The Importance of Recognizing Someone as a Human Being
For us to have any conception of human rights, we must first determine what it means to be human. We feel comfortable recognizing the billions of people living in the world as people who should be afforded the same decency as us, simply because they are a member of the same species of Homo-Sapien. The idea that all members of our species should be afforded a common set of rights is an idea that is historically foreign, yet pinnacle to our understanding of modern human rights. I believe it is vital to protect human rights today by understanding how such a philosophy of valuing each individual of our species developed within the violent history of mankind. Doing so will help us contextualize the problem of Othering that we still face today and give us a background to solving our contemporary human rights challenges.
The modern conception of human rights where every living human is valued equally is an act of recognition that did not often occur in much of our early history. The type of recognition in the ancient world was based on the distinction between us and them, between who was considered civilized versus barbaric. It was not until the Enlightenment period that we began to recognize a contemporary sense of what it means to be human. Still, there were important moments historically that lead the creation of the modern human rights discourse. One of the earliest instances of protecting the human subject was the idea of citizenship which was developed by the Greek and Roman cities and would be important for shaping the intellectual framework of human rights.
Unlike the American system of Jus Soli, which grants citizenship to all people born within the country, citizenship began as a hereditary privilege shared by the most powerful peoples. In the early Republican period of Rome, citizenship was granted to the patrician families, those of noble birth and immense wealth, while the more impoverished plebeian citizens did not get access to full citizenship rights, such as protection against corporal punishment and the right to vote. Roman citizenship would become something of great value in the ancient world, as it offered protection to the individual that was guaranteed by the power of the state. This conception of citizenship would be influential to Enlightenment thinkers who would apply the Roman conception of protecting the body of a citizen to the idea of natural rights all people should be entitled to.
During the Enlightenment, citizenship became important again as protection against absolute monarchism. Many European countries in the 17th-century were governed on a principle of the divine right of kings, which gave the ruler of a country moral prerogative over their state. Thinkers such as John Locke would come to oppose monarchy as an undemocratic form of government and limited the natural law of humanity as creations of God. Locke’s idea was that since God created us to fulfill some goal, we have no justification for harming this creation from carrying out his will. This means that individual life, health, liberty, and possessions should be protected for all human beings. These Enlightenment ideals would be cemented by the French and American Revolutions as they lead to the creation of states that in theory guaranteed the rights of all citizens, but in practice falls short of what we would label as an ethical conception of the human being.
Although the modern ideas of human rights can be traced to the Enlightenment period, the question of what it meant to be the same human remained a question of contention throughout the world. Although its constitution guaranteed the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to every man in the antebellum United States, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who would be interested in extending these human rights to their enslaved populations. This was likewise the same for the French in West Africa, which had no plans to extend the intellectual ideas of the French Revolution to the conquered peoples whom they exploited. During the era of colonialism, the question of human rights changes from defining what rights humans should be to a question of who should be considered human.
It is only after World War 2 and seeing the aftermath of the Holocaust that most of the world comes to reflect the need to universalize the concept of human rights learned from the Enlightenment. The organized effort of the Holocaust of Jews and Romanis horrified many world leaders, philosophers, and the public. The Allied armies that liberated concentration camps made sure to document the atrocities that were committed, photographs of which were distributed widely. All over the world people wondered how it was possible for humanity to commit genocide against itself on such a large scale. The answer that the leading intellectuals at the time found was that the Nazi belief in racial superiority made them dehumanize certain groups of others so much that the acts they were committing almost seemed banal. The Nazis didn’t think they were committing a crime against humanity, they convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing-the evil that can be done when deeming someone as the Other.
To Other someone is to strip away the natural obligation that we have to view the other person with the same respect we give to ourselves. It is when we come to believe that some people don’t deserve the protections humans should have that atrocities begin to take place.
In 1945 the world realized that there had to be an affirmation of what it meant to be human that was universally agreed upon to prevent another Holocaust from happening. It was no longer enough for a particular state to guarantee rights through citizenship, there had to be a universal and cultural shift into accepting all humans as equal. In 1948 the United Nations passed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming ideas of the Enlightenment politically and as a collective effort for all of mankind. Though this is widely seen as a signature moment for the development of human rights, it is up to the future generation to uphold and apply the values that were learned from the past.
For us to maintain the discursive formation of human rights shaped by the violence of the 20th century, we must be vigilant to protect against atrocities happening in our own time. This starts by understanding the groups of people that are still being Othered and misrecognized today as those who are most vulnerable for violence to be done upon them. Think of how people can tend to dehumanize the homeless, evidence which can be seen through the efforts of some cities to remove and relocate the homeless rather than try and work out affordable housing programs. Think about how some have tried to paint George Floyd as a career criminal, disregarding the fact that it’s simply immoral to murder someone, regardless of what they might have done in the past. In order to progress our understanding of human rights, we have to keep pointing out ways people have been marginalized and do our part to bring about more social justice in the world.
Recognition of every person’s dignity and needs throughout the world is the first step to creating a more just world. We have developed a clear intellectual foundation of how we should view each other through our turbulent history, but what is most important is putting this into practice. We should be compelled to spread the ideas of mutual sympathy towards each other and the goal of creating a more just world.