THE MEANING AND LIMITS OF RIGHTS… ARE RIGHTS TRULY SELF-EVIDENT? by Benny Rios
Three historical documents seem to claim that the rights of people are self-evident: the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have almost the same things in common: that all people are created equal, and that we have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In Inventing Human Rights: A History, Lynn Hunt points out how these declarations rested on claims of self-evidence. She writes, “Despite their differences in language the two eighteenth-century declarations both rested on a claim of self-evidence. Jefferson made this explicit when he wrote, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ The French declaration stated categorically, ‘ignorance, neglect or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public misfortunes and governmental corruption.’ Not much had changed in this regard by 1948.” Here, Hunt ties in all three historical documents–when she says that not much had changed by 1948, she is referring to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What does it mean for something to be self-evident? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, self-evident means, “Requiring no proof or explanation.” When these declarations were written, I suppose that the definition pretty much held the same meaning. However, I have to ask the question… Is there such a thing as rights being self-evident? In order to find the answer to that question, we don’t have to search very far, because throughout history rights that are supposed to be self-evident have been challenged and redefined over and over again. So if our rights as human beings are self-evident, why are there so many paradoxes, contradictions, and different interpretations within our so-called rights? In her introduction, Hunt points out the paradox of self-evidence, and it’s my belief that the answer is clear: our rights are not self-evident, not when they are defined by judges or courts who impose their beliefs of what our rights should mean.
It seems pretty clear: “All men are created equal.” There really doesn’t seem to be a need to interpret that statement. Unfortunately, that is far from true. Our founding fathers believed in that statement, yet they were slave owners, and they didn’t consider black slaves as fully human. Therefore, “All men are created equal” didn’t apply to blacks and Native Americans in the United States when the Declaration of Independence was written. In fact, it seemed only to apply to white men who owned property. Even white women were deprived of their rights. It took people like Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, and orator, among other things, to bring light to the fact that, yes indeed, black people were created equal in the eyes of God. Then you had women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was an early activist for women’s rights. She worked closely with Lucretia Motts, a well-known abolitionist, and both were women who suffered from the oppression of white men that deprived them of their rights. These people worked together in the mid- to late 1800s to stand up for their rights as human beings, so that they could have the same equal opportunities as white men. They stood up and spoke against the atrocities of slavery, the oppression of black people, and brought to light how white women were also kept ignorant of their rights as human beings. People like these have helped redefine the meaning of rights and who they applied to. Their victories were great, but they only scratched the surface for the battles yet to come.
In Frederick Douglass’s speech–“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”–one line stood out to me: “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” This statement was made in reference to how the leaders from the past, who had trampled on the Constitution and the Bible, and basically have taken what was good in order to promote evil and perpetuate slavery. This man was able to see so far into the future to know that America would always be false to herself, and that the battle for equality, freedom, fairness, and all of our rights will be ongoing. Since the activists from the past, many more have risen, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., with his non-violence movement, Cesar Chavez in his United Farm Workers movement, and the movements of today such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. These movements do not only fight for our rights, but they fight for economic equality and against racial injustices. Through these movements many victories have been achieved, but the opposition does not give up because they create the illusion of victory. That is why the fight always continues for our rights that should be self-evident, yet they are perverted by the people who define them and don’t want these rights to apply to everyone.
In a Kimberlé Crenshaw article published in the Harvard Law Review, she writes of Peter Gabel: “Peter Gabel suggests that belief in rights and in the state serves a hegemonic function through willed delusion… hegemony is reinforced through this ‘state abstraction’ because people believe in and react passively to a mere illusion of political consensus.” I take this to mean that politicians are masters of illusion when it comes to making people believe that hey have real rights, yet, most rights have paradoxes and contradictions. The illusions created by these legislators only help to further the institution of white supremacy. We’re lead to believe that there is no racism or inequalities through the laws that are passed in the name of fairness, when in actuality all that is created is a legalized way to continue on with economic inequality and racial injustices. Crenshaw also points out how blacks have been created as a subordinated “other,” and reform has merely repackaged racism. She also points out how discrimination laws have largely succeeded in eliminating the symbolic manifestation of racial oppression, but have allowed the perpetuation of the material subordination of blacks.
This does not only apply to blacks, but to all people of color. From the days of Frederick Douglass until today, one of the ways to challenge the institution of white supremacy internally is by using its own logic against it. As Crenshaw says, “Such a crisis occurs when powerless people force open and politicize a contradiction between the dominant ideology and their reality.” She also says, “The eradication of barriers has created a new dilemma for those victims of racial oppression who are not in a position to benefit from the move to formal equality. The race neutrality of the legal system creates the illusion that racism is no longer the primary factor responsible for the condition of the black underclass; instead, as we have seen, class disparities appear to be the consequence of individual and group merit within a supposed system of opportunity.” When it comes down to it, as long as race consciousness thrives, people of color will have to depend on rights rhetoric in order to challenge the institution of white supremacy and protect their interests. People of color face an ongoing battle, not only for their rights but also for economic fairness, and against racial injustices.
There’s no doubt that our rights are limited. They are trampled on, restricted, and regulated. Unfortunately, the people most affected are people of color, which is why the fight must continue as long as our rights continue to be limited, redefined, and transformed. Yes, politicians do tend to make a perversion of our rights, and they create many illusions, but we as a people have come a very long way in fighting for what is right. As we continue this fight, we will always be able to come up with new ways to overcome racial injustices, economic inequalities, and the deprivation of our rights. The fight has been ongoing for hundreds of years, and in many ways we continue to fight the same fight, just in different forms, such as mass incarceration, which is just another form of slavery. The institution of white supremacy continues to carry on, but we can never give up in battling those who oppress us. I end with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Somewhere we must come to see that the human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” (“Remaining Awake Through the Great Revolution”)
Benny Rios is a PNAP student and a member of our Think Tank.