Are Human Rights A Western Concept?
Edip Yuksel, J.D.
© 1998, yuksel.org
“Does another culture also have the notion of Human Rights? –assuming that such a notion is absolutely indispensable to guarantee human dignity. No question is neutral, for every question conditions its possible answers. . . Human rights may turn out to be a Trojan horse, surreptitiously introduced to other civilizations. . . Can democracy imposed and remain democratic?” (Pannikar, Is the Notion of Human Rights A Wastern Concept, International Human Rights In Context, edited by Henry J. Steiner and Philip Alston, Clarendon Presss, 1996, p. 202, 206, 207)
“In order to protect the world, for the sake of the protection of this universe, says Manu, He, Svayambhu, the Self-existent, arranged the castes and their duties. Dharma is the order of the entire reality, that which keeps the world together. . . Both systems (the Western and the Hindu) make sense from and within a given and accepted myth.” (Pannikar, Ibid, p. 207, 208)
Above are two sets of excerpts from Pannikar, a Hindu-Christian theologian. Though belonging to the same author, the first excerpt impressed me with its brilliance and the second disappointed me with its fallacy.
Western system is not based on myth like Hindu system as Pannikar claims. Pannikar conveniently confuses Hindu mythology with reason. The democratic and free system that falsely attributed to the Western civilization is generally based on reason and empirical evidence driven from our experience throughout human history. Ironically, Pannikar uses “reason,” though in a clumsy way, to banish and blemish the very reason he is using. He is not aware that he is using reason, the universal operative system program common among humans and dominant in the universe, to reduce it to the level of mythologies. In other words, he is not using mythology to equate reason to mythology.
Those who do not subscribe or inherit the Hindu religion will not seriously consider the divine nature of “dharma” or cast system. Who is Manu or Svayambhu? Where are they? How can you prove that the cast system is a divine order? Why should I believe your mythology and condemn myself or others to permanent subjugation and exploitation by those who promote self-serving stories? Why should I respect any mythology that, for instance, considers all other races Satanic and advocates their extinction? Why? The troublesome question “why” is the engine behind human rights. As long as relativists ask this question they will be doomed to use universal language of reason, and reason cannot accept to be equally treated with local mythologies. Whenever they try to defend relativism people of reason will be asking the question “WHY should we tolerate to the ‘abnormality’ of certain cultures?”
How can we say that the religious mythologies are in the same category with reason and experience? How can I evaluate the practice of “cast” system in the same category with opposing to “child sacrifice” or “infant’s starvation” or “the rape of abducted women” or “torture of another human” or “genocide?”
Mythologies advocating cast system has no claim of being rational, since it appeals to faith, perhaps a blind one. But a system opposing to torture, child sacrifice, and genocide etc., has universal appeal. It appeals to our reasoning and self-interest of all humans. It is supported by painful experiences from history that destroyed both parties: the torturers and the tortured ones. In order to accept that torture or racism is bad you do not need to become Hindu or Muslim or Atheist or Western, or Eastern. Your own reasoning will make you know this fact. There are many people from all religions, regions and cultures who have no problem with accepting the goals of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its appeal, in general, transcends cultures and religions. However, if you are not a Hindu, it is very unlikely that you would promote a “cast” system.
Sure, the so-called western concept of human rights is not entirely based on reason and experience. There is a tendency to inflate and exaggerate individual rights. For instance, an Alabama court, citing Roe v. Wade ruled that a man had a constitutional right to sexual devices made of rubber. A law suit filed in Massachusetts demanded the right to have one’s breasts touched by strangers. The chairman of Sierra Club articulated the fundamental rights of trees and rocks to their own freedom. A convict claimed a constitutional and religious right to rape his wife at any time. Some feminists fought for women’s right to use men’s restroom. Some rejected authors claimed the right to get published for every writer. You can add to these “negotiated” rights many others, such as, prisoner’s right to procreate before being executed, the rights of gays to be affirmed by government, the right to commit perjury, the fundamental right to a Ph.D., or other long-term schooling, the fundamental right to proportional representation on television, etc. (see John Leo’s hilarious article titled “A man’s got a right to rights” in U.S. News & World Report, August 4, 1997, p. 15).
The inflation in demanding and creating new rights, I believe, is a temporary byproduct of a transitional period. Those rights that are plagued with inconsistency or contradiction which is not an attribute of “reason” and “sound empirical investigation” will not be accepted by free societies. Even if they are accepted because of distortion in the democratic process they will most likely not survive. For instance, US promotes equal rights, including right to marry for homosexuals while denying similar rights to those who want to practice polygamy. Those who are trying to impose gay rights as an extension of human rights are deaf and blind to the rights of those who are condemned because they are adults committing incest. Would they acknowledge and promote similar rights for beastealists? What if I want to marry with my loyal cat? Would they defend my rights to marry my animal friend?
While the US condemns female circumcision, it facilitates male circumcision. While the US condemns infanticide it promotes abortion as another right equal to other fundamental rights. Inconsistency and contradictions, I believe, are caused by the zeal and emotions. With time, I think, reason will prevail. The philosophy that negotiates individual rights with common good under the light of reason and empirical evidence will ultimately provide all citizens of this planet with a sound and universal human rights.
It is the communicated reason and human experience that tumbled the Berlin wall. It is reason and human experience that chained “slavery” to history books. And it is reason and human experience that will push forward reformation in my religion, Islam. Islam, either will become extinct like dinosaurs, or will purify itself from medieval teachings of clergymen. I will not welcome any “relativist” defending the rights of mullahs and clerics to condemn their critics to death by declaring them “apostate”. When life and death is at stake, who cares about relativism or anthropologists? Who gives a damn! When individual freedom and happiness is lost who cares about culture and society? Who cares about a society consisting unhappy individuals? Sure, only those who enjoy oppressing and exploiting in the name of culture.
It is very simple. Let individuals freely participate in shaping their government and legislation. With time, a healthy balance will be discovered between individual freedoms and social norms and constraints. Let Iranian woman (not male clergy) freely express their mind and chose their government. If they chose to live in sacks it is their choice. Sure, you can always criticize them or others, but you cannot enforce “your rights” on them if they have accepted different rights with their free will. As it turns out, the source of human rights is freedom of expression and open society. The rest is just a matter of time and space, in other words reason and experience.