Human Rights Promotion (6): A Fatal Paradox for Human Rights Proponents?

Like the opponents of human rights, the proponents also face a paradox. Imagine human rights utopia: the world has managed to get rid of oppression, domination, exploitation, discrimination, injustice and suffering. Or perhaps human rights violations haven’t disappeared completely but people have managed to make them a rare occurrence. People find it easy to be moral and to respect the rights of others, and there’s hardly ever a slip-up.

However, we could argue that this world has lost something important. It’s undoubtedly better in one sense of the word, but at the same time it’s worse: people have lost the opportunity to show solidarity, to be charitable, to help each other and to strive towards moral heroism.

Because of the risk that a successful struggle against human rights violations results in this loss (only a potential risk at this moment in time), we should perhaps value the struggle itself, and not just the successful outcome. But then we value the struggle and at the same time we are upset about it. We are upset because we obviously believe it is a struggle that we should end victoriously as quickly as possible, but at the same time we value it because we believe that it’s generally a good thing for people to be working towards a moral goal and to act benevolently (we may also value the struggle because it allows us to signal our own personal moral worth, but that’s another point).

So, paradoxically, we want to win the struggle for human rights as quickly as possible because rights violations are evil; but at the same time we want to cherish and perhaps even prolong the struggle because of the moral value inherent in it. But that means that the struggle against human rights violations confers a certain value to these violations and makes them a bit less evil, which surely isn’t the purpose. If people are morally enriched and ennobled by the struggle against human rights violations, then it’s also these violations that enrich and ennoble. But of course we cannot acknowledge this because we want to abolish those violations; we can’t desire to abolish them and at the same time claim that they have value. If you start to see good in evil, you endanger your mental health.

More on human rights and utopia here, and on human rights and paradoxes here and here.

Freedom of Expression, or a Duty of Expression?

I often have the impression that people transform the right to free expression into a duty to free expression. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. For example, Muslims in western countries are often told that they should distance themselves from the more violent members of their religion. We require them to speak out against Muslim terrorism.

Another example: politicians, especially in the U.S., are required to speak out on a number of subjects, e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, their faith in God etc. As if it would be a disaster to elect a politician who happens to doubt about abortion. After all, many people do (myself included).

A somewhat exaggerated view on democratic transparency is undoubtedly a small part of the explanation for this. Democracy can’t function without public knowledge of politicians’ opinions, or without some sense of what our fellow citizens believe (part of democracy is group formation, and group formation is based on discussion and persuasion; and you can’t persuade someone if you don’t know what he or she believes).

But the most important cause of this “duty of expression” is, I think, the manichean nature of contemporary politics. Every issue is painted in black and white, good and evil, for or against. We force people to express themselves on issues so that we can see if they are with us or against us. And if someone expresses him or herself in a nuanced way we automatically assume that he or she takes a position opposite from our own. For example, if Muslims reject Islamic terrorism but at the same time point to the situation in Palestine, we assume that they really think terrorism is OK, or justifiable given certain circumstances. We can’t accept muddled or nuanced middle ground positions, or positions which change according to the circumstances. Gray isn’t an option.

Clarity, simplicity and certainty are important human objectives, but often they aren’t appropriate in thinking. Of course, sometimes manicheism is the only possible position: you either believe the holocaust is a fact of history or you don’t; there’s no middle ground, and those who don’t believe in it are either stupid or evil. But when it comes to political or moral opinions (rather than facts), those who really think about them often find themselves occupying a gray, complex and uncertain position.

I suspect that the difficulty to let go of manicheism and to accept uncertainty and nuance has something to do with the nature of democratic politics. It’s hard to vote for nuance, and easy to vote for or against a clear and simple proposition. And simple propositions get more attention, sell better and make it easier to mobilize large constituencies (see the cartoon below). But then again, when we look at political reality, manicheism is much more common in autocratic societies. The public debate on issues which is made possible by democratic societies forces nuance to appear.

The difficulty to let go of manicheism also has something to do with the fear of the other extreme: the paralysis that follows from endless nuancing and thinking. Politics is a realm where decisions have to be taken, contrary to philosophy where thinking is unending in principle.

However, it doesn’t follow from this that decisiveness has to be manicheism. Decisions can be based on nuanced thinking. The risk of paralysis is averted by the realization that our decisions, often taken under the pressure of urgency, are necessary yet provisional, based on the best thinking available at the time, and open to revision when time has improved our thinking.