I heard an analogy recently that I feel I have to share with the world. This fall I attended a talk on human rights by Kevin Fenwick, Saskatchewan’s deputy minister of justice and deputy attorney general. I had gone into the talk expecting to be either bored to death by legalese, or angered by yet another person putting all his trust in a human rights framework. Imagine my surprise when instead I was delighted by a surprisingly effective comparison between human rights and a net.
I have heard a number of analogies about human rights. Human rights can be thought of as one side of coin, with the other side being human responsibilities. You can’t have one without the other, no matter how hard some people may try. I’ve also heard people talk about human rights as a shield they can use for protection. This is usually contrasted with the idea of using human rights as a sword to assert one’s will on others.
But let me tell you about human rights being a net! There are two ways that human rights can be a net: it can either be a safety net or a trap. First, let’s look at the analogy between human rights and a trapeze artist’s safety net.
Conflicts are inevitable, but when they occur, our focus should be on trying to mediate a resolution that will satisfy both parties. This is hard work! It’s a delicate balancing act, just like the trapeze artist’s show.
In this context, human rights exist to guarantee everyone is treated with respect, and they should only be used if the situation cannot be resolved in any other way.
We have run into problems in our legal system because instead of focusing on the mediation — the trapeze artist is where the real show is after all — we have been staring at the safety net. We have become so obsessed with the win/lose framework of human rights, that we have forgotten about our responsibility to balance the needs of different persons or groups.
And this is where human rights can become the type of net that ensnares us. When we become focused solely on winning human rights conflicts, human rights become a trap that prevents us from living freely. Instead of protecting vulnerable persons, human rights are used to empower people who have enough money to evoke them through our legal system, all the while crippling our communities by relying solely on resolutions that have a clear winner and a clear loser.
When I first went to Fenwick’s talk, I was bracing myself for a sermon on political correctness, and was blown away by a new way of seeing human rights in their larger context. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must acknowledge that I might be enamoured with this analogy because in his presentation Fenwick didn’t just talk about human rights being any old trap, he talked about human rights being like the net the Ewoks used to catch the mighty Chewbacca in Return of the Jedi.
That pretty much sealed the deal for “human rights are like a net” being the best analogy I’ve ever heard — and I’m including such greats as “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed” and “life is like a box of chocolates.”
I think we can see the negative side of human rights playing out throughout our culture as situations that could be resolved peacefully are escalating instead. I see it in the Catholic schools of Alberta vs. the Alberta government over the rights of transgendered persons. I see it in claims that fathers shouldn’t have to pay child support for the children they wanted to have aborted. And I am sure I will see it again as individuals begin to claim a right to euthanasia against the physicians and institutions that are dedicated to protecting human life.
Each one of these situations could be resolved in a way that respects the values of all concerned, but our obstinate focus on rights is destroying our ability to live together. For all our talk of freedom, we are trapped, and what’s worse is that for some reason we think this is an accomplishment.
As hard as it is to do, I think there is a Christian calling in all of this to demonstrate the real value of human rights. Human rights are meant to remind us that we are all dignified children of God, created in God’s image and worthy of respect. They are meant to encourage us on to more daring feats, living with people we might not otherwise have been able to see as our brothers and sisters. If we presently find ourselves relying heavily on human rights, perhaps this is a sign that we have lost the ability to see each other as anything other than strangers or, worse still, opponents.
Human rights are valuable insofar as they reinforce the inherent dignity of every human being and enable us to find new ways to coexist peacefully. When they are used to attack people or to force one person’s ideology on another, they lose their value.
Let’s commit ourselves to the real challenge of learning how to live together.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.