Wed, Dec 12, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Human rights good for the young

By Herbert Hanreich

A remarkable UN-sponsored publication is the Human Development Report 2004, which focused on various aspects of culture. Such reports are annually commissioned by the UN Development Programme, inviting eminent academics to present their views on human progress in various fields at a global level.

The first chapter of the 2004 edition, written by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, is entitled “Cultural liberty and human development.”

The author embraces cultural diversity, but problematizes its concept if taken as a value in its own: Some cultural practices, as we know, can be — and sometimes are — quite nasty. Any culture therefore “must be assessed for what it does to the lives and freedoms of the people involved,” Sen wrote.

Moreover, cultural practices must not restrict the right of individuals “to choose how they would live and to consider alternative lifestyles” — cultural liberty trumps cultural diversity.

Cultural liberty is a human right. It stipulates the right of adults to freely choose one’s cultural expression for all human beings. Unfortunately, fundamental human rights worldwide are curbed not only for political, but also for cultural purposes. Invoking “culture” can easily turn into a suppressive tool for nasty political or personal ends that benefit those with power.

China is one of the leading countries with such a record as its present leader considers the Chinese Communist Party as “loyal inheritor and promoter of China’s outstanding traditional culture” that, among others, defies Western individualism, blending totalitarian communism with authoritarian Confucianism as the perfect cocktail for the oppression of universal civic rights.

A recent example of this dubious cocktail is the introduction of a social credit system by which authorities are entitled to deprive citizens of basic (human) rights, such as access to public services or choosing one’s profession if they morally or socially “misbehave.”

Obviously, they hope that this Orwellian political measure will turn China’s citizenry into authentic Huxleyan Brave New World residents — the ultimate educational goal, as it seems, of the so-called Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) Thought.

The private industry follows suit: Some companies in China — I am not making this up — fine their employees for not making a prescribed number of steps that would supposedly benefit their health. That is a good idea, you might think, but only if you also think that the production of what Huxley calls the “Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons” — bioengineered creatures conditioned to develop a positive attitude toward their allocated social role — is also a good idea.

Political systems are able to impose such moral prescriptions only within paternalistic cultures where people are used to being permanently guided by someone else whose authority must not be challenged: politically by governments, educationally by teachers, economically by bosses and socially by parents.

Human rights have a different political and cultural agenda. Their basic provisions can be found in the most important human rights document in modern history, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on Dec. 10, 1948, which is now commemorated annually as Human Rights Day.

It stipulates rights that individuals have vis-a-vis state authorities, the “right to equal access to public service in his country” being one of them (Art. 21, 2), the “right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community” (Art. 27, 1) being another.

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