In recognition of both Independence Day and Altamont’s global theme (health and human rights), I thought I’d chime in with some random musings, inspired by dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day” for 7-4-17. I was sitting on the beach when I noticed the app notification. I left the beach for this...
Inalienable is a loaded word. It's also provocative.
The principles and language in our founding documents, which many regard as sacred, have nothing to do with a divine principle or supernatural force. It’s disingenuous, misleading, agenda driven, and dangerous to say they are. These were the ideas of enlightened, heterogeneous people (many motivated by personal faith), conceived necessarily from a secular basis—precisely because of that heterogeneity. Universality was, and in discussions of rights, continues to be the goal. Clearly, universal meant one thing in the abstract and another in application. We often regard them with almost spiritual reverence, but these men were not infallible. Frederick Douglas reminds us, for example, that the day was not his; for most minorities and more than one half of the population, full investiture of inalienable rights (ironic?) under the law was still decades away. Many still lack full recognition and endowment. At this point in history, all we can do is forgive their hypocrisy. And we should praise their idealism through concerted efforts to make it the basis of reality. Battling our forefathers for their failures is both futile and misguided energy; I find myself doing this too much. I should spend my time and energy filling the gaps, working to fulfill the promise.
The secular foundations of “inalienable” rights cannot/shall not be overlooked. In a society comprising diversity in all demographics, especially religious, we must build upon secular foundations when defining principled rights that apply equally and unequivocally to all. Relying on any other ideological mechanism will leave some out—a reality that should be anathema to any profession of equality. The discussion should, as many philosophers will acknowledge, begin with the state of nature. No one asks to be born or deserves privileges endowed by birth. We don’t ask for, or even always get our preferred, gender. So, how do we create a body of rights, protections, and entitlements that disregard the luck of our generative draw and recognize our shared reality in the state of nature? How do we create a bedrock of civilization, one that crosses borders and creeds and is embraced by all it buttresses? Some children are born climbing to the level ground on which others crawl and play. It shouldn’t be this way.
“Daunting” is such a silly word as it applies to this task. Perhaps monumentally daunting? Does the qualifier communicate the enormity of the burden? Certainly, this is a great linguistic understatements. And yet, codification and implementation is terribly worthy—many would argue a pursuit that supersedes all others in society. Some of our nation’s greatest minds tackle and advocate for rights, daily. Beyond our borders, many of the greatest global minds grapple with it on a much grander scale. 1948 comes to mind, when the world, horrified by 2 world wars, sought to enshrine a body of basic, human rights . It’s a wise allocation of resources. Think about a reality in which certain fundamentals are guaranteed. Think about what we could accomplish reallocating that energy.
To define “inalienable” rights is an act that is fundamentally reflexive, humbling, and empathetic. Even though dictionary.com is ostensibly speaking to a US audience, our cultural plurality necessitates that we think globally. We are both a nation of immigrants and foreign cultures. We each arrive with our traditions packed next to our clothes. And if we are that "beacon on the hill," then we should plan as it the rights apply everywhere.
The calculus is direct. I must consider the rights to which I think I’m entitled, stripped away of excess and frivolity; and then I must ask if they apply to you, too. Whether you reside next door or 10,000 miles away. And if I don’t think you deserve a right, then it cannot apply to me. The filtering algorithm, in principle, is simple: prohibit vanity or cultural variants and allow essentials. Framers of such documents both understand this and know that an existence of bare subsistence isn’t idea--or, frankly, acceptable. So, deliberately, the language is vague, ostensibly covering the basics and welcoming an interpretation. At this point, the document becomes much more than a static list of rights and protections painted on a barn wall. It demands prose so broad that it can be regionally and culturally interpreted. This is a concession to diversity. It’s also an invitation for conflict based on cultural relativism. A young philosophy major, green and idealistic, may lament the poor treatment of population “X." Said student starts a letter writing campaign or aligns with socialjustice.org to advocate for the basic rights of “X.” In response, the elders of the group (religious, regional, ethnic, etc.) details the nature of the rights afforded to its people and traces the correlation to the the pertinent documents enumerating inalienable rights. It also argues, justly according to its mores, moments in which it must defer to its own laws, even at the expense of certain rights. Unsatisfactory to the activist but sufficiently rationalized, we’re left at an impasse. In the absence of a divine scribe universally accepted, lofty yet skeletal prose will have to do. In the international sphere, we must allow sovereignties to add their own nuanced flesh. Each nation is unique; western individualism is viewed as a crude vulgarity to many. In our own nation, we must start from a humanist standpoint; otherwise, inevitably, we'll be creating bylaws to an exclusive club.
And we must be consistent. If we value the rights here, we must value them everywhere. We cannot impose our values on other nations. We can encourage or incentivize. But we cannot manipulate foreign populations to achieve our ends. We’re in the midst of allegations of election meddling by a foreign entity, which we deem abhorrent—a threat to both the legitimacy of the outcome and a bedrock of our democracy. Yet we have a history of similar interventions, of manipulation, in other nations. Such postures undermine the equity we’ve established in our establishment and administration of rights. It affects our international reputation. It destabilizes alliances, current and future, when we’re deemed duplicitous.
Our conundrum is a belief that we stand for something truly universal. For this to resonate, we cannot retreat from global matters. This post, inspired by language in our system, has wandered into the international sphere. But that seems both OK and inevitable. We must be present, willing to partner, and averse to notions of individual winners and losers, which makes hypocrites of us all. Game theory tells us that cooperation is the most effective mechanism to progress and stability.
Our forebears were real people, full of flaw and virtue. Rather than focusing on context and precedent, I choose to focus on the spirit of the ideals. Dictionary.com defines Inalienable as “not transferable to another or not capable of being taken away or denied; not alienable.” By analogy, i'm born with my lungs; you can't arbitrarily take them from me. Seems like in the context of rights, inalienable should be preceded by universal.
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