It is a cause for celebration when progress is made regarding human rights. Victories won bring a period of hope and relief from suffering. The lifting of oppression is accompanied by an expectation that the enlightenment will be permanent; that we will never go back.
Human Rights and Freedom of Speech
It is a cause for celebration when progress is made regarding human rights. Victories won bring a period of hope and relief from suffering. The lifting of oppression is accompanied by an expectation that the enlightenment will be permanent; that we will never go back. It feels like a sea change or a paradigm shift. Wisdom and compassion will prevail and we will never return to the days of ignorance, greed and persecution that caused so much suffering. If only life was like that!
Past and recent events have reminded us that condemning great atrocities does not prevent further atrocities and that what is done can be undone. Progressives can never let down their guard. While working to expand human rights, we must continue to protect the existing rights won by the tireless efforts of our predecessors. It is an ongoing battle. Sometimes the battle is between armies on the battlefield and sometimes it is a war of ideas, philosophies and politics.
How can we better protect human rights that improve the quality of our lives? What does the world need now?
The rights to life and liberty are foremost among the human rights we treasure. The most horrific assault on these rights is the killing of civilians in times of war and ethnic cleansing. The world hoped that genocide would end with the Holocaust that killed six million Jews from 1941-1945. Despite the popular slogan, “Never again,” genocide persists.
In April 1992, the government of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces committed atrocious crimes against Bosnian Muslims and Croatian civilians, resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. The world said “Never again,” but now Russia is decimating Ukraine and its people.
The Russian Invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the deaths of 5,000 non-combatant civilians and 6,000 other civilians have been injured. The slaughter continues as the Russian invaders randomly target civilians in a heartless effort to break the will of the Ukrainian people.
The creation of the United Nations gave rise to hope that there would be some protection for peaceful citizens against aggression by their neighbors. Sadly, the UN has no real power to protect people in countries like Ukraine, and in this case, the aggressor sits on the UN security council and can veto any possibility of intervention.
What the world needs now is a strong global authority that can quickly mobilize to provide protection for victimized peoples or countries, when it is asked for assistance. This authority would be in the form of a well-equipped, international military body with a mandate that enabled it to be effective as a police force and a peacekeeper.
Another important human right is the right to self-determination; to exercise control over our own life, mind and body. This right has very recently had an alarming setback in the freedom-touting USA.
In a historic and far-reaching decision, the U.S. Supreme Court officially reversed Roe v. Wade on Friday, June 24, 2022. It declared that the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly a half century, no longer exists. The abortion right that has saved the lives of countless American women over the past five decades has been struck down and now American states have the authority to restrict or completely ban abortions.
The Republican Governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, was asked if her state would force a 10-year-old who was raped to have a baby. This is an actual case in Ohio, and the girl had to be taken to Indiana to have an abortion. Noem called the story tragic, but more or less conceded that South Dakota too would force a 10-year-old in that situation to have a baby.
It is expected that at least half of the American States have already banned, or will ban, abortions. Could the same thing happen in Canada? Our conservative leaders have traditionally promised they would not reopen the abortion debate that officially ended with the Morgentaler decision on January 28, 1988. However, the recent US Supreme Court appointees made the same promise regarding Roe v. Wade during their confirmation hearings and see what they did!
What the world needs now is more people to exercise their rights speak up and to vote! One defence we have against regressive judgements and policies is our right to elect governments that we can trust to protect our rights and freedoms. We must keep important issues at the forefront of political debate, especially during election campaigns.
This brings us to the issue of free speech and our right to reasonably protest, and advocate or criticize. The free speech debate is more complex than it first seems. The pendulum swings back and forth between the right to express our thoughts and ideas in a reasonable manner, and the need to protect ourselves from harmful lies and trickery.
We need to protect our right to disagree and to expose lies, fallacies and corruption. We should guard the right to express our opinions providing they are not harmful by endangering or misleading others. It is important to resist attempts to paint everything that makes people uncomfortable as hate speech, intolerance, and bigotry. But can the right to speak freely mean anything and everything can be said even if it is harmful to others?
This question presents a double-edged sword of sorts. Too much restriction on speech can leave us defenceless against oppression by individuals, religion, governments and corporations. Too little can allow us to be victimized by liars, charlatans, ignorance and a host of logical fallacies. We need to protect ourselves from both sides of the blade.
We must be vigilant about attempts at censorship whenever our speech is disagreeable to others. We should resist attempts to silence our voices when we have something that we know to be truthful and important to share with others. At the same time, some restrictions are needed on “free speech.”
We should have the ability to expose and even censor claims that spread harmful misinformation (unknowingly wrong) and disinformation (knowingly wrong). Examples of this are that gods exist who want every zygote to become a viable human being; that covid-vaccines are dangerous and ineffective; that the 2020 US election was fraudulent and “stolen”. Claims like these have caused, and are causing, tremendous harm to countless individuals, and to society.
As humanists, we should adopt high standards that employ scientific knowledge, rational thinking and compassion to distinguish between claims that are truthful and beneficial, and those that are destructive and have no redeeming value. While there can be an argument that proponents of nonsense may express their opinions in like-minded circles, there should be limits on what can be foisted onto the general public.
What the world needs now is more people guided by reason and compassion to be arbiters of truth and goodness. While many in the general public can be fooled by pseudoscience and disinformation, the more educated, rational and compassionate individuals may be more discerning. Ideally, everyone would possess the ability to clearly discern, at all times, but this is not the case.
This is why we should rely on our experts and some of the institutions they populate to help us decide what is true and best. These experts are the scientists, doctors, sociologists, philosophers and legal experts, to name a few categories. Let’s give them the respect they deserve and defend them when challenged by senseless conspiracy theories.
What the world needs now is… a strong global authority that can quickly mobilize to provide protection for victimized peoples or countries when it is asked for assistance; more people to exercise their rights, speak up and vote; more people guided by reason and compassion to be arbiters of truth and goodness.