Does putting rights before responsibilities pose an impediment to development as well as a grass-roots danger?
Jyoti Guptara, GCSP’s novelist-in-residence, examines the disconnect between rights rhetoric at an international level and the way people perceive and interpret them, and argues that culture is king when it comes to human security.
Inscribed over an arched entrance to the Central Secretariat of Lutyens’ Delhi is a quote by British writer Charles Caleb Colton: “Liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” Is this simply imperialist rhetoric, or are we, in light of current global affairs, obliged to ask: can — must — liberty be earned?
The very question can offend postmodern sensibilities. Surely liberty is a ‘natural’ right, ever stolen by opportunistic oppressors. But with security being the exception rather than the norm for most people past and present, and disappointment fresh with our inability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, clearly it isn’t enough to talk about rights. Indeed, what if focusing excessively on rights, in speech and practice, is precisely what prevents them from being realised?
Rather than decrying abuses, could we approach the issue from the other side and, instead, inspire responsibility? I would like to suggest returning to the foundational and politically incorrect question of what qualifies a people for liberty. What ultimately provides the social basis for stability and security? — considering it here briefly in relation to the most basic building block of society, the family, through the lens of gender relations.
When asked how to achieve fulfilment of universal rights, ‘education’ tends to win most popularity contests. Can, however, education provide the social basis for security, when reportedly one in five women in American colleges are sexually assaulted? Six months ago, sexual violence at top universities reached a new low when fraternity members vocally defended and even promoted the existing rape culture at Yale. Evidently, intelligence and academic success alone do not qualify you to exercise liberty.
How, then, is focusing on rights counterproductive? Meta-narrative and confirmation bias would be the answer. When Yale students chanted “No means yes, yes means anal”, they were invoking a perverted sense of their ‘rights’. If a Darwinist narrative teaches men that to be masculine is to be a predator, should we be surprised if they begin to behave accordingly, hunting to meet perceived ‘needs’ with the self-justification of ‘natural law’? Beginning the discussion with rights and letting responsibility play second fiddle produces a culture of entitlement.
If we cannot, in the world’s safest countries, guarantee security even to privileged women studying in supposedly refined circles, surely something has gone wrong?
If we cannot, in the world’s safest countries, guarantee security even to privileged women studying in supposedly refined circles, surely something has gone wrong? What can we expect of such men when they graduate from abusing their own relative powerlessness at universities and get into positions of substantial power in corporations, governments and the military?
What can be done to undo a culture that thinks “I should be concerned primarily about my own might, which guarantees my own (perceived) rights” — subjectively defined, possibly over the legitimate rights of others? It can only be achieved by building, from the roots, a fresh culture of responsibility. How is this achieved? By replacing destructive beliefs: the ideas that rule the mind, and the values which shape action.
I once had the privilege of speaking with Cherie Blair at a dinner. While I commended the work of her Foundation for Women, I asked where empowering women entrepreneurs left their alcoholic, ignorant men. From the sort of rights’ perspective that has become normative in our society, Mrs Blair rebutted correctly to the gist of: Who cares?
The problem cannot be resolved, like a change of clothes, at the level of replacing one set of rights with another. Two worldviews are at war. The universally recognised human rights as applied to women come up against the local reality, in this case the perceived “rights of a man” to be served in traditional society. Perhaps so little progress is made because we are pitting one understanding of rights against another, effectively leaving us with a shouting competition?
Transformation agents typically target the victims, when the necessary transformation must take place within the perpetrators, who are after all causing the trouble. Inculcating a vague and uninspired sense of “responsibility to respect others’ rights” is powerless to turn an aggressor into an ally. Nor can we appeal to reason; conflicts are rarely solved on the basis of rationality. We need a shift in perceived identity — an alternate worldview. We need to tap into and redirect emotions.
What if rights fail to tap the right emotions? Rights by nature have to do with the individual. And so rights-based thinking, for better and worse, inevitably fosters individualism. This in turn can lead to self-groupings for advantage and, where that isn’t possible, to fatalism and passivity.
While in the case of negative rights there are real victims and perpetrators, unfulfilled positive rights often foster hostility towards an imagined perpetrator, when in fact there is merely the absence of an unassigned saviour. Without an already instilled appreciation for the nuances surrounding such definitions, the very vocabulary of ‘rights’ leaves us at the passive level of non-infringement in the case of negative rights, and of self-victimisation in the case of positive rights. (Rights are something others owe me. If my rights aren’t delivered, I’m a victim — and there must be a perpetrator.) Entitlement turns to resentment and revenge.
Responsibility, on the other hand, is other-centric and proactive. It reframes the conversation in a positive light, issuing a call-to-arms. Rather than trying to re-educate, therefore, we must circumvent the mind and attempt a “change of heart”. This could actually be good news, because education is expensive, and stories are free. We need not send problematic segments of society to more sophisticated schools. We need only sell them a story that inspires a shift of allegiance.
To posit a responsibility rather than rights-based approach, let us try adopting the meta-narrative that Darwinism replaced: that of humanity tending a garden. In Eden, humans are gardeners surrounded by budding beauty, which they nurture and protect. A hunter, on the other hand, has no responsibility to the wilds. He takes what he can find. While a hunter uses his power to destroy prey (rape), a gardener uses his tools to tend (respect). These are two diametrically opposed attitudes towards the use of power. Applied to gender relations, what if our cultural meta-narrative reframed the notion of masculinity from predator to protector?
This concept of responsible masculinity empowers rather than emasculates men, who will be more likely to themselves empower rather than violate others. For the space of this piece, we have looked at gender relations, but such a positive-proactive shift in identity is equally relevant to other issues. Our alternate meta-narrative is as needed in developed and developing countries, and could be applied, say, to solving the problem of underperforming boys in school (a precursor for juvenile delinquency and crime).
Could it be that every state’s most strategic responsibility is to nurture its people’s capacity for liberty?
When this root condition for human security is unmet, any amount of ‘security’ remains an exercise in fighting symptoms, and must over the long haul constitute a losing battle.
Only a people who self-govern can be peacefully governed. When self-control is lost, control must be imposed by force. In an age of technology and terror, antagonistic individuals and rebellious minorities pose a disproportionately larger security threat than ever before. Does responsibility-based thinking have the potential to co-opt rather than sideline victim-perpetrators?
If so, at a time when it is of paramount importance to address security at a human level, what should policymakers be doing to diminish resentment and foster responsibility on a personal level?