The Causes of Human Rights Violations (22): Utopia

Die wirkliche Genesis ist nicht am Anfang, sondern am Ende. Ernst Bloch

You could view the struggle for human rights as a “utopian” one. We’ll never live in a world that respects human rights completely and universally. The only thing we can hope for is an incremental improvement. And there are many reasons for this limitation: people always come up with new ways to violate human rights (“ah, the Internet! let’s make a Great Firewall!”), and people always come up with new human rights as a way to redress newly discovered wrongs. And even if we hope for incremental improvement, we can’t be sure that things are going as we hope, given the lousy measurement systems.

And yet, if you scratch the surface a bit and look at the deeper meaning of the word “utopian”, you’ll discover that utopian thought is fundamentally inimical to human rights. In fact, there’s perhaps no better way to violate human rights than to be utopian. Both the struggle for utopia and life within utopia are necessarily detrimental to human rights. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s easy to see how the struggle for an ideal can lead to disaster. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. We’ve seen many examples of this in recent history. But not only the struggle for utopia leads to rights violations; utopia itself does the same. Strange perhaps, since utopia is the ideal world. How can there be rights violations in an ideal world? And yet, no matter how it is envisaged, utopia violates human rights.

Utopia, where there is no war, strife, exploitation or scarcity, does not allow contestation, change or diversity. What’s there to contest if society has reached perfection? Why change when you can’t improve? Why have diversity, since diversity means different points of view about goals. If there are different points of view, some of them must be wrong. When people advocate wrong views, you have hardly reached perfection, and you’re likely to have conflict, violence etc. You can already see why people would believe that human rights are useless in such a world. Why would you need free speech if there is unanimity? Now, if there really is unanimity, human rights are indeed superfluous. No reason to express your views and to have rules to protect that expression if everyone has the same views. However, unanimity will probably always be something that has to be enforced because even in utopia some people will not freely understand their own wrongness or give up their own vision of perfection. Only a radically new but also radically improbable type of human being would populate a unanimous society. This enforcement of unanimity is necessarily a violation of human rights, which is why such violations would have to occur in utopian societies.

If you look at historical utopian thought, you’ll see that utopia is typically a highly centralized and planned world. It’s one big organization, a megamachine. Streets are geometrically designed. People’s movements are directed and controlled in order to avoid clashes and inefficiencies. Every detail is planned beforehand. Everything is rational. One hospital per square kilometer, one school, and one church. The organic growth of real cities is suboptimal because it hasn’t been planned beforehand. Real cities aren’t rational, orderly or efficient because no one has designed them. Hence, what is required is a tabula rasa. That means kicking people out of their houses and demolishing their houses. It means centrally allocating jobs so that the people don’t start a career that wouldn’t be the best one for them and for the whole of society. The structure of utopia is designed to enforce a certain behavior that promotes efficiency. Movement, habitation, work and all other aspects of life are planned and organized. The consequences of this aren’t limited to evils such as boredom, repetition, the absence of creativity and of the unexpected, or the feeling of being stuck in the present (the past is gone because that’s just the history of imperfection, and there is no future either because the future is here). The evils will be a lot worse than that: massive violations of rights, limitations of freedom and invasions of privacy are inevitable in utopia. Utopia is necessarily dystopia.

Of course, utopia can be a useful theoretical construct. I don’t want to trash every type of utopian thinking. A utopian vision is typically the current world put upside down. It is a tool that makes criticism of the current world possible, and it may provide a driving force for incremental change. It can motivate people to work for a slightly better world. It’s like you only know how troubling poverty is when you know what it would mean to be rich. But this realization shouldn’t make you desire a world of only rich people; a world without poverty suffices. Utopia, in this sense, is not a blueprint for the future, but merely a kick in the gut. That is also why many utopian fantasies were not located in the country the writer lived in, but in a far away place, an island or a mountain top. And that’s where they should remain. They are a means, not a goal. And true Genesis is neither at the beginning nor at the end; it’s ongoing. We daily remake our world and we’ll most likely never finish.

Freedom of Expression and the Internet

The internet is undoubtedly a huge boost for freedom of expression, and not only a quantitative boost. It has certain qualitative characteristics that older media don’t have, which make it particularly beneficial for free speech.

A first reason why the internet promotes free speech is its relative cost: it has made speech much less expensive. You even don’t need to own a computer since you can, with relative ease, use a public one. And even the cost of a computer pales compared to the cost of many older media.

Another reason is that governments find it much more difficult to censor speech on the internet. Speech is no longer bound to a particular carrier which can be easily confiscated or destroyed, or to a particular territory where a state can exercise its power. People can publish on websites in other countries without being there. Of course, governments do retain some considerable censorship power over the internet, as is demonstrated by the case of the Great Firewall of China, but it’s safe to say that this power is relatively weak compared to government’s powers over traditional media, precisely because of the international character of the internet.

Unfortunately, we see that private actors sometimes replace the government as censors. The discussions on net neutrality for example result from some cases where internet providers have blocked access to competitor sites or favored access to friendly or related sites (see the case of Telus blocking access to a labor union website). One could also claim that Google, for instance, despite the good it does for free expression, also in a way limits it, since it systematically channels people towards speech that already has much exposure and freedom, and “buries” all the rest (read more about this here). There is still domination and inequality on the web; the question is whether on average the internet has done more to limit it or to advance it. I believe the former.

A third reason why the internet promotes free speech is the gradual disappearance of middle men. You don’t need editors, publishers or peer review to publish your views. In traditional media, these middle men normally filter out a lot of speech, often to the benefit of the public but never to the benefit of speech.

So these are three reasons (among many others) why the internet expands the amount of speech and promotes free speech in a quantitative way. But it can also be argued that the internet has improved speech in a qualitative way. That may be a counter-intuitive claim, given the amount of bullshit that’s present on the web, and yet I think it’s true for many pockets of the internet. Because the internet creates a quantitative boost for speech, it also produces a qualitative one. The internet has allowed more people to speak, listen and discuss, and it’s a common argument in philosophy that widespread participation in discussions tends to improve the quality of people’s opinions, under certain ideal circumstances. I won’t make the detailed argument here, since I’ve done that many times before. In a few words, the argument boils down to this: the freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on issues. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality.