Human Rights and Social Efficacy

By | August 26, 2011

I wasn’t able to find some of my better essays i’ve written before, but while searching I did come across this little essay I wrote for a philosophy class. It’s not as insightful or well written as the intercultural communication essays i was looking for, but i still think it’s a little interesting.

The question of whether prescriptions of human rights are effective and adequate or not becomes irrelevant if we ask what brings about social justice besides assertions of the existence of human rights and find no other alternative to righting the wrongs of the world except in fact asserting the equality and rights of all human beings. Prescriptions of human rights are required for bringing about social justice and their efficacy is determined by the social and political norms of the society in which they are being asserted.

Without attempting to assert the existence of the human rights of those who suffer from social injustice how else are they supposed to overcome the barriers to attaining equality?

Asserting the value of human rights has indeed brought about social justice. When Stanton and Mott held the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls New York in 1848 they asserted that “all men and women are created equal, (CP 177).” They asserted that women have equal right to the pursuit of happiness.

Their efforts were the beginning of a movement leading Susan B Anthony to fight for women’s voting rights and form the Women’s Suffrage Association in 1868 which eventually achieved its goal in 1920 when an amendment was added to the U.S. constitution granting women the right to vote.

It took more than forty years of asserting the need for change through speeches, discussions, media attention and other venues to raise awareness of the need to establish equality and give the movement enough social credibility to establish equal voting

rights.

Mott and Stanton’s piece claims that “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward women, (CP 177).” Many societies historically have and continue to treat women inferior based merely on the fact of their gender. But changing social norms that advocate inequality and thus limiting recognition of one’s innate human rights takes an immense amount of time and social momentum. This momentum can be initiated by asserting those rights in order to move in the direction of human equality and hopefully bring about social justice for those injured by destructive and oppressive social norms.

People can assert their human rights to equality and attempt to achieve social justice when equality is absent because they otherwise face unnecessary harm imposed upon them by a society with socially constructed norms of oppression. And perhaps more importantly, there is no reason for inequalities to exist other than social traditions and conditioning that arbitrarily asserts the superiority of one group over others.

Hegel points out in his Anthropology that to those who enforce and support social norms advocating inequality, “it was (and often still is) hoped to prove that human beings are by nature so differently endowed with mental or spiritual capacities that some can be dominated like animals. But descent affords no ground for granting or denying freedom and dominion to human beings (CP p.7).” Hegel explains that humanity’s implicit rationality provides the “possibility of equal justice for all men and the futility of a rigid distinction between races which have rights and those which have none (CP p. 7).”

This logic can be extended to say that rationally, psychological and physical harm placed on groups of people and individuals merely because they are born into a certain “race,” gender, nationality, economic class or other classification is arbitrary and thus unnecessarily harms members of society. The arbitrariness of these harmful norms is thus reason to assert the existence of human rights as all human beings are born equal, but face inequality as a result of socially constructed oppression.

Political scientist Jack Donnelly asserts that the “understanding of the innate equality of all human beings leads naturally to a political emphasis on autonomy. Personal liberty, especially liberty to choose and pursue one’s own life, clearly is entailed by the idea of equal respect. For the state to interfere in matters of personal morality would be to treat the life plans and values of some as superior to those of others (Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, (2002).”

Bringing about social justice which would assert the legitimacy of these ideas is the goal of many human rights efforts. These efforts attempt to transcend social traditions of arbitrarily constructed social oppression and instances of inequality through assertions of human rights as necessary for societies to recognize these issues as problematic and eventually achieve social justice and change in some form which would eliminate or at least reduce the harm of inequalities.

Examples of social justice brought about by efforts to assert human rights such as establishing women’s right to vote, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to illegalize segregation are the legal results of efforts to assert the fact of innate human rights and equality and the resulting changes of those societies. Although it has not occurred and is unlikely to completely eliminate social norms advocating racism and discrimination, oppressed people’s have indeed used human rights to bring about social justice through persistence and time.

In talking about the persistence of racism, Stannard provides an interesting quote by Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the United States and wrote a virtual encyclopedia of life in the country which was published in 1835. Tocqueville noted that people of African origin in America are “hardly recognized as sharing the common features of humanity. His face appears to us hideous, his intelligence limited, and his tastes low; we almost take him for some being intermediate between beast and man. To induce whites to abandon the opinion they have conceived of the intellectual and moral inferiority of their former slaves, the Negroes must change, but they cannot change so long as this opinion persists (CP p. 21).”

Tocqueville is correct that it is oppressive opinions that limit certain groups of people from being viewed as equal, and thus treated as equal. These opinions are social constructions that can be reduced over time through education of society, and efforts to change societal institutions promoting oppression and inequality and the opinions which keep them in place.

Abolishing slavery was indeed a victory for social justice in the U.S. as it asserted the humanity and innate rights of former slaves as human beings, but it did not abolish the opinions mentioned by Tocqueville which maintained the harmful institution of slavery. It is these opinions and assumptions of superiority which still existed in post-slavery America that maintained racism and other examples of discrimination which still exists, and legal segregation based on race.

Achieving social justice required a long time, and it can be argued that it has not been completely achieved as social norms of racism and discrimination are still obvious in many people, institutions and contemporary societies.

The norms of the dominant society in the U.S. allowed the 1896 Supreme Court to establish segregation with so-called justifications of it being “separate but equal” and claiming to have “no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or establish a state of involuntary servitude.”

It wasn’t until 1954 that segregation was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court and that it was legally considered “inherently unequal.” As historian Jennifer Rosenberg points out, “Although the Brown v. Board of Education decision overturned all the segregation laws in the country, the enactment of integration was not immediate. In actuality, it took many years, much turmoil, and even bloodshed to integrate the country (2006).”

It took many years of oppressed individuals and people who recognized the social norms of inequality advocating respect for the human rights of people to change these institutions.

The irrational opinions of superiority which maintained institutions such as slavery and segregation persist in causing harm to individuals in various forms of racism and discrimination. It is only until society’s socially constructed opinions of innate superiority and inferiority are changed can the fact of innate human rights achieve real benefits of social justice.

Efforts in asserting human rights and the need for equality have achieved victories. Such as bringing voting rights to women, and ending legal segregation. But legal victories for social justice such as these do not automatically change the opinions advocating inequality, although they do signify that social norms have been moving in the direction of equality.

The effectiveness of efforts to bring about social justice by promoting the existence of one’s human right to equality is determined largely by the extensiveness of social norms of the acceptableness of inequality. Another very significant factor is time. Just as it took many years to achieve institutional victories for women’s rights and the illegalization of segregation, the effectiveness of human rights to bring about social justice depends on the time required to shift social norms to those advocating equality.

The effectiveness of human rights is thus limited largely in part to social norms. Many societies claim that ideas of human rights have no legitimacy within their culture as it is a “western” invented philosophy and thus does not apply to their way of doing things. As people and authorities within these societies become more accepting of assertions of human rights, these ideas become more likely to initiate social justice.

China is often villanized as a violator of human rights, with many examples, some very well known. However, there are groups and natives within mainland China who assert their human rights to live without torture, censorship, oppression, and other state imposed institutions and norms imposed upon their livelihood.

When I lived in China for a little more than a year I met people who thought “western” nations had no right to impose their ideals involving human rights and universal standards of equality upon their culture. However, I also met just as many people who either held strong opinions advocating their innate rights as human beings and those who wanted to work in a society with more recognition of their innate human rights, such as a journalism student I met who wanted to find a job in Hong Kong or Taiwan where she would be more free from the censorship of state sponsored media.

The point is that social norms are changing within this country in the direction of respect for human rights which with time may eventually bring about actual social justice as people will eventually feel more comfortable discussing issues openly. It just takes time to shift in this direction, and for this direction to bring about social justice.

Sociologist Malin Oud makes the point that “less than two decades ago, the Chinese government dismissed human rights as a bourgeois and Western concept of little relevance to China. The discourse of human rights has, since then, to a certain extent been ‘normalized’ in China (Creative Tensions and the Legitimacy of Human Rights Education 2006).”

Oud also points out that the Chinese constitution was amended in March 2004 to include the words “the State respects and protects human rights”. The effectiveness of this amendment is of course limited by the fact that there is no mechanism in place in China for enforcing these words or even establishing specifically what they should imply. However, the change is significant as even the term “human rights” was controversial only a few years ago (Oud, 2006).

The legitimacy of human rights within a society or even an individual person is proportionate to it’s effectiveness in bringing about social justice.

A 2004 study by the International Council on Human Rights attempted to establish the effectiveness and legitimacy of human rights organizations. The focus of the study was to establish how these organizations acquire public legitimacy and the effectiveness and access social groups and people have to their services.

The study found that “A sound constitutional foundation is the best guarantee of legitimacy.” It was found that human rights organizations are more likely to acquire public legitimacy when they are recognized by the states in which they operate.

This may be a combination of a causal as well as a correlational relationship. The causal relationship being that if a human rights organization wants to bring about social justice or change within a community their ability is limited when restrictions are placed upon them by government’s which do not recognize their legitimacy. A correlational relationship because a government’s unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of human rights organizations may indicate public norms of unwillingness to embrace the changes such organizations would advocate.

The fact that humans are born innately equal and thus do not need to endure socially constructed norms of torture, oppression and inequality may not enter into the social consciousness of some societies and thus has a comparatively limited effectiveness at bringing about social justice within them.

Attempts to challenge social norms maintaining oppression and inequality are necessary to achieve equality and bring about social justice in instances in which public recognition of that equality is limited or nonexistent.

Even though discrimination based on race and gender still occurs in many societies and still causes psychological and physical harm to many people, progress has been made where assertions of human rights and equality attempt to bring about social justice.