A Lesson from Charlottesville: Philosophy matters

This past Sunday, I came home from four beautiful days in the mountains. Up there, I had been without any cell service, and so as I drove home and reentered the buzz of the front range, I was looking forward to checking my email, Facebook, and Snapchat. That eagerness evaporated as I opened Facebook to a newsfeed full of videos, reactions, and articles on the supremacist march that occurred in Charlottesville, VA, over the weekend.

I read  through various posts, sick and angry that these types of events are so often what dominate our newsfeeds; perhaps it is the rise of social media, perhaps it is my own growing awareness that accompanies age, but it these occurrences seem to be proliferating as well as escalating.

The latest post I saw featured Jimmy Fallon, and one line he spoke stood out to me, where we said we need, “to show the next generation that we haven’t forgotten how hard people have fought for human rights,”. Human rights. It’s a commonly used phrase, one often thrown around in the political sphere as the justification for actions. I’m afraid that as it becomes more widely used, it simultaneously becomes less understood, and this lack of understanding is why philosophy is still incredibly important and relevant today. Philosophy is the discipline through which human rights are derived and grasped, and if we shrug off the importance of truly comprehending just what human rights means, if we lazily describe them as created concepts that serve merely to oil the gears and cogs of society and keep it running smoothly, we risk allowing the term to become empty and meaningless.

It is a matter of great importance to understand what is meant by human rights, and where these human rights come from. To ignore this study is to allow for the abuse and misuse of the term that can be witnessed throughout our society.

In 1948 the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the first line in its preamble writes, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”; in this line, the UN proffers that inalienable human rights stem from the recognition of inherent dignity of each human being. Now, I  this fails to perfectly solve the issue, as one can still ask the question, “Well where does this inherent dignity come from? Why do humans have it? Is it possible for one human to have more inherent dignity than another?” but, I don’t have the time or eloquence yet to get into the problem of human dignity’s derivation. It’s a whole thing.

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However, what I do think is vitally important to remember in the definition and understanding of human rights, is that it comes from the recognition of a thing of value in another person. Human rights are not meant to be used solely as personal entitlements by which you may say anything, do anything, or declare anything to be your personal truth. They have a holistic nature, not only providing individuals rights, but also entailing responsibilities for those individuals. Seeing as all human rights derive from human dignity, any ‘right’ that demeans that human dignity is in fact no right at all. As your inherent dignity is recognized and respected, so you must recognize and respect the inherent dignity of all others.

Human rights means not only do you have the right to live in America, but the responsibility to ensure others can live in America.

It means not only the right to speak freely, but the responsibility to respect others who wish to speak freely.

It means not only do you have a right to your life, but you have a responsibility to protect all other lives, no matter their difference from you, whether that be race or stage of life.

I am afraid our society has forgotten human rights are a two way street, using them only selfishly to justify their own ends, and forgetting that, if you claim you have a human right, that means every other human being, by their own inherent dignity, possesses and deserves to have that right recognized.

As the Charlottesville supremacists marched chanting, “You will not replace us”, they seemed to misunderstand that their right to life in America extends not only to them but to all persons. Yes, they have a right, but that is tempered with the corresponding responsibility to foster the rights of others.

Philosophy has become a hobby for many these days; it is seen among academic disciplines as a sort of harmless old grandpa, doling out wisdom but otherwise not being very involved in the business of the world. I would argue this attitude is not only wrong, but damaging to society. We need to think deeply about subjects like morality, purpose, inherent dignity and human rights. Otherwise these terms could become empty shells, which may then be manipulated and filled with falsehoods instead of the valuable ethical truths they’re meant to convey to society.

A person’s inherent dignity, no matter how they are treated or how they act, can never go away. But the practical realization and recognition of this human dignity rests in human rights, and these can be lost if society forgets that with great rights come equally great responsibilities to respect those rights in others.

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