10 January 2010

The plank in my own eye...

[Oh dear ... this has turned out to be one of those sickeningly preachy ones, I'm afraid. I've dithered over deleting it, but I do believe every word of it ... so, here it is for better or worse.]

In yesterday's post ("Same intersection, different streets"), Thinking through my fingers confronts a morally and philosophically knotty problem: where to draw the line between asserting and defending different human rights, which they conflict with one another. I don't have any answers in this area; but it's certainly important to strive for them.

It's a staple of philosophy 101 that the concept of a "human right" can have no objectively absolute validity; human rights are what we humans (or a subject of us) agree, at any particular time, to assert and/or confer ... and defend. Their definition changes with time and geography and culture. That doesn't mean that I deny their importance; on the contrary, I very passionately assert it. It does mean that they cannot ever be taken for granted.

One crucial pitfall, it seems to me, is confusing individuals, societies, religions or states with each other. Societies and states are not moral, regardless of their religious and/or political philosophies. They are, at best, amoral. It is individuals who make moral choices, and a society is simply the sum total of all moral choices made by the individuals within it.

A question picked up and offered by TTMF from another source is:

If I'm demanding that Muslims respect our right to freedom of expression, do they have a right to demand that I respect their debasement of women – which is often brutal and disgusting, especially those who've been raped. Is my argument that these extreme attitudes are perversions of the Holy Quran good enough?

That illustrates the confusion. "Muslims" (or "Christians", or...) do not demand or respond to demands: individuals do. I do firmly and completely believe that debasement of women (like the debasement of anyone) is abhorrent. I do firmly and completely believe that debasement of the Quran to support such abuse is abhorrent ... as are the many debasements of the Bible by Christian groups too numerous to mention. But to condemn Moslems (or Christians) en bloc, because their beliefs are perverted by some, is simply a perversion in its turn: a new excuse to demonise the other, rather than take responsibility for confronting the wrong.

Individually, despite laws designed to prevent it, many women in western secular Christian societies are often oppressed by the relationships within which they live, and by the failure of society, state or individuals to do anything effective about it. Ask any woman in an abusive relationship, or in a refuge. (And it works the other way, too; I'm trying to keep this manageable, but battered men in abusive relationships are equally badly served by "our" much vaunted human rights.) When did you (or I) last personally act to end or alleviate the misery of an abused spouse, partner or child?

I regard the US habit of electrocuting or otherwise judicially murdering criminals to be bestial ... but its not that long since Britain and Ireland did the same, so I'm throwing no stones. It's not that long since women were disenfranchised in the western liberal democracies either. We have short memories – and we all have a convenient knack for ignoring how far we fall short of our own ideals, too.

Three decades ago, in the context of the cold war, Chomsky and Herman pointed out that it is easy and cheap to criticise the sins of our enemies, much less so to point out the same defects in our friends or ourselves. It's a point which remains just as true now. I don't suggest that we should ignore denial of human rights in other societies until we have eradicated them from our own; but we are not likely to be successful there unless we are equally (and simultaneously) clear eyed here.

Wherever a human being is treated in a way which you or I would not wish to be treated ourselves, and we do not protest or act, you or I are guilty and complicit. It's no use blaming Islam (or Christianity, or Nazism, or Communism, or...): blame the person or persons who commit the crime and the person or persons (that's you, and me) who let it happen – anywhere. If you know a Moslem, or a Christian, or an Atheist, don't judge her/him by that label: ask yourself whether s/he or he as an individual is acting in a way that you consider moral. Then ask yourself, honestly and without pity, if you are behaving better. Then you can enter into a dialogue which deals with reality. Confront that person's actions, or make them a model for confronting your own, or point out your common failings, or seeking to build outward upon your shared concern for moral action, but don't make things worse by the cheap and shoddy sideways shuffle of evil onto a label.

Demonising the other simply creates more evil, not less. I offer you two tangential quotations which, it seems to me, have relevance here and gave me pause for fruitful thought.

The first is from a song, Prime time, by Don McLean in the 1970s:

We had to burn the city 'cause they wouldn't agree
That things go better with democracy!

The other was written yesterday, an hour or so before TTMF's post, by Simon of Simon says:

...Chagall's crucifixes ... refuse to let me off the hook as a viewer. And yet they do so with a loving touch.

  • Noam Chomsky and Edward.S Herman, The Washington connection and Third World fascism. 1979, Boston: South End Press. 0896080919 and 0896080900

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