FUCKING DEMOCRATIZATION AND HUMAN RIGHTS

(For Google, this is not a pornographic site. Sorry, what did you expect!)

The London riots restirred thoughts that had been percolating slowly in my brain since last year when I replied to a begging letter from an old alma mater for donations to a Masters Degree on Human Rights.

I was pleased when I first saw the letter and got out a cheque book but, as I read further, I saw, embedded in the title of the degree, the word “Democratization”. Much inflamed, I replied to the venerable institution of academic research and freedom, suggesting that in my view the two concepts were not inextricably joined at the hip, for example among other things, there were frequent examples of disregard of human rights in most democracies. To soften this diatribe I did enclose a small donation.

However my remarks bore no fruit as I received a letter thanking me for my support of “human rights and democratization”. I would have thought that at a University, the part time assistant to the undersecretary to the fund raiser would have had enough education to have been able to add a PS to the standard acknowledgement by the Dean saying at least, “the matter you have raised is, of course, considered during the course of the degree.” I then looked up several academic articles on the question and found they almost all assumed a nexus between Human Rights and Democracy. I still remained unconvinced and was astonished at the almost unquestioning ties the few academics I read quite facilely made between the two.

Walking on the beach with both the London riots and a TV program I had just seen in the recesses of my mind, I realised that separating myself from quasi academic trains of thought about these issues may help, for it appeared that both the context and juxta positioning of words may be causing odd conclusions.

I went back to the drawing board and read a few more articles and was reassured that this topic was in fact being dealt with by many compassionate thinkers some of whom I was now reading. But to me, a mere newcomer to this topic (although I have absorbed quite a lot of information on human rights especially as far as children are concerned) the explanations of their necessary nexus still did not resonate. I saw acknowledgement that some human rights had been achieved in some non-democracies (unless you count the right to vote) and had not been achieved completely in many democracies (e.g. if you count the right to live). That the notion of human rights must be broadened and the notion of democracy must be limited, for example to “substantive democracy”, for this nexus to take place is implicit for some theorists and explicitly acknowledged by others.

From my simplistic viewpoint, human rights are axiomatic. We are all born into the world with access to the same air and earth. What follows next is somewhat of a lottery depending as to where and when we are born, into what families, what social group and with what genetic makeup. In an ideal situation each person would have equal opportunities for life and indeed should have a right to such. It is hard to see how this will ever happen but we must continue to aspire to this end. (And this is where academic study is essential.) However when we look at the different expectations of human rights by the very people who are in these very different situations we find few have read or know the difference between the UDHR and the question as to how they relate to their individual environments. Simply put, am I entitled to as many cups of rice as my neighbour or as big a plasma screen? If not why not?

But whenever we are born and whatever our situation we are faced with some sort of limited choice. Do we give up some of our individual rights in order to be part of a community, that is to enter into a social contract of some sort? We may have very little choice about what that community is and it may or may not be a democratic one. Though this may often be a rather hollow choice nevertheless it is a choice. If we have rights that follow from being part of a community, such as for example protection and trading, what responsibilities, therefore, do we assume in this community?

If we do not accept the idea of a social contract we cannot accept the notion of a democracy. We cannot do what we do in the nature of such things such as law enforcement or compulsory education. In summary, if there is no social contract we cannot constrain the basic human right to self determination.

If we do accept the idea of a social contract then we must accept the human right to a choice, and that may be to a choice other than democracy.

If representative democracy is not merely accepted as one very positive alternative but prosthelytized as the only solution we do a great number of disservices. One of those is to the disaffected in a democratic country who are concerned about their apparent lack of rights and who are also watching support for riots in countries where regime changes to democracies is being actively promulgated. This possibly was a contributing factor to the recent London riots, exposure on international TV to other riots, a feeling of inequality and an intangible loss of faith in the system in place, which happened to be democracy. When people, used to terms such as “open government”, “public participation” and “equality” look around them and feel helpless that others are in a much better situation than are they, they feel their own rights have been eroded. Without the bolstering of individual rights, the concept of individual responsibility can also become meaningless as was seen.

Representative democracy, despite the encouragement of positive sounding words such as liberalism and equality, is a deteriorated concept in many countries, especially those following a party system and, within this group, particularly those following a predominately two party Westminster type system. Accessibility to representation is now almost notional as many are left feeling unrepresented by the prevailing choices. This gives rise to more generalisations such as “elitism” on the one hand and “mob rule” on the other with the old Socratic concepts of individual “conscience” votes all but gone.  Many might allege representative democracy is coming closer to an oligarchy in some countries. I personally think democracy is the best system we have had so far, but if we think we have a perfect system and concentrate on promulgating only that, then we are doomed never to improve.

And meanwhile what of human rights? We must fight for everyone’s individual rights but again not impose our own individual values (and what they are couched in – our own particular concept laden language) on others. If human rights include the notion of self determination and individualism, democracy can not be a prescriptive necessity and social contracts of other types must be acknowledged.

But I am also using value laden words and are my values the same as those of the academics who conclude that human rights can only fully be ensured in a representative democratic system? Are they the values of those who ask for change?

The audience in an Australian TV program,  Q&A, were recently exposed to a lovely little poem read by a well known Australian actor  who has been a presenter of a children’s program. It was directed to parents of young children who had sleep difficulties and included the refrain, “Go the fuck to sleep”. The conceptualisation of the use of “fuck” and children together appalled some on the panel and in the audience who were not prepared to excuse this by looking at the actual meaning and intent of the poem. Others differed from this view considering the poem was appropriate for a parental audience. Yet others consider that children, in this modern world, can cope with the concept of the word “fuck” and also its gerund “fucking” when used as an intensive. It is obviously an emotive word that says a lot to some people (in a negative way). To others, like myself, it seems hard to see how a mere word can have a really bad effect on anyone without thoroughly considering what meaning it implies to the listener or reader even if directed at children.

In the same way positive words such as liberalism, equality and free will are not going to, of themselves, make connections between representative democracy and human rights. It depends on how they are used, heard and applied.

Words are what help us form our concepts but mere words cannot just become the concepts in themselves. The people deserve much more.

 

 

 

 

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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One Response to FUCKING DEMOCRATIZATION AND HUMAN RIGHTS

  1. That’s a fine piece, beautifully written. Much to say on it but it’s past my bedtime. I’ll be back. Just letting you know you have an audience – with a vocabulary of 801 words, at least. I tend to avoid some words now in vogue, because they’re so bloody tedious!

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