Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Everyone is Equal (some are just more equal than others): A rumination on human rights

Conservatism is the dread fear that somewhere, somehow, someone you think is your inferior is being treated as your equal.  ~ Petr Kropotkin



I had yet another conversation recently, well, maybe "discussion" or even "argument" is a better way to put it, with someone who truly feels that recognising the rights of minority groups will take away rights from the majority. I have had this conversation many times with people online, and I struggle to understand why they feel this way.

It is, at face value, a very puzzling position. How can anyone imagine that recognising someone else's human rights will somehow take your own rights away, or even diminish them? Rights are not pie. The more people you share a pie with, the smaller each portion becomes. But rights are not pie. Rights are concepts, which contain no volume or mass and can, therefore, not be depleted.

But let's dig into it a bit. The assertion was, if everyone was guaranteed the same rights, it would cost those with privilege more to administer those newly-extended rights. A cost for which they would receive no direct benefit and, indeed, may make their own rights less valuable. You can't go saturating the market with rights, or rights will have no value at all. Except, rights are not a commodity, just as they are not pie. You cannot buy and sell human rights like you can buy or sell oil, grain, or pies.

Slavery is probably the greatest single example of the removal of human rights. Slavery enabled the buying and selling of humans and permitted these humans to be treated in the most appalling ways. The argument against abolishing slavery was primarily economic. Some were making a tidy profit in the importation and sale of slaves. Some relied on the source of unpaid labour to make their agricultural endeavours prosper. It was felt that if one region abolished slavery, they would be at a disadvantage selling their goods in competition with regions where the unpaid labour of slaves subsidised the industry.  Other arguments were raised, of course. The notion that black people could not manage on their own and the slave owners were doing them a kindness by keeping them was a particularly repugnant one. There was the fact that the Bible says nothing negative about slavery, so God must think it's OK. But, ultimately, greed was the overarching reason to want to maintain the status quo.

The thinking goes something like this: "If I give this slave human rights (or, more properly, acknowledge that this being is a person deserving of and entitled to human rights) then I will lose. I will lose my profit margin. I will have to seek employees and pay them wages. I will have to dramatically alter my management style to one that is far less efficient. I will have to work harder. Additionally, I will lose something that gives me status in my community: the number of slaves I own. I will have to put myself out to be polite, or at least not horrible, to these people. They will be putting their bums in the same seats I may want to sit in, drinking from the same water fountains, competing against me in the market, possibly even in politics. They may begin to think they can wear what they want, think what they want, say what they want, go where they want. They may even think they can marry into my people. In all these ways, I lose and they gain."

From a 2016 lens this seems a bit absurd. Or, is it? Britain abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833. The United States abolished slavery in 1865, but only after fighting one of the bloodiest wars in that country's history over this very issue. It was not until the 1960s in the United States that "Jim Crow" laws requiring or validating segregation by race were beginning to be struck down. Even today, there exist racially segregated schools and neighbourhoods. Blacks face significantly more obstacles in obtaining loans and mortgages, accessing health care and education, and are far more likely to be convicted of a crime and to receive a harsher sentence than whites. President Barack Obama has had more opposition to his initiatives than any other president, simply because he is black. As I said, there was always a fear that blacks might compete politically. And they have. And, in winning the presidency, Obama unleashed the pent-up anxiety and rage and bias of more than a few generations of white Americans. Because they feel they are losing something if a black man wins something.

Then there is the accusation that if someone different from oneself; a woman, or a person of colour, or someone from a different ethnic or religious background, attains a position of authority, they will take away from those who have traditionally held privilege to give to those who are just like themselves. So, basically, people are afraid that these other people are going to do to us what we have have been doing to them for hundreds of years. And apparently what we have been doing to everyone else is pretty crappy, because the very idea incites terror in some.

In Calgary there has been a Muslim mayor for 6 years. There has been no dismantling or looting of churches and synagogues to build up mosques. There have been no special express queues for Muslims to get transit passes and library cards. There has been no bias towards Muslim businesses or neighbourhoods. Calgary police are not enforcing Sharia Law. Naheed Nenshi is quite popular and appears to be doing a fine job for everyone. Equally. He doesn't mention his faith. It doesn't come up unless someone else raises it. As CPC MP Jason Kenney did one time when he said in an interview, "it seems to me that it's the mayor and people like him who are politicizing it", referring to the niqab debate. Nenshi responded in his usual quick-witted style on Twitter, ""People like me", eh? Let's just assume @jkenney means "thoughtful people", shall we?" This launched the hashtag #peoplelikeNenshi which quickly began to trend across Canada.

Protectionism is frequently the underlying reason for keeping others out of the human rights club. "If we let more people have the rights I enjoy, it is going to make those rights more expensive." Like providing health care to refugees, something the Harper government cancelled, saying they are "bogus" refugees just coming here to steal your healthcare dollars.

That concept, that someone is always out to take something from you, is always present in these sorts of discussions. The extreme end are those people who have multiple locks, video surveillance, and private security hired to do drive-bys to check on your place and make sure no one is taking your stuff.

You would probably be hard-pressed to find Canadians who would admit to thinking slavery is a viable and efficient economic model. You might find quite a few more Canadians who feel the market should determine what people are paid for their labour, who hate the notion of a government-mandated minimum wage. Yet, labour supply outweighing demand means that without a legal minimum wage, employers could get away with paying people far less than it costs to survive. There will always be someone even more desperate, who will take even less money because it is more than they have right now.

"But life isn't fair!" Some people say. "If you work hard you will gain success. Like me." They say. "The government (and by extension, me, the taxpayer) should not be responsible for making everyone happy from the cradle to the grave."

What people who say these things don't take into account is that not everyone starts out at the same place. If you grow up in a middle class neighbourhood, and go to middle class schools, you are not starting from the same place as someone who grows up in a remote community with a generation-long boil water advisory and rats and chronic social problems born of a history of residential school abuse and disenfranchisement and a loss of cultural identity. You are not starting from the same place as someone who was carried over borders as a young child, away from falling bombs and collapsing buildings, only to spend several years in a refugee camp where there is no school and law and order mostly rests in the hands of those with the power and strength to enforce their will. You aren't even starting in the same place as the kid who grows up in a trailer park and mom maybe drinks some and dad could get out on parole next hearing, although it's always a bit crazy when he's home...

You are not starting in the same place as someone with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or autism, or childhood cancer, or who suffers a disfiguring accident.

What if you cannot speak either of our official languages very well?

And what if you do grow up in a middle class neighbourhood but you are a member of a religion that has identifying observances; a turban, or hijab, for example? What if your name alone causes your resume to go on the "no" pile? Because some employers are reluctant to hire someone whose name might be hard to pronounce...

What if you are "different"? What if you find you have strong feelings for people of the same sex as yourself? What if you feel disconnected from the gender on your birth certificate?

What if, later in life, you have a catastrophic event or series of events in your life? A disabling mental illness? A marriage break-up? A terrible physical  illness? A down-sizing that causes you to lose your livelihood? What if these things happen to you in a constellation of misfortune? What if you lose your family or community support network and are utterly alone dealing with these things?

What if you come back from a war and you are changed, physically or mentally, by what you have endured?

Human rights encompasses all these scenarios. The right to not be treated as second-class citizens, freedom from abuse and persecution, the right to be treated like any one else under the law... The right to rent an apartment you can afford. The right to gain employment commensurate to your skills, without discrimination based on identity. The right to not be targeted by law enforcement. The right to safety and liberty of person. The right to be recognised as a Canadian with all that encompasses; health care, education, political franchise, and all the things those in higher socio-economic groups take for granted, like clean drinking water, protection by the police, equal consideration for employment, equal treatment in the courts, freedom from racial, religious, or sexual-orientation slurs and persecution, not being taken for moonlight rides by the police who are supposed to protect you, not disappearing between the cracks...

"But I worked for my money! Why should I help out all these lazy bums that expect us to take care of them?" Well, because it is easy to label people as lazy bums when you do not see the struggles they face. At a bare minimum, recognising their rights to be treated as humanely as you yourself would expect to be treated seems a no-brainer. Those of us with privilege in this society, in this world, could do with a boatload more humanity towards those who  can barely imagine being so well-treated.

Providing children with health care and dental care and water that is clean to drink should not be contentious in a country as wealthy as Canada. Providing struggling families with tools to raise their children in safety, like affordable daycare, skills training to get better jobs, parenting mentoring for those who did not have the advantage of growing up with capable parents... It is about the future, right?

We essentially slit our own throats if we deny our future, the children, all the advantages they could have in terms of health care, security, self-respect, safety...

And this country needs immigrants. Those of European descent have failed miserably in the reproduction department. We need people to be our doctors, lawyers, ditch diggers and burger flippers. We need more people and the rest of the world has more people who need a safe place to live. Sounds like a pretty equitable situation, right? But only as long as we can welcome them as equals. And that means extending the human rights we have to them. And extending the same human rights we take for granted to our own indigenous people. They will make up an ever larger portion of our population. And no one should be left behind. They are humans. Immigrants are humans. That's the cool thing about human rights. They are for every human. They are not pie. Acknowledging the human rights of another does not cut into or diminish the human rights resource.

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