Saturday 6 February 2010

Human Rights Relativity

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.


Vinaigrette Girl said...

The Pope making comments about general principles or morality is one thing; the same guy claiming victim status for Christians - sorry, Roman Catholics, the rest of us not quite being the ticket - and commenting about specific legislation, the outcomes of which he knoweth not, because they require testing, is another matter.

In the US it used to be believed terribly sincerely that black people were made by God as inferior to whites. Many Muslims believe terribly sincerely that God made women inferior to men.

I don't think that "sincere religious belief" is in any way a good or Christian thing to apply to elements of employment law as they relate to nonreligious posts in a religious organisation. We ought not seek to discriminate against a person able to do a job solely because of what they do with their genitalia, which is what it boils down to.

So, yes, he can have an opinion, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be called on it. I think the people opposed to his point of view are doing just that.

Justin Brett said...

Thank you for a welcome dose of common sense. The shrillness of both sides on this particular issue has been giving me earache recently!

Erika Baker said...

The real difficulty I have with this concerted religious effort against the Equality Laws is the underlying thought that, if only everone were as moral and religious as we are, none of these sub standard gays would be able to work anywhere.

It is just mindblowing that people who have remained silent over Uganda turn out in force to make sure they don't have to employ a gay person.

Considering the current state of the art science, psychology and theology, this is absolutely inexcusable.

Erika Baker said...

I'm still mulling over your statement that illiberal liberalism is an oxymoron.

Isn't it true that there are some absolutes everyone in society has to agree with and live by? I cannot be so liberal to allow people to murder each other, whatever may have been acceptable in former times I can no longer be so liberal as to sanction slavery or the legal discrimination of black people.

We can be liberal only within those set parameters.
And the current question is which category homosexuality falls into.

Erika Baker said...

Thinking on...
in fact, liberalism means precisely a concerted effort to reduce the groups of people we feel we have a right to discriminate against, and to accord them the same freedom and dignity we claim for ourselves.

Tolerating discrimination is the antithesis of liberalism and the one thing that kills it.

Liberalism has to be very firm about this, as the two dangers for genuine liberalism are totalitarianism by one elevated group of people on the one extreme, and anarchy on the other.

Archbeship Anthony said...

Hi All,
Today the issue of Woman Bishops was on the News, Again. Human Rights, Women have the Same Human Rights to Promotion as the Blokes do. If we have Women who are Arch Deacons, then why not the next stage up. after the US have a least One women who is [Bishop and Primate] of course the title [Most Reverend] If God has given women that gift, who are we to say they can not have the job. What do the Clergy (and the lay people) in the Catholic Wing say to Luke Chapter 24, Matthew Chapter 28, Mark Chapter 16, and John Chapter 20 where it says that Jesus to the Women, and appeared to the men later. Is someone going to say that Jesus Didn't know that the Women would be at the tomb with out the men, I think, if anything, that Jesus Planned it deliberately to show himself the the Women when the men were not present. There was a woman judge. called Deborah, and two Books named after Woman in the Old Testament: Ruth and Esther. Also it was William the Conqueror at around 1066 who told the Archbishop of Canterbury to make some STRICT RULES - One of them being [Women could not be Priests]

Many Thanks


Steve Hayes said...

Human rights legislation is likely to be more effective if it concentrates on eliminating the bad things rather than promoting things seen to be good, especially when the "good" is derived as a back-formation of something seen as bad, and that seems to be the problem with the notion that "diversity" is somehow good in itself.

Perhaps, in order to promote diversity, cricketers should be allowed to join football teams, and to score by hitting the ball into the goal with the bat, and claiming four goals when the ball crosses the boundary. And, in the interests of diversity, any football team without at least one player on the field wielding a tennis racquet should be severely dealt with.

Erika Baker said...

the problem comes when one group of people takes it upon themselves to decide whether another group of people is good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable and what rights to allow them, and this other group of people is not given a meaningful say - and if they speak up, they called "shrill".

I will never forget a dinner at a small restaurant in Cape Town just before the first free elections.
A group of 14 white people, all middle class, educated and liberal was talking about what rights the blacks would be given, what education programmes there would be to bring them up to the same starting blocks that whites have etc.
The meal was served by black people, none of whom was ever asked their opinion.

Imagine yourself in that position. Imagine your level of frustration, possibly anger, the helplessness of being dependent on the liberal credentials of others, who despite being very liberal still believe they have a sole say in your future and what's worse, they're right because the law is on their side too. And who think that, truly, you ought to see the other point of view too and not be quite so demanding.

Swiss women felt the same when in a nail biting referendum in 1975 the men of the country decided whether they were grown up enough to be allowed to vote.

Maybe you have to be white, male and straight to have no concept about this and can just smugly ride the liberal middle ground with a feeling of superiority over those who you consider to be a little extreme, shrill, demanding, or whatever description you personally may choose.

Vinaigrette girl said...

If the logic of refusing employment to gays *because they're gay and we believe that's immoral* is taken to its logical conclusion, we wouldn't rightly or properly employ them at all, right? We could use their sexual preference to justify putting them all on the dole because it would violate *our* personal religious rights to have to "give" them equal access to jobs?

Running the risk of being described as "shrill" - a perjorative reserved for those of us Others (half the human race, when it comes to women) who reject being marginalised - here's a thought: diversity isn't an abstract good. It's a fact.

We need 32 dietary elements to exist and function as humans. We rely on an immensely diverse number of microorganisms performing an infinitely diverse series of chemical and electrical reactions which go to making up a hugely diverse physical environment. The variety of human behaviour is infinitely diverse and the human form is greatly diverse. Even biological sexual characteristics in all creatures who *have* sexual characteristics are hugely diverse, let alone the vast range of behaviours observed in non-human as well as human creatures.

So issue isn't "Is diversity good?" but rather "Diversity is. Now what?"

As @Erika Baker points out, using diversity as an excuse for discrimination isn't on.

Why is embracing diversity a concrete good ra ther than an abstract? here's one thing: I can't get up and listen to Radio Four in the morning, or go out into the world, without someone expressing the view that because I have female biological characteristics I *must be* [whatever the speaker fantasises 'women' ARE]. I am David Houlding's, or someone else's, enemy, some kind of Other, just because I have a womb.

Human rights legislation is about not Othering people to their ultimate detriment just because as people of privilege, we *can*. The sooner we start dealing honourably with the world as it is, in all its amazing diversity, the better.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for a really interesting development of the argument. VG, I think I agree he has a right to an opinion he may be called on. What interests me is that some of the arguments against conventional practice are, in fact, moral arguments, and possibly even natural law ones...
Erika, I think the paradox of having to draw a line somewhere is a very important one. In principle I'm with Milton that the expression of any words or way of life is best allowed in in an open society on the theory that given enough rope it will hang itself. How about those beyond the pale, however... Holocaust deniers? Those who deny free speech to others? Therefore there have to be limits; which we might draw in slightly different places. I think going for a "Golden Rule" based approach does provide a very cogent Christian rationale for limiting tolerance of the intolerant a bit. Steve, I think there is a lot to be said for the role of human rights legislation as an antiseptic thing in society, rather than a mechanism for promoting positive good.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Comments 8 and 9 overlapped with my last, sorry. VG, your words reminded me of an amazingly helpful (to me) article by Libby Purves in the Tablet during the Jeffrey John thing. She made exactly the point I think you do that homosexuality is a fact of life in all human societies, and therefore all responses that simply wish it away or pretend it can be wished away are deficient. Its almost a natural law argument...

Erika Baker said...

thank you for that.
There is also another facet, though, because although we may have moral objections to a wide group of people we do not all treat them the same.
Leaving aside the obvious question of whether people born gay do the same damage to society as Holocause deniers,there is no effort by Bishops to keep Holocaust deniers out of the classroom by law, in fact, the Pope has recently welcomed somebody back into the Catholic fold who has a very dubious history in terms of Holocaust denying.

There is this awful sense of disproportion between perceived crime and imposed restrictions that really cannot be justified.
Not agreeing with the morals of some members of our society is one thing, to fight tooth and nail for them to be treated as second class human beings as far as possible is quite another.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

If I cand eclare my hand a bit more in this excellent conversation, I understand the need to protect and cherish diversity by allowing liberty, but this includes the liberty of gay people not to be dumped on. The fact that some Christians don't realise how much they are dumping on gay people doesn't mean they aren't doing it, or that it should be a legally privileged activity. I don't think a religious group should be protected from employment law, except insofar as a core teaching function is involved (like nuns not having to have male monks if part of their way of life is that you don't have men in the convent — denying that would make the whle way of life untenable as a freely entered into discipline)

I'm just off to India today to follow up on some flood relief from just before Christmas and grow some school links. Confronted with Indentured labour (aka Slavery Lite) and discrimination against dalit Christians which deprives them of their affirmative action help if they are baptised, I am told people have always done it, the victims don't mind, there's nothing else to do, You can't restrict the freedom of employers to do what they want... Hot Dog. There is such a thing as justice, and God cares about it. The people who said Blacks liked being slaves, we'd been doing it for years, and slavery was in the Bible anyway were wrong, wrong, wrong. They lost the freedom to do what they'd done for years as a necessary price of finding the opportunity to be decent human beings.

These are hard choices, but I dream of a Church which stops kicking and screaming about doing justice, grows up, and takes its proper place back in the lead of moral development.

Erika Baker said...

Sorry, I forgot... the other thing is, of course, that we should compare like with like. And unless you seriously believe that gays are like paedophiles, never to be trusted because they are so compulsed that they cannot help themselves and do untold harm to those they abuse, it would be more appropriate for those who believe them to be immoral to compare being gay to being promiscuous, maybe adulterous or using porn.
Now, much as we frown upon those activities, there is no concerted campaign anywhere to block people who've had an affair from working in a secular role in the church. The church isn't breaking up over people who may or may not use pornography, no-one is trying to protect themselves against serial monogamists.

So even if I did agree that there is something iffy about being gay, I would still have to question the disproportionate response to gay people in our society.

Steve Hayes said...

Erika Baker,

I think your response to my comment was a little unfair. The people you described as "liberal" were not liberal at all.

The point is: should an orgasnisation or group that has certain moral values be compelled to employ people whose behaviour flouts those values, and who reject those values?

Should a pacifist organisation be compelled to employ militarist soldiers?

Vinaigrette girl said...

Because Ugandan parliamentarians think they know what God wants, in spite of the command to do no murder. The Pope's logic taken to its extreme is in this legislation.

Good luck in India.

Erika Baker said...

first of all, I seriously question this notion that "the church" has one single value system here. The reason we've been tearing ourselves apart over the last few years is precisely because there IS no unified value.

Second, the church is already employing a vast number of lgbt people. On the Changing Attitude blog Colin Coward today estimates that about half of the 350 priests in the Diocese of Chichester alone are gay. Whether this figure is correct or not, if you stripped the church of its gay priests, lay readers, organists, choir members etc it would have a strangely empty feel about it. So we're really only talking about honesty, aren't we.

And finally, the Equality Bill accepts that churches should be allowed to discrimminate against people in core religious roles.
But there can be no reason why an organisation that provides secular services partly financed by the taxpayers of all faiths and none should be allowed to discrimminate against a particular group of people.
The lesbian dinner lady will not slip your children pro-gay pamphlets with their chips, the gay caretaker will not daub the school walls with pro-gay slogans. The gay maths teacher is unlikely to use geometry as a vehicle to promote homosexuality.

A sense of proportion would do the church the power of good! As it is, it has sadly succeeded in becoming a laughing stock yet again. And I mind that very much.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I am sorry to have missed some of this conversation, being in India, but I think it has aired some very useful ideas and I think there is uch merit in where Erika has brought us. In the days of the old SEction 28 legislation about promoting homosexuality in schools, I saw no evidence that people are gay because they were told to be that at school, any more than that people commit suicide or become dangerous to teenagers because they have studied Romeo and Juliet at school.

I am also aware of the need for proportionality in applying human rights based legislation — the concept is fairly new in this form in UK law, but without it the whole approach becomes unenforceable as one right is played off against another.

Finally, it is a simple fact, as it seems to me, that there is no simple single view of the matter among Christians in the way there would be about the creeds or matters that are simply treated in the Scriptures.

I desperately wish that it were possible to do proper rigorous work in the Church on the theology of anthropology, gender, friendship and sexual identity. Sadly, usually the politics fouls the ground, and sets everybody against everybody else. My main comfort is that most ordinary lay Christians make a much better job of loving their neighbour as themselves than most Christian institutions. Without a proper theology around what we have learnt of human identity in the past hundred years, often, prejudice rules over a vacuum.

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