In a week which has seen all kinds of positive and negative comment about bishops, the Pope and Human Rights legislation stumbling through the House of Lords just now, I think we need to stand back and consider what human rights are and what they aren’t.
Civilised people need to have some way of measuring standards of behaviour that translates across culture from one context to another, indicating possible abuse. Clear Human Rights legislation is a good way for civil society to express some shared values, and measure where behaviour falls short. Pulling the whole ragbag of legislation from the past forty years together into a coherent whole is obviously a Good Thing Too. So far, so good.
But which Human Rights? How? More partcularly, how do you balance them? Human Rights are usually framed in terms of a Big Social Good, and this makes them seem like absolutes, which of course they can never really be.
Translating high ideals into the down and dirty world of Monday morning, where stuff happens, is an inexact science.
All Human Rights however idealistically framed, always need to be qualified, both by the constraints of reality, and other human rights. This is the nature of freedom arguments — my freedom to express who I am by practising my Euphonium is qualified by your right to a good night’s sleep. However excellent each notional right may be in the abstract, either, pushed to its logical extreme in the real world would cancel out the other.
So to current concerns. Equality and Diversity are both really good things, in the abstract. That means Discrimination and Homogenization are really bad things, in the abstract. Now try and apply that lot, and make laws to universalise the deal, and you will need to make a few cute calls. Doesn't mean it shouldn’t be done, just that it’ll be messy. Discussion along the way to deciding how to word equality legislation needs to be robust and realistic, not knee-jerk and generalised.
Every position has to be proofed against some other positive right, or the result will almost certainly be abusive.
That being the case slanging matches about whether Human Rights are a Good Thing or a Bad Thing are futile and childish. The Pope, left wing right wing, whatever, anyone has as much right as anyone else to express a serious point of view about the way the balance between Equality and Liberty looks as though it’s being struck in the UK.
The liberty of the individual to believe or not as they judge right, like the liberty of the individual to be treated fairly, are both precious things that can only be preserved if we are willing to give serous attention to working out how they relate to each other. One lot may have to swallow the uncongenial truth that the extent to which any of its people accepts any organisation’s dogma is ultimately voluntary not legally enforceable, and the other the equally uncongenial truth that illiberal liberalism is an Oxymoron.