The other day, I was browsing around one of my favorite used book stores. It had been far too long since I had been there and I spent a good hour or so weaving my way through the shelves, breathing in the smell of printed paper. As I was purchasing my books, I became engaged in a lively conversation with one of the workers. We chatted on about politics, equality, authors and, eventually, he asked a question I hear often. “How did you become interested in human rights?” While I’m used to the question being asked of me, I’m always a little surprised people consider it a unique interest. Are we not all human? Do we not all deserve our human rights?
My answer is simple; I was greatly interested in human rights before I ever knew the term or attempted to memorize The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (there was a time where I could list them all). My interest started when I was a young child, suffering the wrath of bullies and falling asleep each night in tears.
Before I developed hate as a defense mechanism against the ever-increasing assaults of humiliation, I felt a sort of desperate compassion. I had this childhood dream that I could somehow absorb all the sadness of the world. Through my tears, I would tell myself that no one deserved to feel as devastated as I did. I was prepared to absorb all the sadness so the world could be happy.
I soon discovered the two realities that made that wish impossible. Firstly, no person, no matter how emotionally stable (not that I was), could carry the weight of all the sadness in the world. Second, the older I got the more I saw people being treated far worse than I ever had. Children kicked out of their homes, simply for identifying as a different gender, being a different sexuality or believing in a different religion. There was a girl in my high school whose parents had basically disowned her. While I believe she still lived in their home, they ignored her. There were a few other things going wrong in her life and she eventually killed herself. Why should that ever happen to someone? How can a parent so completely abandon their own child for being different?
And so I became interested in human rights, not because I knew anything about Gandhi, Martian Luther King, Jr. or the United Nations, but because I knew people deserved love and dignity no matter who they were. They deserved it just for being human.
You might say that some deserve less than their human rights, but I would disagree. Our rights are only as good as the rights of the least of us. Why should a child molester in jail for life have any rights? Well, truth be told, human are fallible. What if they are actually innocent? What if they are mentally deranged and would receive more benefit from a mental institution?
People don’t realize how the removal of rights from a certain group can affect them. People are trying to make laws regarding the consenting adults a person can sleep with and which religion they may practice. I’m always amazed because their logic can so easily turn on them, and yet they seem blind. If we make a law that says a business can deny service to a homosexual couple just because of their sexuality, then certainly we can also ban heterosexuals for the same reason. If we ban a certain religion because we don’t like it, we open the floodgates to allow other to ban our religion for the same reason.
Our rights are only as good as those of the least of us.
I take that to heart, making human rights of great important to my life. I see myself in every person who has their rights violated. People are really quick to claim they don’t care about the well-being of criminals in our prisons or POWs held by our military. The truth is, any of us can find ourselves in a jail at some point. All it takes is one stupid night or one false accusation.
What do I know? Maybe I’m just a radical idealist who thinks every human being, regardless of what they have done, deserves their human dignity. They may not always deserve to exist outside the bars of a jail, but I don’t think there is a level a person can sink to where it’s right to strip them of their human dignity.
Before you start asking “what about Hitler,” let me tell you the real reason behind the importance of human dignity. Through the years, humankind has done horrible things. Too often, we’ve done these horrible things thinking they are justified retaliation against some offense. Preserving the human dignity of the worst among us is not just about their rights, it’s about our own humanity. Committing horrible, inhuman offenses against another human being, no matter how terrible that person, inevitable hurts us as well. It turns us into something grotesquely similar. If we ever hope to rise above the human rights abuses of our past and present, we must strive to fix those problems without committing human rights abuses ourselves.
Do you believe in human rights? Why or why not? How can we move beyond the human rights abuses of our past and present to achieve a better future for humanity? Do you think such a dream is even possible?
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