Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Politically ‘Incorrect’ or Morally Repugnant

When people are categorised as dubious because of the colour of their skin; despised because they are disabled; or detained because they question the claims of their government; they stand little chance of fighting back on their own unless there is a wider system of protection that will throw its weight behind them.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights represents a crucial collective agreement on the dignity to be accorded to all people solely by virtue of their common humanity. Yet we continue to encounter people sneering at the mention of human rights, or blithely brushing aside the condemnation of their violations as mere ‘political correctness’. Why?

Four reasons come to mind, and each calls for a firm response.

First, people all too often forget how hard it is to win better protection, or how precious that protection really is. It is the nature of succeeding generations to take the accomplishments of earlier times for granted. Unless they are effectively reminded of how daunting life would be without true respect for human rights in all circumstances, they will not be ready to resist the encroachment against those rights when it comes.

Secondly, the notion of human rights, like any idea or practice in life, can be exploited by the unscrupulous to benefit themselves at the expense of others. If attempts to invoke ‘human rights’ to justify immoral behaviour go unchallenged, they damage public understanding. Not only must such attempts be swiftly exposed, we cannot allow them to be appropriated by anti-human rights politicians as an excuse for dismantling the essential legal framework that is in place.

Thirdly, there is always a minority who pay lip service to respecting human rights while they try to undermine it surreptitiously. From polluting water supply to human trafficking, those responsible for callously ruining the lives of others should be widely branded as the worst public enemy. Whether it is through better detection, enforcement, or the closing of legal loopholes, the pursuit of these culprits ought to have the highest profile so that the public are aware of the importance of stopping them.

Last but not least, there are people who are so extreme in their views or so egoistical in their inclinations that they openly disavow any respect for various sections of society. To massage their self-importance, they will insist on their own superiority over women, gays, other ethnic groups, people with different beliefs, or people on low income. They cling to feeding their self-esteem by denigrating the ‘others’. Instead of granting any relativist credence to their ‘customs’, ‘traditions’, or ‘faiths’, they should be roundly condemned.

Human rights, as the mutual commitment to defend our basic wellbeing, are indispensable for ensuring abuse, exploitation, or predatory behaviour have no place in a civilised society. It’s time to put an end to the insidious trick of using the ‘political correctness’ label to cast aspersions over legitimate moral criticisms.

Only by taking seriously the implications of human rights can we begin to counter the spread of inhuman wrongs.

[The above is based on a longer essay I wrote for the Global Minorities Alliance to commemorate the United Nations Day of Diversity, Dialogue and Development in 2014]

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Cooperation Denial

Findings from anthropology, social psychology, game theory, and many other fields consistently suggest that where people cooperate with others as they would like others to cooperate with them, it leads to positive outcomes for all concerned.

Yet from ancient monarchic oppression to contemporary corporate exploitation, we keep coming across cooperation deniers who refuse to accept that working in equal partnership with others is a preferable option. They all exhibit one or more of these familiar symptoms: they claim to have answers to problems that no one else should question; they feel they deserve to have a better life than others; or they need to have far more power than others if chaos is not to break out.

Consequently, either their rejection of cooperation is accepted, in which case everyone has to put up with their egocentric behaviour; or persistent cooperation denial stokes frustration and resentment until tension boils over to bitter confrontation.

Is there another alternative? How can society be guided away from anti-cooperative forms of human relationship without falling into other types of asymmetric structure or some anarchic free-for-all where those with the might will sooner rather than later declare themselves to be exclusively ‘right’?

According to the Radical Communitarian Synthesis, a political philosophy that brought together the three most pertinent strands of critique against cooperation denial, this problem should be tackled by addressing its three underlying causes. First, systemic ignorance allows misunderstanding and deception to stop people seeing how more reliable answers can be ascertained cooperatively. Secondly, selective indifference to the plight of others blocks people from taking into consideration the full impact of their own behaviour. Thirdly, structural imbalance of power makes it possible for some to dismiss as unlikely any prospective retaliation against their unjust actions from victims too weak to hit back.

Correspondingly, a culture of cooperation can only flourish if we strategically advance the core elements of inclusive community life:

(1) Cooperative Enquiry: truth-claims must be subject to coherent and transparent assessments that can be validated by informed participants deliberating under conditions of evidence-based and uncoerced exchanges. (For examples of how the cooperative approach to problem-solving can be applied in practice, see: ‘Together We Can’).

(2) Mutual Responsibility: arrangements should be put in place so that people can effectively help improve each other’s wellbeing, and collectively curb any activity which intentionally or otherwise inflicts harm on others, especially those most in need.

(3) Citizen Participation: the gap between the powerful and others should be continuously reduced so that all those affected by any given power structure can participate as equal citizens in determining how the power in question is to be exercised. (For more on how this problem has been tackled, see ‘Against Power Inequalities’).

To counter cooperation denial and the deleterious effects it has on society, we must therefore have:
• Lifelong learning that will raise people’s shared understanding of how things will get better through collaboration and enable them to see through the lies and dogmas spread by charlatans and exploiters;
• Commonly owned institutions through which people can tap into meaningful give-and-take interactions so no one’s contributions are undervalued and everyone’s needs are taken into account;
• Power redistribution so that the power gap is substantially reduced and greater power is only ever entrusted to those who are truly answerable to and can be replaced by the people they are meant to serve.

The extent to which these are achieved will determine how far and fast open cooperative governance in decision-making by states, businesses and community groups, from the local to the global level, becomes the norm.

[For a detailed exposition of the ideas outlined above, see ‘Communitarianism’]