By Prakash Kona
Owing to identity-based politics, the use of the word “human” to refer to individual persons has been systematically replaced with ethnic, gender, and other choice-based terms, which rely on specific features that distinguish particular groups of people rather than a universal framework that bridges gaps between diverse groups.
This refusal to be viewed as essentially human – which insists on universality and entails truth, justice, and compassion for all people – happens despite modern technologies creating enormous spaces of interaction between peoples across national differences – albeit the nature of the communication often reproduces existing patterns of social and political behavior.
This article argues for the validity and continuing relevance of the word “human” as a term of universal binding and affiliation. Its boundaries necessarily include non-white people, women, working classes, social and sexual minorities, subaltern groups, and nameless others for whom it is a way of asserting their presence in an unequal world. The potential of the term “human” or by extension “humanity” or its avatars “human rights” or “human condition” have hardly been exhausted, and the poor and the weak continue to seek inclusion through the term “human” for their all-too-human suffering and their need to be part of a humane society.
In the book Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, Sharma (2013) mentions that in 1947, when Mahatma Gandhi was asked to give his opinion on the proposal for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), he responded by saying: “I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to life accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship to the world” (p. 43).
Two things are important here: one is that an “illiterate but wise” woman from the 19th century, who also happened to be Gandhi’s mother, understood that there are universal rights that ought to be both “deserved and preserved”; and, that these rights are inseparable from one’s obligations towards the world.
The right to life is thus rooted in the conviction with which one fulfils one’s duty as a citizen of the world and is not independent of “liberty and security of person” (UN General Assembly, 1948: Article 3); the required conditions, the most important of which is freedom from hunger and exploitation, have to be met in order for an individual to experience a truthful and meaningful existence.
The universal component of “rights” lies in the fact that certain things are not merely cultural constructions, such as a person’s sense of his/her innate dignity. No further explanation is necessary beyond a point and every person is worthy of such dignity irrespective of their external differences from others.
This is the broader context to the UDHR (UN General Assembly, 1948), which celebrates the innately human character of any and every individual person while also recognizing that culture and social relations play an important role in shaping the collective imagination of groups.
The Idea Of A Basic Humanity
At the heart of the UDHR (UN General Assembly, 1948) is an understanding that the idea of a basic humanity is common to all outside physical, cultural, and political differences. Though what constitutes the “human” or what parameters are those one may associate with human behavior could theoretically be debated, an implicit acceptance that there is indeed something called human is useful to recognize another human being as a body that is vulnerable to sickness, pain, and death, and therefore in need of empathy.
That the same body has a voice, feelings, a choice, and is able to think in terms of right and wrong is enough reason to believe in the power of persuasion, the value of education, and a humane treatment as ways of responding to one’s fellow beings. Such a perspective is directly related to the conviction that the most dreaded criminal is capable of change and hence must be viewed as a human person. Every other external difference could be worked out through an honest recognition that the other person is only “you” in another body. Thus, moral behavior and human consideration are irreplaceable and far outweigh political demands made in the name of natural justice.
Johannes Morsink (2009) in making an argument for “the inherence of human rights in the human person” (p. 8) roots his position in the moral consciousness that “each human being has inalienable dignity” (p. 9). Morsink notes that the drafters of the UDHR are reaching out to the 18th century Enlightenment period in order to present the “doctrine of inherent human rights” (p. 17), which consists of two theses: one is that “people everywhere and at all times have rights that are not man-made” (ibidem) and another is that “ordinary people in any of the world’s villages or cities can come to know in a natural manner – unaided by experts – that people everywhere have […] moral birthrights” (ibidem).
Theoretically it is possible to visualize situations where someone might not be in a position to express their individuality or selfhood in terms that are explicit to everyone else. That however is no reason for everyone else to deny the person’s moral birthright to exist on their terms, provided that the right coexists with a set of duties prescribed by the group which are not incompatible with one’s humanness.
A historical instance of the profound impact of the recognition of the inherent humanity of a person can be observed in the case of the Jewish people, whose presence in world history, according to the historian Eric Hobsbawm (2013), was at best marginal until the 18th century.
Most of world history until the late eighteenth century could be written without more than marginal reference to the Jews, except as a small people who pioneered the monotheistic world religions […]. Practically all the intellectual history of the Western world, and all that of the great cultures of the East, could be written without more than a few footnotes about the direct Jewish contribution to them […] (Hobsbawm, 2013: 77).
The marginality of Jews, as Brustein (2003) observes, was owing to groundless racial hatred that attempted to find its justification in religion:
“Christian anti-Semitism, rooted in the beliefs that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and that Jews failed to accept Christ as the Messiah, held center stage within the Christian anti-Jewish mental world until the twelfth century. Beginning in the twelfth century, religious anti-Semitism would undergo a major transformation in terms of its intensity and its incorporation of new anti-Jewish themes.” (Brustein, 2003: 52)
Blind hatred demonized the Jewish people in the most unimaginable ways possible, which included blaming them for almost everything that happened, ranging from the Black Death to “serving as agents of the Antichrist” (Brustein, 2003: 51). This kind of hatred had both social as well as state sanction owing to which the Jews “were subjected to a series of restrictions” (idem: 55) while “the Christian Church in Europe would progressively curtail the activities of the Jewish people” (ibidem).
Given this background of deliberate marginalization both by the state and civil society, it became impossible for the Jews to prove their capabilities until the arrival of the Enlightenment that emancipated them, though anti-semitism did indeed take new forms in secular Europe.
Hobsbawm (2013) notes: “It is evident that an enormous oilfield of talent was waiting to be tapped by the most admirable of all human movements, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which, among its many other beneficial achievements, brought about the emancipation of the Jews” (p. 78). The Enlightenment period that in spirit produced the UDHR also brought about the emancipation of a people leading to “progress that made it possible for Jews to make the second major contribution to world civilisation since their original invention of a tribal monotheism that gave universalist ideas to the founders of Christianity and Islam” (idem: 62).
The remarkable contribution of the Jewish people to civilization thanks to the emancipation made possible by the Enlightenment proves that people are most creative, productive, and self-reliant only when they are recognized as human beings and treated as social and political equals. In the absence of recognition and equality, marginalized individuals and groups to a great extent become inward-looking, and show no signs of being useful members of the larger world community.
Right to Universal Recognition
The spirit of the UDHR is about providing people with “the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law” (UN General Assembly, 1948: Article 6) along with being “equal before the law” as well as “entitled to equal protection against any discrimination” (UN General Assembly, 1948: Article 7).
Historically oppressed, marginalized and sidelined groups, the poor and the imporverished, immigrants, refugees, the ones who are colonized both externally and internally, individuals persecuted by governments and mafias, the subaltern and the voiceless, it is for them that the UDHR is a manifesto of hope and belief in the possibility of a future where each individual person is entitled to their humanity. The universality of the UDHR is about a context in which one is able to transcend the inevitable barriers that language and culture create between peoples in order to be able to articulate one’s humanness without in any way being prejudiced by other groups or individuals.
In essence, the UDHR is about the right to be oneself, to become oneself, and grow as an individual in ways that one has envisioned for oneself. It is about nurturing what is reasonable and good in every human being, rather than encouraging the philosophy of “man is wolf to man”, which underlies the ruthless pursuit of self-interest.
In principle, it is imperative that the issues related to what humanness means be clarified. Are questions related to human rights as old as human existence on this planet as embodied in a biological need for autonomy and freedom? Are human rights in the form of a quest for dignity and self-respect at the heart of human nature as Shakespeare demonstrates through the characters of Shylock and Caliban who voice their marginalization in the face of blatant discrimination? Or are criteria associated with human rights a milestone in the evolution of society towards a future where every other identification mark becomes relatively insignificant before one’s right to humanness? How does the UDHR, both as a goal towards a just society and a means to an end that is an honest self-realization, propose a worldview where human beings are not portrayed as greedy and selfish, but as rational and compassionate towards one another and the environment? The latent altruism in the UDHR needs to be comprehended in order to be able to appreciate the fact that the human rights’ document echoes a positive view of the human person.
The UDHR is an important step towards collective humanization: it does not mean that we all think and speak alike; it simply means we are able to appreciate and understand each other’s fears and anxieties and be willing to speak of them with respect for the personhood of those involved in the dialogue for change.
In the book The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity, Kristen Monroe (1996) deals with the question of what motivates people to help others even when it poses a great risk to their own safety. Among the extensive interviews made, one of the interviewees observes how seemingly normal people happen to dehumanize others, as ordinary as themselves, without a feeling of guilt:
You first call your victim names and take away his dignity. You restrict his nourishment, and he loses his physical ability and sometimes some of his moral values. You take away soap and water and then say the Jew stinks. And then you take their human dignity further away by putting them in situations where they even will do such things which are criminal. And then you take food away. And when they lose their beauty and health and so on, they are not human anymore. When he’s reduced to a skin-covered skeleton, you have taken away his humanity. It is much easier to kill nonhumans than humans (Monroe, 1996: 205).
It is this dehumanization that made the violence of slavery, the pogroms, genocides, and the colonialization of millions across Africa, Asia, and Latin America a reality of the modern world. As ironic as it may seem, those who committed the acts of dehumanization were normal men without the connecting thought that their victims could be as normal as themselves. What is to be noted is that the UDHR is a genuine belief in the altruism that, according to Monroe (1996), “centers on this sense of a shared humanity, a perception of self at one with all mankind” (p. 206).
The belief that each person is as deserving as all others of what nature has to offer through the collective labors of humankind makes one genuinely benevolent without a tendency towards condescension – as is sometimes characteristic of wealthy and powerful nations and people. Monroe (1996) summarizes what it means to be altruistic in the most universally acceptable sense of the term:
I would characterize it as a different way of seeing things; it certainly represents a different way of seeing the world and oneself in relation to others. Altruists have a particular perspective in which all mankind is connected through a common humanity […] a very simple but deeply felt recognition that we all share certain characteristics and are entitled to certain rights, merely by virtue of our common humanity (Monroe, 1996: 206).
Though the idea of a common humanity is a novel one, it would be inaccurate to say that historically there were no individuals who displayed such a spirit of altruism at crucial points in their lives. Azzam (2009), the biographer of Saladin, observes that at the end of his life, the sultan embraced his favorite son al-Zahir, “ran his hand over his son’s face and kissed him” (p. 242), before he gave the latter a final piece of advice:
I warn you against shedding of blood, indulging in it and making a habit of it, for blood never sleeps. I charge you to care for the hearts of your subjects and to examine their affairs […] I have only achieved what I have by coaxing people. Hold no grudge against anyone, for death spares nobody. Take care in your relations with people, for only if they are satisfied will you be forgiven […]. (Azzam, 2009: 242)
This advice is important not only because it is comes from a conqueror who, despite being one of the major actors in the brutal Crusades, managed to retain his humanity, but is also something that governments of powerful nations, majoritarian states and groups need to bear in mind in reference to how they treat weaker nations and minorities. The self-evident fact that people are mortals and are aware of it is enough reason not to endorse or indulge in the politics of murder and deceit. Machiavellian leaders and governments succeed in the real world, but their success is a short term one. In the end they will be seen for what they are, and as the barber who is mistaken for Hitler says in Charlie Chaplin’s (1940) The Great Dictator: “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.” Underlying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the promise of a world where people have a right to food, healthcare, education, and a decent life without having to give up their dignity or make compromises of a self-defeating kind.
Azzam, A. R. (2009). Saladin. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.
Brustein, William I. (2003). Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust. Cambridge: CUP.
Chaplin. C. (1940). The final speech from The Great Dictator. Retrieved from: https://www. charliechaplin.com/en/articles/29-the-finalspeech-from-the-great-dictator
Hobsbawm, E. (2013). Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: The New Press.
Monroe, K. R. (1996).The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Morsink, J. (2009). Inherent Human Rights: Philosophical Roots of the Universal Declaration. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Sharma, A. (2013). Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press.
UN General Assembly. (1948). “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (A/RES/217 (III) A). Paris. Retrieved from: http:// www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/