Wednesday, August 02, 2006

NogaNote

Time to take a respite from following the war in Lebanon. Isn't it so much more pleasant and rewarding to think about the theory of rights and love? Things get so muddied and complicated when theory is tested by reality. In theory the best sentiments, the most ethical principles can be applied with relative ease. It all makes so much sense. How can anyone disagree with such a noble document as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It was redacted in the aftermath of the Holocaust and its aim was to ensure the famous "Never again" cry that reverberated throughout Europe and the rest of the world when the extent of the century's tremendum was revealed. Yet today this precious document is being used as a weapon in the demonization of a small embattled country facing genocidal organizations and an indifferent world.

Michael Ignatieff, in his book “Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry” looks at the depreciation of the term “human rights”l:

“Global human rights consciousness, moreover, does not necessarily imply that the groups defending human rights actually believe the same things. Many of these NGO’s espouse the universalist language of human rights but actually use it to defend highly particularist causes: the rights of particular national groups or minorities or classes or persons… The problem is that particularism conflicts with universalism at the point at which one’s commitment to a group leads one to countenance human rights violations towards another group.”

Ignatieff is claiming here that a noble term which was supposed to uphold an ideal of universal justice, the kind that safeguards the equity and inviolability of all human beings, has been devalued by different interest groups to the point where it is nearly worthless. Politicization of an ethical principle can only lead to the kind of confused, dislocated application of the term “Human rights”, where some NGO’s use it to justify their support of terrorist activities.


Rights begin where love ends


“Judgement

She: I had decided to divorce Jove before he took a bite out of me.
Me: Will you stop it? He could have killed you.
She; Victim or volunteer?
Me: he lied to you.
She: He is a liar.
Me: And that forgives him?
She: I forgive him.
Me: What?
She: And I forgive you.
Me: I don’t understand.
She: Shouldn’t I forgive the woman who first took my husband and then took his wife?
Me: You took me. Both of you.
She: Victim or volunteer?
Me: Accomplice? Rights begin where love ends. Shall we argue over who is the most to blame?
Me; he could have killed you.
She: this year, last year, any year. I am the one who has to say ‘Stop’.”


(From Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson)


Love is a primal surge, that makes us aware of the loved other in the most caring and compassionate way. The loved other's well-being, happiness, most directly impact our own well-being and happiness. If they are happy, we are happy. If they are miserable, we cannot be happy. But how many "others" can we love in this way? We cannot love all others, strangers, distant peoples, as we do our dearest and nearest.

So how do we get to form this moral component in our identity that we call responsibility?
Viktor Frankel says, "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lays our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." The awareness of that space, that split second before we respond to a certain stimulus, this is where the nexus of responsibility is located. The stimulus is in the past, already, as we traverse the space towards our response, we can choose: we can turn back and rage at the past, the immortal, unchangeable past, or look ahead towards the future which our decisions, our choice how to respond will directly affect. That is the moment of response that will determine how we grasp our responsibly in life. Good choices are premised on an ability to master the unique past, which has formed our present angst.With maturation, comes responsibility

Martha Nussbaum says:

“I do not go about fearing any and every catastrophe anywhere in the world, nor (so it seems) do I fear any and every catastrophe that I know to be bad in important ways. What inspires fear is the thought of damages impending that cut to the heart of my own cherished relationships and projects. What inspires grief is the death of someone beloved, someone who has been an important part of one’s own life. This does not mean that the emotions view these objects simply as tools or instruments of the agent’s own satisfaction: they may be invested with intrinsic worth or value. They may be loved for their own sake, and their good sought for its own sake . . .. [Nonetheless], the emotions are in this sense localized: they take their stand in my own life, and focus on the transition between light and darkness there, rather than on the general distribution of light and darkness in the universe as a whole.”

That's why "rights” exist. A person's, any person’s, right to happiness, safety and physical well-being cannot be dependent on our capacity to love him/her. When we no longer speak the language of love, we need automatically to switch to the language of rights. This is where our role as responsible agents kicks in. Rights vis a vis responsibility follow a different matrix than prescribed and described by Frankel. In this conundrum, the stimulus is absent. A stranger who suffers in a far away land or in some other city, unbeknownst to us, cannot stimulate any response. The singularity of individual responsibility, articulated in Frankel’s formula, couldn’t be applied directly to strangers who have no claim over our emotional attachments. The stimulus of emotions is missing. Something else must substitute for that powerful incentive to act responsibly and benevolently and that something has been defined as Rights.

The articulation of human rights consolidates a union of opposites, between love and indifference. Though the result is a glittering, transcendent moment, we shouldn’t forget that it also required annihilation, of love as the loftiest, most universal value.[1]

Rights begin where love ends


[1] This thought was formulated by an erstwhile friend, a poet from Seattle, in an on line conversation.

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