question. Of course they're not equal."
"Most people, in my experience, would agree with you because they seem to think that the service performed by medical doctors is of greater social value than that performed by garbage collectors and that doctors not only enjoy but also deserve a higher social status than garbage collectors. But when judging garbage collectors versus medical doctors, most people focus on differences and fail to take similarities into account, one of which is that both occupations help maintain a healthy environment for people. Both occupations also rely on each other's services. In fact, doctors probably rely on garbage collectors more than garbage collectors rely on doctors—doctors just don't know it.
"How much more difficult would be the doctor's task if garbage collectors stopped collecting garbage, allowing it to accumulate around houses and in streets? The outcome could be an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease carried by rats that proliferate in human garbage and whose fleas transmit the disease. Once plague bacteria began spreading, doctors would have to marshal their numbers to treat the sick—garbage collectors and doctors among them.
"Garbage collectors serve society before the fact at a fundamental, collective level. Medical doctors, on the other hand, tend to society after the fact, after someone is ill, one individual at a time. We, therefore, become personally acquainted with our doctors but not usually with our garbage collectors. I find that such a personal acquaintance greatly increases the value I attribute to an individual's job, because I not only have a more intimate sense of the person's intrinsic value but also have a greater knowledge of how his or her profession contributes to my welfare and that of society as a whole.
"Nevertheless, garbage collectors are as vital to human health as medical doctors, only in a different way. Why, therefore, are they not afforded equal status in society? Perhaps the reason is that they do not need to go to school for seven to eight years to become sufficiently trained to collect garbage and therefore do not have a socially coveted title before their names. Perhaps it's because few people see them at work and therefore do not ponder the value of the service they perform. Perhaps it's because we don't go to garbage collectors to make us feel better when we're ill and thus don't form a personal relationship with them as we do with our doctors. Perhaps it's because, compared to medical doctors, garbage collectors do not make nearly as much money, so we deem them less successful in a society where affluence is the measure of success and social status. Perhaps it's because they're filthy and stink when they get off work, instead of wearing an expensive suit and tie.
"The above notwithstanding, garbage collectors and medical doctors are of equal value professionally, albeit different in how they serve the health needs of society. Further, their services are not only vital but also complementary in that they accomplish far more together than either could possibly accomplish alone.
"There may be a number of judgmental reasons for these discrepancies in social stature, but none of them can be applied in the context of the real value of each person. An appropriate analogy might be the spokes of a wheel. Each spoke is slightly different and seemingly independent of the others; yet each is equal in its importance to the functioning of the wheel. Each spoke is connected at the center of the wheel and again at the outer rim. Leave out one spoke and the strength and function of the wheel is to that extent diminished, although the effect might not become immediately apparent.
"Each person has a gift to give, and each gift is unique to that person and critical to the social whole. All gifts are equal in their service to the whole— and different."
"Now you've really gone and done it!" chuckled Fear.
"Now I've really gone and done what?" I asked.
"Each person's gift is 'equal,' come on. Give me an example."
"Alright. A helicopter crashed in Nepal while I was working there years ago and killed two people because a mechanic forgot to replace one tiny safety wire that kept the lateral control assembly together. The helicopter had been 'simplified' by one piece—a small length of wire, which altered the entire functional dynamics of the aircraft.
"Which piece, at that moment, was the most important part in the helicopter? The point is that each part (structural diversity) has a corresponding relationship (functional diversity) with every other part, and they provide stability by working together within the limits of their designed purpose."
"That's not the kind of example I had in mine," said Fear, "but it'll do. I get the point."
"Good" I replied, "because what's true helicopers, is also true for individual humans, cultures, and societies because each is equal in its service to the Earth. Each life, each culture, each society is equally important to the evolutionary success of our planet, whether we understand it or not. Each also has its own excellence and can't be compared to any other. All differences among people, cultures, and societies are just that—differences.
"The hierarchies or judgmental levels of value are human constructs that have little or nothing to do with reality. Every life, culture, and society is a practice in evolution, and each is equal before the impartiality of the Eternal as represented in the biophysical laws and processes that govern the Earth. By that I mean earth quakes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, and disease affect human life with impartiality, caring not whether one is rich or poor; man, woman, or child; black, white, red, yellow, or green—all are truly equal. After all, complementary efforts, such as those of garbage collectors and medical doctors, imply equality among people, and the concept of human equality brings us back to the notion of rights among people."
"I'm almost sorry I suggested this topic," said Fear.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because," replied Fear, "when you slip the leash, there's no holding you back. I've rarely met anyone like you."
"Because I don't obey you?"
"Yes, and am I ever grateful that you're in the minority. And I mean minority!"
"Well, I must say that I'm extremely glad to be in this particular minority, especially when it comes to the 'ownership' of land."
"Yes, yes." said Fear impatiently. "Let's get on with it. The sooner we get on it, the sooner I can take a much-needed rest. I believe you were going back to ruminating about the notion of rights among people.
"Damn it! I just caught what you said. I knew you'd build land into this sooner or later! If it were me, I'd say: 'It's my land. I can do with it as I damn well please!'"
"Yes, you would, and so would many other people today, but it wasn't always this way. The concept of property has changed dramatically over the centuries. Property used to be a matter of possessing the right to use land and its resources, and most areas had some kind of shared rights. Today, the land itself is considered to be property, and in England, the words for the British rights of old have all but disappeared: 'estovers' (the right to collect firewood), 'pannage' (the right to put one's pigs in the woods), 'turbary' (the right to cut turf), and 'pescary' (the commoner's right to catch fish) are no longer in the British vocabulary. Now, while the landowner's rights are almost absolute, the common people no longer have the right of access to most lands in England. The people's rights are effectively nonexistent.
"There was a similar kind of shared right among the indigenous Cherokee peoples of North America. In the traditional Cherokee economic system, both the land and its abundance would be shared among clans. One clan could gather, another could camp, and yet a third could hunt on the same land. There was a fluid and common right of usage rather than an individual right to private property. The value was thus placed on sharing and reciprocity, on the widest distribution of wealth, and on limiting the inequalities within the economic system.
"Here at home, this stringent notion of the absolute rights of private property not only was part of the European myth forced on the indigenous peoples of the Americans but also precluded them from being allowed to share the land coveted by the European invaders. So the Europeans, and later the European Americans who were enticed westward by the government's promise of free land, simply took what they wanted by force, coercion, lies, and betrayal. The indigenous peoples had no recourse because they were merely 'ignorant savages' with no 'recognized' legal documents and thus no claim to land in the European legal sense. To the Europeans and their descendants, the tenure of indigenous peoples on a particular piece of land, even for thousands of years, had no legal merit to prevent those who coveted the land from taking what they wanted."
"Quite right!" chimed in Fear, "Quite right! After all, the world belongs to the strong, doesn't it? That's the way nature has always operated—survival of the fittest! I just don't see what you're making such a fuss about. Animals have territories from which they exclude others of their own kind. Why shouldn't people?"
"You're right, of course, from your point of view," I conceded thoughtfully, "but there are so many more people being born than are dying, and so many people are living longer, that there is progressively less land to support each new person throughout his or her life. That means there are also progressively few resources to afford any given individual an equal quality of life when the strong simply take from the weak. Where is the compassion in that?"
"Compassion, compassion." sibilated Fear, "How do you ever expect to get ahead with compassion, which dictates that you must give everything away? If I gave Love an inch of wiggle room, it would take over my whole kingdom. Can't you see how stupid and dangerous such a notion is? You have to own things outright if you are going to keep control."
"You sound like you're actually afraid. What are you afraid of? Do you think you'll lose your identity if Love were to share part of your kingdom? You make everything so black or white; can't it be this and that? Must it always be exclusively 'either/or?'"
"Yes, it must," said Fear. "I'm just practicing what I preach."
""Does that mean slavery is okay, that people can be owned as property? Blacks are still enslaved today in many ways by our bigoted attitudes—so are women, children—and animals."
"What do you mean? Slavery in today's world? What slavery?" ask Fear with an incredulous look on its face.
"You know very well what I mean. I'm talking about the thousands of children kidnapped and made into child soldiers, porters, or sex objects."
"But don't you see," asked Fear with a puzzled look on it face, "these children are the beginnings of long lines of recruits into my kingdom? Look at all they're learning in my name, all they'll pass on to other generations."
"I see only too clearly how dark your reasoning is. But I also see that you're terrified of Love. Now that's marvelously interesting—even amusing!"
"I take exception to that remark! In fact, you're making me angry! I'm out of here!"
© chris maser 2001. All rights reserved.