Friday, January 21, 2005

Tolerance and Human Rights

¨ TOLERANCE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
· Tom Farer is a long standing friend, occasional tennis partner, leading human rights activist, and Dean of the Graduate School of International Affairs and the University of Denver. He is also a gifted scholar, with rare ability to combine passionate advocacy and rigorous discourse. Rather than writing the customary Christmas screed, Tom chose to write a moving and powerful essay on the theme of tolerance and human rights. The essay, about the length of an op-ed piece, exhibited all the qualities that have set Tom apart from most of his contemporaries. I want to fully master arguments he presents to effectively and make them my own. I will attempt to obtain an electronic copy, for those interested, but in the interim, I want to share a few briefer quotes. They are long for a blog, but worth spending the time, especially on a day after a new Presidential term was commemorated.
· “Tolerance is the key word; it is the central value of a political order embodying human rights. People are free to invent and reinvent their identities and their ends as long as they respect that same freedom in others. Of course, that is also the credo of liberalism, as John Stuart Mill defined it more than a century ago. Tolerance is equally the key to a healthy civic order in countries, today virtually all of them, with a multiplicity of cultures, that is a multiplicity of ideas about the nature of virtue and the ends of life. It is a value we Americans like other Western peoples honor rhetorically but more often have honored in the breach….”
· Tolerance extends to ideas as well as social behavior. During the Presidential campaign, senior officials seemed to be saying at time that criticism, either of the decision to go to war in Iraq or of the way in which it has been conducted, undermines the morale of our troops. It is, in a word, unpatriotic and, by implication, it should be despised and punished politically. Such a charge is plainly intended to chill public discussion with no end in sight. For I believe the Administration is right in claiming that the wider war against terrorism, of which Iraq allegedly is a part, will be part of our lives indefinitely.
· Democracy is authentic only when it coincides with the protection of individual rights, in other words when it is tolerant. As we struggle to promote it abroad, we must simultaneously struggle to defend it at home against our own fanatics. To that end I rededicate myself this holiday season.


For those interested, here is the complete text, which Tom was kind enough to send me it is definitely worth a read:

The holiday-letter convention dictates ebullience, but somehow, when I sit down to write, something rather bleak emerges. Generally it stems from the felt contrast, heightened by the gaiety and abundance of the holiday season, between my personal circumstances (member of a loving family, blessed by warm friendships, materially comfortable, interesting work) and those that make life nasty, brutal and brief for so many others. The gross injustice of life shadows my happy circumstances perhaps because it shadowed my father’s, the most unselfconsciously generous man I have ever known.
What particularly preoccupies me this year, however, is not the misery in far-off places of which, by dint of chance and choice, I know rather a lot, but the state of my own country where, despite gross disparities in life chances, most people are fairly well fed, clothed and housed. For many reasons the 2004 Presidential election was not a life-enhancing experience. I refer not primarily to the result, albeit I would have preferred a different outcome, than to the discourse that accompanied and succeeded it.
Much of my career has been dedicated to teaching and writing about human rights and trying in the small ways available to me to defend them. The system of norms that constitute the human rights regime represents a particular view of human dignity. Although the equivalent of certain human rights norms can be found in all of the major religions, what above all distinguishes the human rights regime particularly from the three great monotheistic faiths is its failure to define the ends of human existence or the ultimate nature of the good life. Instead it protects the right of individuals to decide these matters for themselves whether in isolation or in association with other seekers of ultimate meanings. That is precisely why Saudi Arabia did not vote in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It objected particularly to its religious freedom provisions. For the Saudis did not recognize a right of a Muslim to leave the faith or of non-Moslems to seek converts. Neither apostasy nor inducement to apostasy could be tolerated.
Tolerance is the key word. It is the central value of a political order embodying human rights. People are free to invent and reinvent their identities and their ends as long as they respect that same freedom in others. Of course that is also the credo of Liberalism, as John Stuart Mill defined it more than a century ago. Tolerance is equally the key to a healthy civic order in countries, today virtually all of them, with a multiplicity of cultures, that is a multiplicity of ideas about the nature of virtue and the ends of life. It is a value we Americans like other Western peoples honor rhetorically but more often have honored in the breach.
For the better part of two centuries, every new wave of immigrants to the United States met a wall of intolerance that took decades to climb. When I graduated from law school thirteen years after the Universal Declaration of human rights, many law firms had a Jewish quota, which in some cases remained none, and did not even envision an African-American or woman partner, only in part because there were so few entering law schools in the first place.
In the succeeding four decades ethnic and racial tolerance made remarkable gains, narrowing beyond recognition though not entirely closing the gap between the noble words of the Declaration of Independence and the reality of American life. What changed was not just the quotidian expressions of bigotry in the workplace and country club, but, more profoundly, the offhand expression of it in the conversation of associates and friends. It felt good to be alive in the historical moment when entrenched hostility to “differentness” of so many kinds was yielding to the logic of liberalism which in parts of the conservative movement took the name of Libertarianism.
In the last several years and most acutely in this electoral year, I have felt a turning of the tide. For me it had been augured by the ferocity of the anti-abortion movement. The spirit of tolerance does not preclude opposition to abortion; it requires only that the opposition be expressed in ways that respect the choices and judgments of others. Opponents could offer to adopt unwanted children brought to term or to support financially women driven by poverty to consider terminating a pregnancy. They could attempt to persuade by reason and logic or by invoking doctrine or authoritative figures that life should be deemed to begin with conception. They could encourage use of contraceptives by people who do not want children. Arguably they could ask that their tax dollars not be used to support abortions, although that is a more complicated issue. What, however, they cannot do consistent with the spirit of tolerance is to label as murderers those they fail to persuade, thereby encouraging violent attacks on doctors and nurses and women choosing abortion or otherwise seek to frighten or coerce.
Less complicated, it seems to me, is the issue of tolerance with respect to gay Americans. Opponents of abortion could claim that they are not merely respecting, they are actually defending liberal values in that they are protecting the rights of a person, the foetus, unable to defend itself. Opponents of gay relationships, by contrast, operate entirely outside the realm of liberal values. They want to interfere in a consensual relationship between adults because it conflicts with their particular vision of human dignity. They want to use the power of the state to criminalize sexual intimacy and to deny to same-sex adult couples the many practical advantages, as well as the symbolic reassurances that accrue to married couples by virtue of law.
In calling for a Constitutional Amendment to prevent any state from permitting gay marriages, the President seems to be impugning the very liberal values he wishes to propagate in other countries, particularly in the Arab World. We no longer think of democracy as simple majority rule; if we did, we would not be struggling to guarantee the rights of the Kurds in post-Saddam Iraq any more than the British would have conceded the need to protect Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority. Democracy is authentic only when it coincides with the protection of individual rights, only, in other words when it is tolerant. As we struggle to promote it abroad, we must guard it from our own fundamentalists. To that end I continue to dedicate myself this holiday season and as many more as may await me.

With warm regards and best wishes for the new year,


Tom Farer
Professor and Dean, Graduate School of International Studies
University of Denver



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