Of human rights and isms

2018-03-25 06:22

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Yet another Human Rights Day was celebrated on Wednesday, and I can’t help but wonder what the average person understands about the concept. The Constitution, Bill of Rights and various pieces of legislation are at pains to articulate the value of the human being – itemising a litany of rights, including life, dignity, equality and freedom. How many of us know top-of-mind the collection of inalienable rights that the state and our fellow citizens are obligated to respect?

I reckon that, at most, we feel a moderate to acute discomfort when our rights are infringed. Beyond that, we have very little education and information about what we are entitled to. It follows that if you don’t know that you have something, how then can you benefit from it or protect it from being usurped?

I offer a basic summary of transgressions that we face on a daily basis, as the departure point to exercising one’s democratic rights as enshrined in our noble Constitution. I have encountered a series of blanket “isms” that plague our society across strata. These are sexism, racism and economism.

They can be considered dominant ideologies that govern most of society and are the roots from which many other social illnesses and injustices issue. When attempting to summarise one’s rights and responsibilities, you can begin from these three forces and assess to what extent they have robbed you of your dignity, equality and freedom – as well as to what extent you have infringed upon the rights of others.

Looking at the global population, it is evident that men have only a slight lead in numbers, as both sexes are around the 50% mark.

Given that sexism is an ideology that upholds, favours and protects masculinity at the expense of females, it goes without saying that this egregious discrimination is a scourge affecting almost half the world’s population.

What is even more distasteful is that men and women co-exist for a number of survival-driven purposes – reproduction, companionship and mutual cooperation. These purposes, however, are steered by a culturally sanctioned prerogative that favours the man.

Yes, we are in the 21st century and women in Western democracies are beneficiaries of hard-won rights to equality. But, in practice, we know that behind the closed doors of the home, women are often still considered inferior to men.

Words written in ink have done little to assuage the bitter emotions captured in the tears of women worldwide, who still live with sexism in all its ugly manifestations.

Right to live and equality

That being said, the primary rights every woman and girl should grasp and cling to are their right to live (and not to be abused to death by the men in her life); the right to equality (by recognising that her reproductive and nurturing power facilitates the continuation of the human species); and their right to freedom (to be who they are, do what they want, associate with whom they desire and to denounce all attempts to rob them of those freedoms).

If men cannot give the women in their own lives that dignity and respect so clearly itemised in various pieces of legislation – besides the appalling fact that it should take the government to tell a man how to treat the woman he chose to build a life with – it is no wonder that they fail dismally to respect people who are different from themselves.

I am of the opinion that charity begins at home. A misogynist is tantamount to a bigot. It is only the target of their hateful prejudice that differs.

Racism was not a novel conception of South Africa’s apartheid government. Eons bear testimony to people with varying quantities of melanin in their skin, eyes and hair; and of different races, cultures and religions, waging wars of mutually assured destruction in their attempts to assert superiority.

For reasons I have yet to understand, people from the African continent found themselves on the short end of this atrocious stick. To date, being “black” is considered synonymous with all manner of derision, while being “white” is the ideal supposedly chosen by God to govern all of humanity. The other “shades of grey” in between are considered allies to be won over by the whites, or collateral damage suffering along with the blacks.

I know this sounds simplistic. I am making these generalisations to arrive at a similarity between racism and sexism. The immature state of “othering” those that are not like you, and yet brazenly using their difference in qualities, characteristics and abilities for your benefit, shows an inherent evil in the psyche of perpetrators of sexism and racism.

The irony is that Lady Justice still grants these monsters the same constitutional rights, benefits and protections as their victims.

Racism is not only interpersonal, but has become a structuralised norm. Whether it be the flagrant use of the k-word, n-word or any other derogatory term, the patent lack of consequences provides fertile ground for the roots and offshoots of this gross inhumanity.

Diplomacy pleads with us to alter our us-them attitude towards racial harmony. History, however, shows us that comprehensive social change can only be attained by revolution.

A paradigm shift can only occur when there is no other alternative. Social media has become the racism watchdog as people worldwide now have a voice. But a voice is only the beginning. Concerted efforts to expose, uproot and punish behaviour that compromises human rights will require action from courageous revolutionaries.

One of the fathers of sociology, Karl Marx, coined the phrase economism in his scathing critique of a society bowing down to economic dimensions. His concern was about states that have a government genuflecting before the throne of economic considerations of industrialisation, demand and supply, and workforce exploitation.

When coupling sexism and racism, I would go so far as to say that economism is the peak of that triangle. For one, women are enslaved in the household to reproduce and perform tasks aimed at guaranteeing the wellbeing of their men and children – sometimes to their detriment.

Outside the home, people who are considered no more than forces of production by incident of race or class, are enslaved to create wealth for the few. All these human resources are directed towards amassing riches for those who are so cruel as to see them as mere resources.

Mogobe Ramose wrote an eloquent piece on the ubuntu human rights philosophy that I believe is the giant step towards addressing all three isms I have mentioned. He explained the Sesotho phrase “motho ke motho ka batho” as “to be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish humane, respectful relations with them”.

This is what ubuntu means. It is not localised to the Basotho or to South Africa. It is a universal definition of what it is to be human. When the sexist, racist or economist strips another of their basic human rights, they are stating categorically that they are in fact inhuman and do not qualify to receive any human rights.

- Setlaelo is an author, writer and personal development practitioner

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