What Are Human Rights? (25): Some Common Human Rights Misconceptions

Here’s a short and unfortunately incomplete list of common misconceptions about human rights. I distinguish between theoretical misconceptions (mistakes about what human rights are or what they mean) and factual or historical misconceptions. The former are obviously the most harmful, and I’ll start with those.

Some theoretical misconceptions about human rights

  • It’s often claimed that there are “three generations of rights“: traditional liberty rights, social-economic rights, and cultural rights. Each new generation has “followed” the other. That’s clearly wrong. So-called “poverty rights” are as old as freedom rights. For example, among the rights listed in the revolutionary Constitution of 1791 in France, was this:

    A general establishment for public relief shall be created and organized to raise foundlings, relieve the infirm poor, and furnish work for the able-bodied poor who have been unable to procure it for themselves. (source)

    This misconception is often used to discredit the more “recent” rights as being new inventions or “fads” that inflate away the meaning of the word “rights”. This misconception is typical of some American audiences.

  • Equally common is the claim that human rights are anti-democratic. Indeed, human rights, as they are translated in the constitutions of most modern democracies, are specifically – but not exclusively – aimed at the protection of the interests of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. However, that doesn’t make them anti-democratic. Democracy needs human rights, and is much more than simple majority rule.
  • Thirdly, the notion that there are negative and positive rights, that only the former are “real” rights and that the latter are too costly on society and require limitations on the freedom of citizens, is also wrong. All types of rights require both forbearance and active protection, and all rights are costly. Depending on the circumstances, what are often called negative rights may be more costly than positive rights.
  • And, finally, there’s this notion that some human rights are basic rights. If you claim that some human rights are more basic, more important and more urgent than other rights, then you can’t possibly take account of the interdependence of all human rights. If a so-called basic human right is dependent on another, non-basic right – and that’s easy to show – then it’s no longer a basic right.

Some factual misconceptions about human rights

And here are also some factual or historical misconceptions about human rights. These are of lesser importance, but fun to mention:

  • There is no evidence that the torture device known as “iron maiden” was ever used for torture. It’s often depicted in stories about medieval torture, but it looks like it was pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums. (source)
  • A “fatwa” is a non-binding legal opinion issued by an Islamic scholar under Islamic law, not an official death sentence. The popular misconception probably stems from the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 regarding the author Salman Rushdie, who he stated deserved a death sentence for blasphemy. (source)
  • The word “jihad” does not necessarily mean “holy war”. Literally, the word in Arabic means “struggle”. While there is such a thing as “jihad bil saif”, or “jihad by the sword“, many modern Islamic scholars usually say that it implies an effort or struggle of a spiritual kind. (source)
  • Voltaire never uttered the phrase: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The line comes from The Friends of Voltaire (1907) by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. It resembles the actual line “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too” from Voltaire’s Essay on Tolerance. (source)
  • Likewise, Niccolò Machiavelli didn’t write “The ends justify the means.” A more literal translation is “One must consider the final result”, a disappointingly sensible statement. (source)
  • And Stalin probably never said that “the death of one man is a tragedy, and the death of millions is a statistic”. (source)
  • Female genital mutilation is not required by Islam. And neither is the veil (the Quran merely requires “modest dress“).
  • China does not dismiss international human rights or the universality of human rights. It has ratified many of the major human rights treaties, although of course it violates human rights in practice, as most if not all other countries.
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