On this, the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I thought I would take a moment and discuss human rights, now that there are so many people who are more than willing to take your rights so they can enforce theirs.
Introduced on 10 December 1948 at Palais de Chaillot, France, the Declaration provides 30 Articles which are intended to represent a global expression of the rights of all people. It is, quite appropriately, considered to be the most translated document in existence. A sampling of the Articles:
- Article 1
- All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- Article 2
- Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
- Article 3
- Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
The following underscore the importance of the appropriate application of law:
- Article 11
- Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
- No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
This one, in particular, is relevant to our purpose today:
- Article 12
- No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
These, as well:
- Article 18
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
- Article 19
- Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
There are, of course, more Articles; they may, depending on the person and their circumstances, seem more or less relevant to the individual, however, they are not something we should take for granted. Just one example would be Article 21, which gives us the right to participate in the governing of our country, either directly or through elected representatives. With voter turnout in Canada at an all-time low, and with the leader of a minority government acting as if he alone knows best how to run the country, and who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends, I would argue that we have lost sight of the past, present and (without a doubt) future struggles to secure and maintain this right – remember that the other side of rights are duties, and we owe it to our fellow citizens, and ourselves, to participate in the democratic process.
What I am primarily here to discuss is the latest threat by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., home of the seriously delusional Fred Phelps and his ilk, and their threat to picket a high school in Uxbridge Ontario to protest the schools’ presentation of The Laramie Project, a production that depicts the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Shepard, as you may recall, was a young student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten and tortured because he was gay.
All the previous threats to cross the border and spew their old-time hatred have come to nothing, however,
Mr. Phelps’s daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, says this time will be different. Five women and one man say they are preparing to drive the 1,760 kilometres to reach Uxbridge, northeast of Toronto, to raise placards that read “God Hates Canada,” “Fear God” and “Hell is real, ask Matt.”
Apart from the sickening assertion of moral superiority, and the ongoing necessity to struggle against this type of vile exploitation of tragedy in various forms, this demonstrates the fundamental (excuse me) problem I have with evangelical christians, or extremist muslims, or fanatical adherents of any religion. I must point out that I personally could give a rat’s ass what someone believes, as long as they keep it to themselves.
But that’s the issue, isn’t it? They refuse to keep it to themselves because of the basic tenet of their belief system, whether explicit or implicit: We are right, only we know the true word of god, and you are flawed for not recognizing it. What this entails is the removal of basic human rights and a return to some mythical past time where all people feared the lord and obeyed authority without question. Never mind that that type of ideological slavery has never existed in the pure form they advertise (just ask Galileo), but as the ones who came to the ‘right’ conclusion first, and as the ones willing to travel almost 2,000 miles to enlighten us (don’t go to any trouble on my account), they will ultimately be the ones who assume that authority. Which does not bode well for those of us who like to think or have the freedom to associate as they choose and express dissent when confronted with injustice; no, injustice will be the order of the day, because that’s what god wants! Without his favorites to whom he speaks, god would pass out advice all willy-nilly and people could even, perhaps, decide for themselves whether or not they would listen!
For those of you who read yesterday’s post about free speech, it may seem as though I am advocating the silencing of ideas that I consider false: not at all, in fact I support their right to believe whatever they want. What I don’t support is the violation of Articles 12, 18 and 19 above, which allow everyone, absolutely everyone, to think freely and live their lives according to their consciences – what they do not do is provide the right for individuals or groups to provoke shame, embarassment or ridicule, or to block, censor or silence others based on their perceived failure to heed a fictional revelation. The United Nations has granted them the right to their beliefs, but they have also provided us with the fundamental right to ignore them – not to silence or bar them, but to choose to ignore them.
My first instinct in cases like this is to think, “These people should be barred from entering Canada!” Probably completely understandable from a person of my perspective. However, that instinct is incorrect, upon reflection – as long as they play by the rules, and respect the beliefs and dignity of others, crossing the border shouldn’t be a problem.
However, I’m not naive enough to blindly hope that everyone recognizes or respects the Declaration. What is inevitable is that these crusaders will refuse to abide by the agreed-upon rules of society, and they will attempt to jam their beliefs whole down our throats – then, my friends, we are within our rights to collectively gag and vomit these zealots back to where they came from.
Forcing one’s beliefs onto others is a violation of our most cherished human rights. The ability to intelligently discuss and to motivate others to think about their beliefs is a reinforcement of those rights in practice. As is said in medicine, the most basic assumption should be first, do no harm. Picketing a play and insisting that your god hates us because of what you believe in is harmful on many levels, and an expression of hatred and violence, not an offer of advice or guidance.
As a movement, as a provider of purpose and happiness, religion is a failed experiment that should have been left behind among the mud huts of the Middle Eastern desert. As such, I am in agreement with Richard Dawkins, who asserts that religion has captured for itself a comfortable and undeserved public niche, safe from criticism. On the day we celebrate human rights, let’s add atheists to the list of individuals whose rights of non-belief should not be criticized, or, in the interests of consistency, let’s open everything to question. It is the blind adherence to beliefs and archaic worldviews that have led to war, atrocity and slaughter, not to mention the current financial mess. Everything is open to question and debate, to fact, counter-fact and argument, as long as we can do so without infringing on the rights of others. Only on a level playing field can we possibly uncover and nurture the best qualities of humanity.
We either move forward together with respect and dignity, or we stagnate and degenerate into class and religious warfare.
We have the right to choose, we have the responsibility to choose wisely.