18 July 2011

Human Rights, Democracy, Pragmatism

"Thus, we come down to what is tangible and conceivably practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice" ~ C.S. Peirce (1878) "How To Make Our Ideas Clear"
At The New York Times blog "The Stone" today, Anat Bilezki has posted this nice, deflationary piece on human rights. More specifically, she argues that in one sense it makes no practical difference whether one grounds one's commitment to human rights in secular or religious terms.
"What difference does it make? [. . .] Why do we care, or why should we care, if the practice of human rights is born of religious or secular motivation?

Take a look at how we work on the ground, so to speak; look at how we do human rights, for example, in Israel-Palestine. When Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the leader of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, squats in the mud trying to stop soldiers who have come to set a blockade around a village or fights settlers who have come to uproot olive trees (as he has done so often, in villages like Yanoun and Jamain and Biddu, in the last decade) along with me (from B’Tselem — the Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), or a group of secular kids from Anarchists Against the Wall, or people from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions — and he does this on a Friday afternoon, knowing full well that he might be courting religious transgression should the Sabbath arrive — does it matter that his reasons for doing so spring from his faith while the anarchists’ derive from their secular political worldview and B’Tselem’s and ICAHD’s from secular international human rights law? The end-product, the human rights activity, is similar, even identical; but the reason, the intention, the motivation for it are distinctly different. Does that matter?

In terms of active promotion of human rights, Bilezki clearly thinks the answer to her final question is simple - "no." But looking further into the political context she insists that the answer is "yes, it matters" and here she looks at the way authority works in political discourse, especially political disagreement. She insists, rightly, I think, that properly religious authority, deriving as it does from some belief in the divine - what she identifies as "God's command" - is a way of preempting political disagreement and debate with a call to simple obedience.
"The problem arises not when we act together, but rather when we don’t. Or put differently, when we act together, the problem stays in the realm of theory, providing fodder for the philosophical game of human rights. It is when we disagree — about abortion, about capital punishment, about settling occupied lands — that the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights. This is not to say that all religious people hold the same views on these issues or that secular persons are always in agreement (although opinion polls, for whatever they are worth, point to far more unity of thought on the religious side). It is rather that an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to “command” us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit. The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command; if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it."
In the U.S., of course, the most obvious recent instance of this phenomenon has appeared in the "debate" over gay marriage in which many opponents insist that it is "God's command" that gay and lesbian people be excluded from equal rights. Invoking God in that context forecloses debate by excluding a segment of the population from the category "human" to which human rights apply. Bilezki, it seems to me, runs aground insofar as she intimates that a commitment to rights is or can be grounded in compassion. That is a topic for another time. But she is just right when she focuses not on agreement but on disagreement and on what we do, how we proceed, when we disagree. This, on my view, places the importance of democratic politics into relief - for democratic politics is best understood as a way of structuring disagreement.

I began with an observation from Peirce. It is a good general rule, I think. But it places pressure on us to consider consequences in the subtle way Bilezki does in this piece.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

This is a bit off topic but...

There's no doubt that gay people should have the right to marry (or do anything else other people do). But I think the political argument that access to marriage is necessary in order to gain full access U.S. civil and economic rights is problematic. That course reinforces a definition of "family" to a fairly narrow (and often dysfunctional) bourgeois model, and ties access to civil rights to marriage when those benefits should be available regardless of whether or not one is married.

~ peace

23 July, 2011 08:42  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I agree and said so here not long ago:


Neither political status nor policy benefits should hinge on one's relationship status.

And, the gay marriage campaign doe, indeed, homogenize the range of possibilities available to people as they try to lead their lives.

That said, if gays and lesbians want to get married that is, or should be, their business.

23 July, 2011 09:14  
Blogger Public Squalor said...

Of course you wrote on this before and please don't read my comment as criticism of your post. It wasn't meant that way.

I'm just annoyed by the broad uncritical acceptance of the political strategy - access to marriage = access to human rights - so I feel compelled to point it out.

BTW - in Illinois the Gov. has correctly ended state funding for the Catholic Charities since as a matter of "conscience" (meaning bigotry) that organization refuses to place foster kids with gay couples. Lot's of hand wringing in the commercial media but it's rare to see a report suggesting that public funding to religious orgs is problematic from the outset.

Can't offend the f**king churches now can we?

~ peace

23 July, 2011 10:02  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

No offense taken. I just wanted to link back to the earlier post. Thanks for stopping by! - Jim

23 July, 2011 10:34  

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