Monday, April 25, 2011

Cultural Imperialism and Universal Human Rights

There is something called the All Souls College examinations which are given every year to recent graduates of Oxford. The stake? A 7 year fellowship which is a really big deal. No more than three fellowships are ever awarded a year and some years none are awarded. Harper’s had a list of questions asked for the general essay portion of the exam. I’ve decided to take a swing at answering some of them. It is amazing what you will find in Harpers eh? I will be answering these questions not in a formal essay style but rather my more relaxed fun to read blog style.

Are Universal Human Rights A Form of Cultural Imperialism

Oh sure sure. I could hem and haw, and try to weedle around the subject and do this fancy little dance. However, the answer to this question is yep. Absolutely. No real doubt about it.
Yeah a new paragraph already. See the only real argument against this idea that I can readily see is that if the human rights are universal than they are transcultural and therefore it is something that all cultures should inherently respect as they are built in. However, this edges onto a different and more troubling discussion of just how much of “culture” is hardwired into human behaviour and how much of it is an artificial contractual construction in order to make life less burtish and short. Truth be told is that human beings can all get along fairly well without a good deal of their human rights respected. Heck when you look at regiems like North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Stalinist Russia and people will keep on truckin without food and you need that to live. There is something to be said about the chicken and the egg, ie it is hard to care about universal human rights when you are starving to death. But then there is the issue of the American south where we are willing to believe that human rights are not universal because their skin are a different color. Or for an even more vicious example that human rights are not important because these people are employees in my coal mine and they certainly don’t need things like sleep, to breath, or other things that are most definetly human rights. See lets move the human rights things out of the realm of governments and we look at what businesses feel comfortable doing in the name of profit and we start to see that the idea of universal human rights is indeed an artificial construction born not out of an entire culture, but rather out of a select group of one culture’s elite intelectuals.
Universal Human Rights is every bit a cultural construction and just as they were manifested out of the air. They are granted to us in the exact same way that the “kindly” slave owner tried to make his slaves into humans in Tony Morrison’s book Beloved. It might be a different Tony Morrison book I’ve read a bunch. I am pretty sure it is beloved though. I am in a book store I suppose I could go check, but it is the sort of thing that requires its own essay to explain because it comes out of left field. I should find a better example and not one that shows off how fucking awesome I am. Wait no this whole thing just needs to be explained better. I don’t believe in back space so we are gonna try this again in the NEXT PARAGRAPH we are doing this shit LIVE and unrehearsed ladies and gentlemen.
Universal Human Rights is every bit a cultural construction and just as they were manifested out of the air. They are granted to us by the cultures intelectual base so that we all have a universal way to treat each other. The problem is that if these human rights were universal then there would be no need to stand up and say well these are universal human rights. And considering the fact that there are pleanty of people who feel justified in killing each other over the silliest things, and the right to kill each other is not within the realm universal human rights then we are going to have to say that there is something “not quite universally culturally sound” about the idea of universal human rights.
I am going to come at the same thing from a different angle just to make sure I got all my based covered. The Idea of Universal Human Rights is a manufactured one. To help hide the fact that it is manufactured we come up with some low impact easy to swallow universal human rights. To do this I am going to point out something I hope you noticed already. I haven’t defined universal human rights. I won’t because I don’t believe they excist. But lets throw out some sample human rights to see if we can’t make this work. We all have the right to not be murdered or to be forced into situations that will cause us grievous harm…like war or working in a coal mine. We should never HAVE to do these things, and if we do then we need to be adequately compensated. Of course how the hell are you going to compensate someone for the loss of their life? Well countries provide services in such quanity that you should feel obligated to lay down your life. However, you should never HAVE to lay down your life so even within our culturally imperialistic confines we already are having some significant conflicts. We should never be forced to put our bodies in harms way or to do things with our bodies that we don’t want to. This covers things like rape or when your boss asks you to handle dangerous materials without the proper equipment. Or when you have an unwanted pregnancy…of course what about the right to life. You can debate with me all you want about the potentiality of a zygote to become a baby and when a zygote cell cluster becomes life. I am pro choice. So whateva. It is important that over the course of the argument you would be having with me about the difinition of life similar arguments happened over whether or not black folks were humans or not, of whether women should be treated equally to men, or whether employees deserve rights that would ordinarly be protected by the government. The zygote/life argument is just a chapter in a much larger narrative that shows that there is very little that is universal about universal human rights.
The civil war makes for an excellent parable over the idea of cultural rights verus universal rights. Many people who discuss the civil war discuss it in terms of states fighting for their right to define the laws within their own boarders even to the point where it can define classes of individuals. So blacks are a non whole men. Whereas the north, believing that the blacks were whole people and deserving of a whole suite of rights and freedoms, decided that the universal rights came before the rights of the states and thus the war was fought. However, the north had to define these rights, hand them to the blacks, and to beat the south until they were willing to fall into line with them. A nice clear cut example of cultural imperialism within one countries own boarders. Isn’t that cool?
Now despite the fact that I believe that Universal Human Rights is a cultural construction and that enforcing them is a form of cultural imperialism that doesn’t mean I think they are a bad idea. In fact I think they are a wonderful idea. The idea of universal human rights not the standard definition of the things that I’ve been capitalizing for most of this essay but that actual idea, the improper loosly defined noun is a magnificent accomplishment. Culture is the thing that helps us rise up from the brute. It gives us a set of ideas and structures that keeps us from commiting acts of unspeakable barbarism. Looking at things like the wild west, pre invasion Afghanistan, and lots and lots of Africa we as a race are capable of living in unspeakable conditions underneath some of the harshest oppression. However, in these conditions we do not flourish. We survive. But we do not become better. The idea of culture, its foundations, and the its advancement is the thing that keeps us from raping and killing each other. We may say that we would never rape or kill anyone should our culture collapse, or never of excisted in the first place and that is a comforting thought. It also means that you will be one of the raped or killed. This all sounds like a rather grim view of humanity but it isn’t. I am sitting here in a books a million bookstore typing this essay for fun on a lap top that is smaller and lighter than all of my hardcover roleplaying books. Sure we as a race do some bad things. I would also say that we really do need some form and structure in order to keep us from doing things that are… regrettable in terms of the advancment of the species. I don’t believe that culture is a panacea. It is a tool that we may choose to engage in to varying degrees to help us make descisions which will enrich our lives and the lives of everyone around us. I mean we still have crime and we still do terrible things both to each other and to other cultures. Like when we wiped out the Indians and then spent the entire history of our country dicking them over. But we try.
Coming back around. Yes universal human rights are a form of cultural imperialism. This is especially true when they become Universal Human Rights, all codified and specific. It is definitely a form of cultural imperialism when we impose the capitalized version of the word on a culture that doesn’t want it or maybe a culture who isn’t ready for them. However, the lower case version of the word. The more flexible one is a noble endevour. One that is worth being spread and protected. It is something that lies within the shadow of the upper case version of the word. SO. While it is cultural imperialism who is to say that cultural imperialism is all bad? It has its bad sides to be sure. In many of the ways it has been spread over the course of our human history it has been very bad. Yet the idea that there is a certain minimum amount of freedoms that everyone should have. I can get behind that. I can also get behind not resting until everyone has these rights. What we need to learn is to not drag all the bad, vicious parts of cultural imperialism along for the ride. This is much harder. It might even be impossible because to many people are far to willing to comprimise the universal rights of others and when that happens that’s when problems crop up. Still it is something we can offer to the world. Oh well I am done now.

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