CULTURE AND HUMAN RIGHTS:
Empirical Notes with a Metaphysical Conclusion
How can wooden plates with the Solon’s verses written upon them, as on the stone slabs of Moses once in history, be crushed and stamped upon by those who should have learned from them the way of fairness and justice? How can even the commandments of Jesus inscribed deeply in the hearts of all Christians and with no physical wooden or stone form be abused, trodden upon, soaked with the blood of fellow Christians, and all this in the name of the nation, law and justice, and frequently even in the name of God?
Law and the legal system (independently of the governing and executive power and besides the principles of majority rule), equal rights of all before law and the preservation of fundamental human rights are, according to L. Kolakowski, the "essential pillars of democracy" and currently its "least disputable criterion" according to P. Ricoeur. Yet these are not enough for a properly functioning government to guarantee all human rights and liberties. Today a legally elected government cannot guarantee, and even many tread on, the equal rights of citizens and on their human rights as well.
Recently, laws, rules and standards cease to exist or fall apart before our eyes if we watch TV, walk in the street or visit working places, hospitals, shops and factories. Everywhere we see corruption and discrimination, a wide variety of hidden or open breaches of human rights and attacks on human dignity (although human rights cannot be substituted for human dignity).
Upon recalling the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, Tschetschenia or elsewhere the following excerpt from the U.S. Declaration of Independence comes to mind: "All men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness." The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is construed in the same spirit: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
Would people today from Africa and Asia or from any developed country in the West testify to the same eternal ideas as were once written in the above mentioned declarations? Upon reading the UN Charter with its principles and provisions and then comparing it with actual UN policies, the question whether UN policies are in conformity with its declared principle remains unanswered. One of the most typical characteristics of the current world crisis is the fundamental, inherent conflict between the political system with its actual structures of governing power and human rights, west or east, north or south.
Human rights serve as an intermediary philosophy for articulating the broad spectrum of interests in all corners of the world and in all layers of society. Increasingly, they are taken as part of many common and mutually communicated perspectives between the various centers and peripheries which tend to confront one another. The term human rights has evolved into an ethical standard that is subject to individual interpretations, negotiations and adaptations. It becomes a new type of "culture" whose significance, symbolism and practices are by no means neutral or equivocal. Its only constant feature is being perpetually reconstituted and reformulated; human rights are always "in action". In the post-Berlin wall era the question of their universality, relativity or portability is no longer that important.
They have become a part of the multi-dimensional interactions between the centers and peripheries of our global world which is no longer composed of local domains (cultural, ethnic, etc.), but on the contrary has developed into an open manifold of diverse fragments. This pluralism of society necessarily goes hand-in-hand with the destruction of the traditional meaning of the term "locality". Not only have many localities lost their own character and become "victims" of a spatial homogeneity, but the new information media allow us to live in a simultaneity of localities, which however can destroy our sense for adherence and identity. The various cultures of our world have "floated up" from their topologically assigned harbors into the "international waters" where the steeply increasing mobility of man combines with a rejection of cultural artifacts and practices which hold too passively to the "anchor chain". Within this cultural dialogue conducted between "here" and "there" ("we" and "them"), between centre and peripheries, distinct boundaries have been wiped out, which makes irrelevant the question of the appropriateness of human rights.
This, however, does not imply that the question of the mutual intelligibility of human rights between different cultures also was dissolved into the mist above the ocean. Even today we cannot but ask how to understand, based on the topological allocations of each culture, how any other culture is construed. Similarly, the problem of difference between various layers and groups in society remains. The cultural plurality no longer constitutes a problem between different nations, nationalities and regions; it has emerged as a problem within the scope of any society or community alone. The great influx of refugees from non-European countries has situated the issue of cultural plurality in a quite new light in the major cities of Europe.
Human rights currently are presented as ethical values and as such are becoming more universal and more actively applied symbols. This, however, does not indicate that the fundamental problems of values has already been definitively formulated, for the world is not moving within the limits of a linear progression toward a general veneration of human rights. Esteem for the universal scope of human rights quite usually and self-contradictorily is in inverse proportion to the extent that human rights are violated and abused.
The superficial viewpoint, based on deterministic linear causal approaches toward the society and human behaviour has proven insufficient for a deeper understanding of cultural practice. Prefabricated solutions and recipes either for comprehending any person as defined by a list of abstract characteristics or for a relativistic emphasis of cultural specificity in its fundamental sense do not enable us to arrive at a deeper knowledge of the dynamics of human rights and culture. For our contemporary world is symbolized by the dismantling of the Berlin wall, by bridges torn down, by the swelling waters of religious, national, ethnic and other disputes over non-accepted differences. The demands to build these bridges anew are more exacting and hence more challenging than in the past.
The dynamics of human rights and cultural pluralism are not only theoretical problems for experts, philosophers, ethnologists or diplomats. Politicians, priests, teachers, economists, and cultural officers need sufficiently clear arguments for taking and executing their decisions. Philosophy cannot issue absolutely guaranteed recipes; it can only contribute toward the creation of necessary theory, to questioning already existing answers, and to revealing the dubiousness or inadequacy of certain arguments.
For better comprehension of contemporary global conditions of cultural diversity in which human rights act as the decisive value system, the revival of an analytic viewpoint seems desirable. One possible method is to determine how, when, why and what significance human rights have in particular contexts and how do they function in everyday human life — in the "cultural practice" of people.
The approach through human behaviour (taken by the theoretician and practitioner) has a special meaning for the issue of human rights as only the particular actors are then involved. The significance of this viewpoint consists in its direct links with practice. Not only defendants but also the theoreticians of human rights have often expressed their opinion on the relationship between theory and practice, although only exceptionally was this done on the basis provided by real elements from daily practice. If human rights are taken for a system of social practices, then which particular practices do we have in mind; how do these practices become legitimate face-to-face with those practices which they actually replace; and how are they related to other social activities and political standards? Without adequate conceptualization we cannot obtain a clear picture of them, nor can we detect if they are respected or violated.
So if we are to find the way out from this circle of disputes about the universality or relativity of human rights and if we want to unravel the threads of social behaviour and the shades of meaning of human rights, then we have to focus on comprehending them as they exist and function within natural life as lived by man. This does not at all put at stake various international documents that deal with the issue of human rights. These documents do not lose their meaning and importance as the general objective, but gain more sense if situated in a particular context — their urgency is in the tribulations of the lives of common people. Thus the documents cannot be considered as the immediate basis for the efficacy of human rights or as acting in a mechanical causal way.
The approach focused upon the actors deals with the terms emerging from the situations of everyday life, perceiving men and women not as an abstract entities, but as concrete persons situated in different dimensions of their life careers. Here the term action is related to an individual actor and his/her capacity to live with dignity, remembering and collecting social experiences and inventing life styles even under conditions of extreme oppression or coercion. As social actors we move in a room limited by constraints of the flow of information, by uncertainties of different degrees and by other stresses, physical or psychic, moral or legal, as well as by political and economic forces. We have to solve problems, become acquainted with the situations which are happening, seek adequate forms of behaviour or intervene in the normal flow of events taking place in our neighborhood. We must proceed along our own track, while perceiving the other people’s reactions and paying attention to various casual events. Not all situations, in which we find ourselves, are a direct consequence of our own choice, for we always exist under a large number of mutually linked relationships of subordination and superiority. Even the inferior relationship of dependency provides us with possibilities to influence the activities of the one to whom we are subordinated and thus to play an active role in establishing some areas of our social life.
Seen from the deterministic linearly causal approach toward social movement, any development and change are considered to be direct consequences of the impulse emitted from a certain centre of power such the state or international interests. Triggered by such a mechanism social development moves along some constrained trajectory with different evolutionary stages characterized e.g., by different types of production. The progressive work on human rights often is based on such deterministic models. Of course, it cannot be forgotten that some structural changes are a clear evidence of action by external forces. But all these external determinants enter upon the natural environment of groups or individuals; they act only as mediated and transformed by these groups and individuals, and their mutual relations. Therefore, we must not forget the sense of mutuality in all platforms of social life and in the interplay of mutual relationships between the "exterior" and "interior". Human behaviour, with its complex structure of human psychics and memory in the background, plays a decisive role in these relationships.
Both human rights theoreticians and activists still prefer the mechanical model of a linear causal series found in the documents on human rights for their practical applications. However, this approach simplifies processes which are much more complicated. During the very process of realization of practices and standards human rights often are reinterpreted or transformed. Nor is there any immediate link between the selected policy and the consequent result in this area. Similar to the social movement and development, the application and protection of human rights are a socially constituted process which is undergoing several, mostly conflicting phases. The solution of these is accomplished through different procedures, such as negotiation, mediation and in extreme cases also the settlement of disputes through court trials. Of course, the solution which would be acceptable by all parties involved can be reached only at the level of negotiation and mediation, in the form either of an exchange of benefits or the construction of new common solutions.
Hence, the implementation and protection of human rights cannot be seen as an easy exercise according to some recipe or "flight plan", at the end of which we attain the anticipated result. We always act in a certain multi-dimensional situation in which we are confronted with the interests and values of other people and groups. The environment for our action is not always homogenous; on the contrary it is heterogenous with individuals and groups having at their disposal different kind of knowledge on which the strategies for their actions are based. Looking at the issue from this angle, in order to arrive at an authentic solution to the conflictual situation we must understand which interpretations and models, interests and values are to prevail and under what conditions. From this perspective it is easier to appreciate the role which the theoretician could actively play in influencing the concrete events by formulating human rights standards. Any philosopher, sociologist, ethnologist, or lawyer who works in the field of human rights will grasp the essence of the social processes through his/her active involvement within the natural life world of acting people.
There is some feedback influence even in this relationship, thanks to which the participants in these processes influence the research strategies taken by the experts and thereby predetermine the outlines of their working results. The "objective reality" of human rights lies beyond the concrete forms of human identification and orientation, beyond the mutual communicative relationships maintained at all levels of social life, beyond the conceptual horizons of individuals and groups belonging to the same culture. As participants in social processes we are open toward the world that surrounds us; when acting we do more than realize some "internal" quality of our hidden ego. In this regard we should draw on the parallel between the various processes of personal, group and cultural identification. Not a single one of these processes can be taken for some privileged accumulated property and fixed in any quantitative or qualitative compartment. The core of these processes lies rather in compartmentalization of the items and events perceived in our living world, how they grow out of our interactions and are results of the confrontation and hybridization of the horizons of mutual acceptance of the participants in these events.
Therefore, all approaches based on tolerance have proven to be insufficient. In most cases they lead, though unwillingly, to an ethnocentric viewpoint. Although this viewpoint emphasizes cultural uniqueness and specificity, paradoxically in the end it ignores any cultural or contextual differences and bases social behaviour on the actions of "atomized" individuals or ethnicities concentrated only upon their own benefit.
The culture of the ethnic, the nation, the continent, etc. cannot be substituted for some abstract, general human substance. Neither can it be considered as a natural object disentangled from the multidimensional flow of human time. It is the human reality which is born spontaneously and consciously organized within the human reciprocity of historical, social and political processes. In this regard, human rights are cultural products of our living world. Therefore it seems more fruitful to focus our viewpoint on their particular character than on trying to make authoritarian declarations about the versatility of human rights. The human rights theory and activities performed for their protection stem from the dispute between our imaginations of human rights and of a fair (in current conceptions — democratic) society governed by law, which originated earlier in spontaneously created codes of ethical conduct, rather than in legal acts.
Nowadays, we cannot be satisfied only with an idea of a law-abiding society, ruled by constitutional law. We need something more than legal acts, something which allows the law to be preserved, to be really binding for all citizens, and to function in our everyday life. That "something" is nowhere to be found; it was never written because it cannot be put in writing. It is certain unwritten sets of rules, certain limiting conventional constraints, never publicly spoken, but which are effectively applied in the reciprocal and joint existence of human beings. Only on this fertile soil of social reality can the honor and merits for human rights grow and be sustained, not to mention a functional legal system or the economic system, which is nothing but another form of human reciprocity.
The goal of each rule of ethical conduct and consequently of each law is community welfare, the good of society and of each of its members. The legal acts as an abstraction from the spontaneously created rules of ethical conduct which are conceived as solutions in the relationship to another person with a certain kind care for human reciprocity. In law the acts are binding and in writing; people are obliged to abide by, preserve and protect the law. But the preservation, the abiding or non-abiding by law is the question which keeps coming back without response, at least without a complete one. One is led toward fairness, toward abiding by human rights standards and law either by strong internal will, or by external force under threat of punishment. The object of internal will is the welfare of another man and of oneself. This relationship, whose goal is the welfare of one’s fellowman, is called love in ancient Greek and Christian tradition (agapé, caritas). Thus to be righteous and fair does not mean anything else than not to deviate in one’s activity from justice or equality which is the essential quality of love in the meaning given to it by the Greek New Testament agapé, i.e. a unifying force which cares and takes account of the other person in his/her particularity, in his/her otherness. As mentioned above, human rights, constitutional law and the other two essential components of a sound democratic society — majority government with its institutions and mechanisms which warrant equality of all citizens before law — change in conformity with the seasonal and cultural contexts, according to various visions of the world and of the place of the man within it.
The variety of visions of the world has four dimensions that are empirical and one that is metaphysical:1
- genetic vision, in which one considers oneself a member of a family, clan, race, or nation;
- personalistic vision in which one finds oneself in a "You and I" relationship;
- social vision in which one becomes a member of a social group or social class;
- a naturalistic vision which grows out of the experiences of man as a part of Mother Nature; but
- in the metaphysical vision one does not live as a part of something, but as the one being who is with someone else. It is on this field that the perception of complete unification arises, the idea of unity in manifold and variety comes to effect.
These various visions of the world have also played an important polarizing role in our century: the nationalist ideology of racism under Hitler "Blut und Boden", grew up on the basis of a genetic vision, which liquidated all other visions. The Marxist-Leninist ideology of the communist party is based on the social vision, whose particularity has been generalized and promoted on a universally applicable dogma. On the other hand, the general declaration of human rights relates to the personalistic, existential vision; the student unrest in 1968 as a fight for the realization of human and citizen rights for all without regard to sex, race or religion were also instigated by the personalistic vision. Since the end of the 1970s, when the first serious breakdowns of nuclear power plants appeared, an ecological movement, which emerged from the naturalist vision of the world, has dominated.
Inside these different visions of the world all material values of the human world are the subject of fundamental changes. Accordingly, many words are changing their meaning whether it be the term human rights, or the multiple meanings of the term "democracy". It is not so much a question of different politics as to what is more important as that one comprehends oneself in different situations in the world in different ways. Not only in the cross section of our century, but also in these days we are encountering, even in the circle of our families and close friends, persons who proclaim themselves exclusive adherents of socialism, others who adhere to liberalism or conservatism, others who adhere to a genetic vision, and others who stand for "Green Peace". The danger of this situation comes with oblivion of the particularity of individual empirical visions, when any of these visions becomes more versatile or total. The ideal case would be to consider all of these visions as complementary.
The claim to universality originates only on the ground of the metaphysical vision of the world. There one is no longer a part of something and therefore blind to concrete relationships in favor of only the single totality. Instead the human person is a being in coexistence with someone, a person in dialogue with another person. Within this dialogue held with the other, space and time opens itself for our stay in the world, the universum of human experience or human history, and for gaining its true meaning and directing it in a sensible manner.
Within this "indispensable" opportunity of the human dimension of life emerging from one’s permanent state of openness there is hope that one can manage to sail between the Charybdis of individualism and the Scylla of totalitarianism: that is, between the matching rocks of the two particular empirical visions of the world each with its own variety of fundamentalism as a contempt of human rights and human dignity. Beyond these twin dangers of being deprived of the eternal sense of living, we open into the "flow" of comprehensive fulfillment. This properly human evolution takes place only in history which originates from the activities performed by men. The "pendulum" of history must not be at either limit, either the extreme of the atomized individual, or the opposite extreme of the group; neither can replace the whole.
The horrible chaos, which we are still witnessing, could be resolved if we use these particular experiences as the basis for a common dialogue as part of our human activities. This dialogue seems utterly plausible, despite essential differences between the two empirical visions of the world.
The foundation for this dialogue is the metaphysical vision, through which we open ourselves to other persons, our radical loneliness being transformed into the radical openness of our existence with others and with the Other. It is right there, in this "mystical" dimension of human life that there opens the possibility of progress along the road of comprehensive understanding of human mutuality, of unity in variety, of equality and unification in love. It is in this dimension where we do not deviate from love that we reference ourselves in terms of, or "lean out" towards others and to the totally Other. This is not such-as-we-are, though of it we are the living picture.
This implies that life should be lived in mutual respect with one’s fellows on earth, under heaven. One may pose the question of whether such sensible dialogue of "equals" and of the righteous could take place at all. In my opinion, it is possible. But in our world we lack a sense of anything sacred, the sense of esteem of other, culturally different approaches toward the human reality. There is an absence of holy respect of something totally Other, for the transcendental connection with our common metaphysical "roots" has been completely disrupted.
Without this sacral dimension, indeed without the sense for anything sacred, human rights and law cannot be sacred anymore and one surrenders oneself utterly to the world in which "everything is permitted" and in which one can but retreat to a radical state of absolute loneliness.
Solon, the Athenian statesman and poet, and many of his contemporaries considered the law and order of society to be sacred. This was true as well for Plato, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa. . . . And yet the order has been disrupted again and again; this is an eternal mystery.
1. See M. Schlemper, "Psychotherapie en wereldbeeld", in Humanische Psychotherapie, Een anthropologische grondslag (Leuwen, Acco, 1980), pp. 84-124, paraphrased according to J.G. Donders, "Some Hermeneutic Issues on Democracy from the Point of View of Different World Visions", RVP seminar "Freedom and Choice in a Democracy", 1990.
See also K. Jaspers, Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (Heidelberg, Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1971).