I was in my kitchen the other evening, musing while cooking (something I do more often than not, it seems). I was thinking about civil rights, human dignity, and how I might broach teaching such things in a philosophy course. I’ve been mentally preparing syllabi, lately. So consider a philosophy course where you study human nature. Sure, there are issues of free will, the nature of soul, mind-body relations, the definition of person, and so forth. And all figure large in my thinking.
But one question I asked myself the other night struck me. In 21st Century America, which groups don’t expect to be given equal rights?
Now, of course, I imagine a student saying something like everybody has the right to equal treatment under law. I doubt this. But what people have the right to and what people expect are not the same thing. And I’m asking about the latter.
I can imagine another student saying that most every group that is discriminated against demands equal treatment under law. And this may be true. But then we have to consider a couple of things. First, that a group demands equal treatment does not entail that the members of that group, even the majority of members in that group, demand such treatment. Further, that a group demands treatment does not entail that they expect their demands to be met.
There are, it seems to me, at least two motivations for such demands. One motivation is that said group expects to be given equal treatment, and thus, when it does not arise, they demand that their expectation be met. But another motivation is that said group does not expect such treatment, and that from this, along with a sense of injustice, they demand that the world change. The group might not even expect change to happen, though certainly it will hope for change, and even believe that it will eventually come about.
So this tells me we need to make a distinction between what is demanded and what is expected.
But there’s another issue here. I asked about groups that don’t expect to be given equal rights. I didn’t ask anything at all about ‘equal treatment under law.’ Consider the Jim Crow laws. Certainly, the law stated that if you were black, then you were to do XYZ, and if you were white, you were to do ABC. One could make a case of equal treatment under law here. The law applies to everyone, only the condition of how one should act is based on skin color. The point of the civil rights movement wasn’t, strictly speaking, to receive equal treatment under law, but to be given equal rights. The law was unjust. Thus, equal treatment under an unjust law does not translate into equal rights.
Somebody (Margaret Mead?) once wrote that equal treatment for all, when all are not equal, is not equal treatment for all. The idea here is that we cannot translate identical treatment as the maker of equality. We make this mistake, in our Western thinking, of equating identity with equality. Treat everyone identically, and you get equality. But identical treatment of non-identical entities does not magically make them equal.
To be less opaque: consider a basketball and an antique china vase. Now treat them identically. You could either shoot hoops with both of them, in which case the vase is destroyed, or you can fill them both with water, in which case the ball becomes useless and a bit silly. Identical treatment does not make things identical. Certainly, things as different as vases and basketballs need to be treated differently.
Now I hear a student (that same one, the kid with the dingy grey sweatshirt, sitting third seat from the back, over by the window) asking me in horror if I’m advocating something like separate but equal, or something like different sets of rules. And how is that any different than Jim Crow, which I just shot down?
There’s an important disanalogy here. When talking about groups of people, we’re all people. When talking about vases and basketballs—well, we’re talking about vases and basketballs. Other than accidental properties, like maybe color and mass, vases and basketballs have very little in common. But what we can glean from this illustration is that in order for me to treat something x well, I need to take into account what sort of thing x is. So I treat basketballs one way—taking into account what basketballs are for and maximizing their potential by keeping them in good shape. Ditto vases.
Same student. Am I saying people are for something? Well, maybe, but that’s beside the point. As I am wont to say many a time in a lecture, we’ll get back to that later. Some other time. But for now, the issue is that people are people, so why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully? More carefully, we have to consider that how we treat things is based on the kind of things they are. In some interesting way, we treat all basketballs the same, all vases the same, because they are what they are.
So with people.
To stretch my illustration some, I treat any old basketball like a basketball. It doesn’t matter if this one has a tiny bit more pressure in it, or if that one is older, or if the other one over there is a slightly oranger color than this one, or if that one you’re holding is a bit dirtier than the one in the box, or if still another one has a distinct history. They’re basketballs. I treat them, in some interesting way, equally, though in some interesting way, uniquely. Say I have in my hands the basketball that won the Olympics for the first US Dream Team. Unique history. So I might treat the ball differently than one I just bought at K-Mart. But I still somehow treat both like basketballs, not vases.
So whatever equal treatment is is contingent upon whether things are of the same kind. And I’m going to leave the substance / category problem for a later time, since it’s thorny all on its own. Suffice it to say that, to quote Depeche Mode again, people are people. We’re all of the same kind. Each of us has a unique history, some of us are a little oranger than others, some might be under a little more pressure, some show some more wear and tear than others, and so forth. But we’re all people.
Fine, fine. So we all, like good Americans, agree that people deserve equal treatment. But deserving it, and expecting it are two different things. Now consider another distinction. How we treat others isn’t the same as their rights. So equal treatment is not the same thing as equal rights. Back to Margaret Mead. Keeping within the same kind, consider a couple teenage kids. In fact, consider two of my nieces, both the same age. One is my sister’s youngest, the other is my brother’s youngest. My sister’s kid A and my brother’s kid H are close friends. Both are bright, independent young ladies. Now imagine they are put in a competition against each other, in some sort of Karate Kid -esque final scene showdown. Chose your own weapons. Same rules for each. Same treatment for each. Seems fair on the face of it, no? Only, you see, although A has got quite a way with getting out of scrapes with her quick thinking and fast talking, H knows Japanese sword fighting—she’s sort of this little samurai in the making. On the other hand, although H is very smart and good at properly assessing a situation, she doesn’t much care what anyone thinks, and shrugs off any judgment one might make of her. Now consider the showdown. Clearly, you can’t pit one’s strengths against the other; they’re too different. If you pick debate, A wins. If you pick physical combat, H wins. To make the fight fair, you need to handicap one or the other. In order for there to be equal treatment for all, a little inequality is needed. I’m thinking of Aristotle’s “principle of the equitable” here.
So why the inequality in treatment? Why nonidentical treatment? To ensure something more fundamental—this sense that we have that each girl has some sort of rights, and to preserve them, we need at times to offset the scales.
That’s all interesting, and certainly not what I had in mind when starting to write down my thoughts on this. See, this could get us all off on a very interesting discussion about what rights are, what are our rights, and how we can preserve them. Another time.
It remains, however, that receiving equal treatment (something that happens to us, or not, as the case may be) and having equal rights are distinct. And this is the ground upon which my question rests. We all actually have equal rights. But which groups, in 21st Century America, don’t expect these rights to be respected?
Now this expectation is what intrigues me. People might not expect certain treatment because they don’t believe they deserve it. So one might actually have equal rights but not think one does. But on the other hand, one might believe that one deserves equal treatment because one believes one has equal rights. And among these latter persons are those who may or may not demand the treatment appropriate to these equal rights.
Why might people not believe they deserve equal treatment? Why might they believe they don’t have equal rights? A number of reasons, depending on the group. And again, another day. In fact, I’ve written a lot on this issue, here. But what I haven’t written on (until today) is the stunning fact that there are, in 21st Century America, people who do not expect to be given equal rights.
Another distinction. (Gotta love us philosophers, eh? We’re never through with distinctions.) It is an unfortunate idiom we have, this saying of being “given” equal rights. And it brings up problems that shouldn’t arise. For the sake of uniformity, let’s go back to our founding documents and say that we are born with these rights. To wit: we
are created equal, that [we] are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
A longish quotation, but filled with gems. First, nobody gives us our rights, we’re born with them. You might say God gives them to us. Fine, but I don’t want to get into a theological argument with any deists or atheists. So whether they are divine sparks, or whether they are designed in us by a benevolent Creator, or whether they are just a part of what it is to be the kind of things we are—human beings—we have unalienable rights. Rights that cannot be removed from us. They are essential. By virtue of being people, we gots ’em.
And whatever these rights are, they aren’t limited to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Note that among these rights are the big three. And note that we also have the right to abolish government and establish new ones. In fact, note that it is implicit that we have the right to safety. And notice further, that we have, because of these rights, closely related responsibilities to ensure these rights. But I digress. Again.
The distinction then, is that no human being “gives” us our unalienable rights. But they can treat us as if we don’t have them. And the injustice, the hurt, indeed the harm comes because these rights are unalienable and are ignored. Something of the essence of a person is denied, thus the very humanity of that person is denied.
Now, yet again, back to my question. Among people, people who have these unalienable human rights, rights that are the same for any human being in any setting, who are those who don’t expect, in 21st Century America, the land of the Declaration of Independence, to be treated as beings with such unalienable rights?
What is shocking, perhaps, is that there are such people. Of course, one’s first thoughts are going to be based on one’s experience. But I’m interested in looking to the commonalities. So my list, then my musings.
Certainly gays. Yes, yes, there are activist groups that fight for our rights. But it seems to me that the fight is based on the expectation that we won’t be treated according to the rights we have unless we fight, and even then, not for awhile. Unjust laws remain to be overturned.
But also American Muslims, especially those of Arabian or Persian descent. What does this say of our freedom of religion? What does this say of our so-called “melting pot” of yore? (Or, a more favored term in TESOL circles, the “salad bowl”?) What of the supposed value of diversity?
But also African Americans. I think here of those who are understandably cynical. Walk down the street of a very white neighborhood, and get patted down. Drive through certain parts of town and get pulled over. Exist in the wrong neighborhood and be accused of a crime, convicted, and sent to jail for life or death.
And also the very poor. Who gets health care? Isn’t health care related to “life” and “the pursuit of happiness”, and even “security”? Who is treated as a human being? Does the government treat the homeless and poverty-ridden with the same human dignity as the CEO of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate with fifty lobbyists?
And also the physically challenged. Even though there is the ADA, stores still stuff their buildings so crowdedly that no wheelchair can manage through the aisles. Elevators are nonexistent or in poor repair. And people who don’t need them steal designated parking and any little scrap tossed their way. As my friend J puts it in his bitingly named Facebook group, “you’ve taken my toilet and my parking spot, do you want my handicap, too?”
The list goes on. And on.
But what is it, then, that just these people have in common, other than their shared rights and their shared sense that these rights won’t be respected? Why do so many people, qua gay, Muslim, black, poor, or handicapped, not expect to be treated as human beings, worthy of the same human rights, dignity, and respect as any other human beings? And that, especially in the land of the Declaration?
I wish I had some clear cut answer. But then, that wouldn’t sound like me, would it? And it wouldn’t be true, even so. I think there are indefinitely many reasons. One may be simply cynical of our society, because any more, one’s fiscal ‘worth’ is identified as one’s human worth. One may be cynical because of the long history of saying one thing but practicing quite another. One may be in despair, truly believing that our nation has the values it espouses, but that those in power currently don’t. One may simply feel forgotten. Or one may believe that qua member of whatever group they are a member of, they don’t have any rights. They don’t deserve to be treated with any dignity, they aren’t just like anyone else, deserving security, liberty, happiness, and life.
So what does that say about the Land of the Free, if so many—and there are many—don’t expect to be given the treatment our very identity as a nation insists we as human beings deserve?