Despite a plethora of treaties, constitutional guarantees, and international organizations, the world continues to be afflicted with senseless atrocities that offend human conscience. Why are institutions powerless against such waves of human cruelty and ruthlessness? This session will explore what can be done to make human rights real. Talk November 14th at Okanagan College, November 18th at SLR.
Around the world, the institutions of liberal democratic systems are waging a rear-guard action against sustained attacks from populist and extremist movements. These trends are not new, but can be traced to events in the recent past, as well as broader historical developments. In this session, participants will learn why political scientists are so concerned about these trends, and what ordinary citizens can do to improve democratic accountability in Canada.
The foundational idea that women’s rights are integral to the politics of liberation, solidarity and justice has been mainstreamed in many international agreements and organizations.
The momentum on women’s rights should now be strongly carried forward to inform the politics of climate and security.
Moving forward, the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change means the world will be pushed to recognize and institutionalize the principle that women’s security is human security.
The challenge is urgent, the climate will not negotiate. Any efforts to address climate change will be that much poorer for the absence of women’s voices and experiences. Any efforts to address climate change will be that much richer with the power, strength and leadership that women bring as agents of change. The need for human security gives even more reason to ensure that women are not left behind.
In the community I come from, life centres around Okanagan Lake. The Okanagan Valley is a spectacular vista of rounded hills, distant mountains, sparkling waters, and a unique ecosystem for human and non-human life to adapt and thrive.
Despite its apparent permanence, the Valley and the Lake are fragile and vulnerable ecosystems experiencing accelerating pressures from unsustainable patterns of settlement, travel, and economic development. The Valley is vulnerable to insect damage, invasive species, extinctions, drought, fire, flooding, and water contamination. Virtually all of these threats arise from human activities in one way or another.
Looking at it from a birds’ eye view, the Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal. As I have written before, movements to protect the Valley and the planet can build on holistic thinking using the political and social revolution in human rights. ‘Rights language’ can be used to transform the current framework of laws, policies, and decision making procedures that govern development.
The Valley is a whole ecosystem, yet the laws that govern it, and those that determine its future, are piecemeal.
The progress of human rights is one of the most vital political stories of human history. The broad recognition of rights has a natural logic of expansion and consolidation. Progress comes in waves and is often beaten back by counter-movements, nevertheless, rights language often reemerges in new clothes when violations are at their worst. Violence and abuse trigger a reaction toward conscience and care, and new rights become recognized and affirmed following the worst atrocities.
What does ‘rights language’ bring to environmental causes that other arguments may overlook? Arguments from science, expertise, economic interest and values are sometimes disembodied, ephemeral, remote. An appeal to ‘rights’ triggers foundational debates: the questions become fundamental to identity and society because many rights are enumerated and protected by constitutional law, and because Canadian society has made a point of ensuring that people know and understand what rights are.
As Canadians we also understand that rights have intrinsic value. Most agree that we would prefer to live in a society that recognizes and respects rights, rather than one that does not. While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights are powerful because they are inherently subversive and simultaneously affirming. Raising an issue of water as a right raises questions about the status quo. What are all of the ways that water is freshened, used, transferred, polluted, and acted upon? It prompts rethinking the economic premises of water management. Rights language also prompts us to recognize the intrinsic value of existence. In other words,the recognition of a right elevates the ethical value of a rights holder in the view of the government and society. For example, the right to exist is one of the most fundamental rights possible. A right to exist implies the logical necessity of respecting that existence by not threatening or undermining the integrity and dignity of the rightsholder.
While we may not all comprehend the statistical probabilities of climate models or the technicalities of a carbon tax as a policy instrument, we understand ‘rights’. They are a thing. Rights are personal.
Rights language is also ethical and cultural. The current imbalance between human development and natural protection, evidenced by the global scale of pollution, is at least in part a product of the tendency to view nature in purely instrumental terms. In Western cultural constructions, nature is inert, a dumping ground for human wastes, or a storehouse of potential resources ready for extraction. Nature has not even been seen as a player in the cycle, much less as a rights holder.
The degradation of nature is simultaneously and unavoidably the degradation of humans. Since nature is a closed system, wastes and depletion will circle back to impact human welfare. The Anthropocene is signalling not the supremacy of humans over nature, but rather the exact opposite: the re-embedding of humans back into nature. We are now as much a product of our own activities as we are of natural processes. The world is now fully ‘human’ in at least one sense: the fates of human and nonhuman alike are interlaced in a way not seen before in history. Human and nonhuman fates are planetary in scale.
Restoring balance means revisiting the roots of the gap between humans and nature, the original split that divided the world and made degradation possible, and even celebrated it. That split is symbolized in three ways: 1. the assumption of anthropocentric dominance, 2. the neglect of nature’s intrinsic value, and 3. the separation and distancing of humans from the ecosystems that sustain them (both physical and psychological) .
Laws and politics have tended to wipe nature out of the ethical universe by limiting legal standing to parties with property interests. In other words, the legal conversation about value, loss and damage takes place only among those who are deemed to have an interest, namely, property owners. Even the representation of the public interest is narrowly circumscribed by the necessity of showing direct property-like profits or losses, rather than a public interest in a long-term trust relationship with nature.
While present and recognized in law, the notion of a public trust has not proven to be an effective shield against destruction in the long term, primarily because it can always be trumped or replaced by a new property claim. In addition, property claims are themselves partial since they divide nature up into parcels of utility based on their value to particular property interests. Sky, land, water, and underground are all seen in terms of different types of access, use, and ownership rights.
Solutions to this problem already exist in law, but they are currently found only in isolated and disjointed legal opinions and cases, both locally and around the world. Recently the question of nature rights has risen in prominence in political discussions, partly due to the rising awareness of the planetary nature of environmental damage being experienced in the Anthropocene, and partly due to the increasing recognition of indigenous rights and the distinctly contrasting worldview of nature that such rights represent.
The Whanganui River decision in New Zealand, the rise of Buen Vivir in Ecuador, the Ganges decision and others are pushing back against the notion that nature is nothing more than property, sink, or resource. At the heart of this counter-narrative is the recognition that humans and nature are together, with common fates and interests, and that the inclusion of nature as member of the human family, worthy of respect, care and affection, is essential to human survival. This is represented by indigenous worldviews in varying ways around the world and set down in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as many other international legaldeclarations and treaties. Both humans and nature have a right to exist, what is needed (even if it is a first step) is the recognition and affirmation of these new rights in politics, law, and development planning.
This is no small thing, so what are the problems? One may object to the recognition of nature as a rights-holder on various grounds. One objection is that extending rights to nature means the diminution of existing human rights. However, this is not a new argument. This argument is familiar to historians, who documented them in response to the expansion and extension of rights to slaves, women, unpropertied males, and ethnic and religious groups. In every case the historical extension of rights did not result in the reduction of existing rights protections, but instead allowed for the more fulsome exercise of existing rights. This is because the pattern and framework of rights growth reinforces and legitimizes that a universe of moral beings and rights holders exists and is deserving of respect.
Another objection is that nature rights are expensive. Indeed, it is hardly arguable that valuable social and political goals are costly. The question of how to pay for rights has rarely been a strong argument against the recognition of rights, however. Few would argue today that the cost of freeing slaves, or protecting children from abuse are not worth the price of rights enforcement. As well, the social, political and even economic benefits of rights recognition spill over into remarkable new avenues of growth and development. Protecting the right of the lake to flow, to provide recreation and fish and a rich environment has immense economic benefits that should also be taken into account when considering the balance sheet of rights recognition.
Finally, a last objection is that recognizing the rights of a lake necessarily undermines the value of other beings who may be more ‘appropriate’ or ‘deserving’ of rights due to their similarity with or affinity for humans. Why should lakes have rights that are not extended to whales, elephants, monkeys or dogs, all of whom demonstrate more ‘human-like’ characteristics such as family relationships, intelligence, and emotions and feeling? What about microbes or farm animals? What about Mars or the moon or other distant territories? Why lakes and not mountains, or deserts, or garbage piles?
These are all valid and complex issues which should be deliberated and which will likely be decided and come before the courts in the next few years. Awareness is growing about how humans and nonhumans should be governed in a truly planetary ecosystem. It’s important to keep in mind that rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Such rules governing human interactions with the nonhuman world already exist, whether they are laws against animal abuse, or rules about mountain climbing or fishing or logging or nature reserves. The issue is that these rules are currently one-dimensional, shaped disproportionately by property and the need to prove an interest in that property. The rules are insufficiently permanent and not based on inter-generational ethics, and they rely on an out of date worldview of nature, one that is amply demonstrating its failures to protect humans and nature every day.
Rights recognition is about governing human action, limiting and allowing different kinds of human interaction with the nonhuman world.
Rights for lakes will help the larger conversation about how to move beyond the exclusiveness of property, to recognize the limits of the planet and the power of nature to act on human societies. Rights for lakes will reiterate the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. They won’t solve every problem, but not much can be started without them.
On June 8th and 9th 2018, researchers, students, community members and practitioners gathered at Okanagan College to explore ways of articulating and sharing ethical international development ideas and practices. 50 attendees from across North America joined with leaders locally at Okanagan College’s Kelowna campus for an intensive 2-day conference and dialogue on equality, inclusion, and human dignity. Scholars and practitioners interacted in engaging sessions on gender, local governance, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Keynote speaker Chloe Schwenke, former Director of the Global Program on Violence, Rights, and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), shared her experiences advocating for a human rights framework for development in the Obama Administration. A second Keynote with Michael Simpson, Executive Director of the BC Council for International Cooperation, built on the themes of leadership and change in a ‘Talkshow’ style interview that engaged the audience in generating new avenues of inquiry.
In addition to providing a summary resource to share the highlights from the two day Conference, the purpose of these Proceedings is to contribute toward a network in which dialogue between scholarly insights and practical development work can improve the participation of people experiencing poverty, social marginalization, discrimination, and oppression both at home and abroad.
For more information and to view the Proceedings, visit the Conference webpage.
As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life. On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.
When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another. However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action. Empathy is personal, individual, and private. When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed. Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings. Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful. It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most abilityto exercise compassion. Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion. The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion. As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.
Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions. Are institutions capable of compassion? Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible: institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends. It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws. Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.
Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated. The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy. To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law. Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice. In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness. The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.
The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical. Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion. Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism. Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.
The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.
Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness. Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective? As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion. Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure: what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving. Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands? Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws? The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving. It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point. What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action? There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.
Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.
The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation. In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities. The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality. Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize. Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive. The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune. The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history. This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others. For starters, you might consider sharing this post!
Its been a tough time for practitioners of what I’ll call the Social Arts & Sciences, and for analysts of political affairs. For example, reputable pollsters were totally wrong in predicting the election of 2016, pretty much destroying any confidence in the utility of analytical methods like survey research. Of course, most consumers of polling data can’t be expected to know the difference between the use and interpretation of quantitative data for research, and the kinds of reckless extrapolation that posed as expert and authoritative analysis leading up to the election. So, it seems that social scientists have some tasks to do. As a community of thinkers and teachers about social affairs, the Social Arts & Sciences have a unique set of tools for understanding world events that can shed light on important questions. Like any tool, the value of analytical methods is only as good as the use they are put to.
Illuminating who we are as social beings, and why we do what we do, can bring improvements to our shared experience by enabling changes in social behaviour through learning, but only if done carefully and deliberately, and with a great deal of humility and caution. I’d suggest these following lines of inquiry, but what I can’t do is help sounding like a stuffy, elitist, out of touch intellectal to some. This is an occupational hazard, but one I’ll have to live with. Sorry about that. Here are some lines of inquiry suggested by recent events:
1. Political Science
Ok this one’s mine. Please, political scientists, explain clearly the difference between democracy and liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is a paradox, since the rule of law and constitutional protection of human rights necessarily limits democratic rule. Another way to think about it is that minority protections make democracy possible by ensuring that the people do not abuse their power, and in the process, potentially vote themselves out of power. Law needs democracy and democracy needs law. They are inextricably bound together. The rights of minorities are integral to the maintenance of democracy, not an add-on that can be jettisoned in the name of the majority or for the sake of convenience. Protecting minority rights is what enables democracy to function, and to sustain itself. Compromising minority rights inevitably compromises democracy itself. Protecting minority rights protects everyone.
While we’re at it, please explain what polls actually measure, what they don’t measure, and what their limitations are (and I don’t mean margin of error). Everyone: (yes that means you)…I’m sorry, but you have to take statistics. We all did it, so you have to too. There.
I’m throwing questions about the Electoral College to the historians. It makes no sense.
A bonus suggestion for Philosophy: help everyone understand paradoxes better.
2. Gender and Womens’ Studies
I would like to understand better the dynamics of ‘alpha male’ social behaviour. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but it kind of looks like what we’ve been observing. If I’m wrong, can you please school me in another way of understanding why so many thinking, otherwise respectful people (men and women both) willfully compromise themselves and their values when faced with powerful but flawed male figures? An extra job for sociologists: help us truly understand the centrality of identity to pretty much everything.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, a new subfield of Economic Psychology flourished to help explain why otherwise rational actors made irrational decisions, even against their own interest, and under what circumstances. I think we need more of that. Can psychology help us understand more about the dynamics of voter decision making, the processes of skapegoating, and the emergence of in-group and out-group division? What is the role of emotion as a motivation for decision making? We know that strong emotion can interfere with rational decision making, but how might this dynamic work at a community level?
Please keep telling analogous stories from the past to help give context to the problems of the day. Each generation still generates its own version of problems and solutions, but if people saw their issues as common and not unique, they might be better able to think creatively about how to apply the wisdom of the past to the present. Also, please focus as well on the peaceful, constructive periods of history where nothing much happened. The boring bits are what we can learn from. As well, can you please help us understand better what happens during times of accelerating and rapid change so societies can learn to be more adaptive? I have a feeling we’re going to need that.
Ok so you’ve got lots of work ahead…..propaganda has gone viral, driven not by large organizations but by individual users. Consumers are now transmitters. Conversations are immediate and global. Has the speed of communication outpaced democracy? Please talk to the psychologists about the effects of this on thinking, can we know more about how our social lives and worlds create our reality?
6. Artists and Writers
Please keep reminding us what it’s like to be someone else. Touch our hearts with stories of people and places different from our own experiences, so that we can develop empathy and awareness, even for a minute. Teach the teachers how to convey this effectively. Educate all of the social scientists about the importance of empathy to learning and growing and advancing knowledge about the world and ourselves. Ultimately, this is the only way humans truly learn.
The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet. Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy. One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers. If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis. To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.
However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together. Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies. For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today. Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways: 1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.
Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.
However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family. In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.
This background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied. It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states. The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness. Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law. Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return. Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary. The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger. The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers. The defeat of the
The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do. However, states are another matter. States are created by humans to encourage the embrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up. The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system. What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.
In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights. Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.
It’s hard to imagine such a movement today. The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.
In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.
The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order. Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.
Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.
The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals. Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.
Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob). People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?
Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself. Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.
But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises. By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone. Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.
Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty. It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state. The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.
The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good. To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised. Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.
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