"To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity." -Nelson Mandela
Human rights and social justice are unique in their intransitive, inalienable, and indivisible qualities. The idea of human rights, entering our lives from the 18th century onwards, has gained a worldwide recognition through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 following the conclusion of WWII. This political framework provides the idea of human rights such a justification that it constitutes a significant part of our decisions, thoughts, and actions (Altun). Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian and democratic society that embraces the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. Social justice holds that all community activity should be based on the just and equitable treatment of all people regardless of color, race, socioeconomic class, gender, age, or sexual preference. Human rights are those basic rights that belong to all people because they are human beings, regardless of their nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and without which people cannot live in dignity. The human rights that are considered by most societies to belong to all people include the right to life, justice, freedom, and equality. I seek to explore what various sociologists, both modern and historical, have said on the topic of human rights and social justice. Additionally, I find myself considering how contemporary society with its alienation, consumerism, and bureaucratization, finds itself inhibiting our ability to embrace these rights and social justice. The study of human rights is applicable in multiple academic fields. We all have a part to play in justifying, defining, embracing, and pursuing these rights, no matter what discipline we come from. My approach to the topic of human rights in this essay attempts to go straight to the root of the question of what it means to be human and have human rights. Specifically, I will focus on the right to be oneself and not become a robot with a false identity of self and how morals play into defining human rights. Any deep conversation about human rights must first address what it means to be human, which I will discuss, and that social justice involves dealing with the social forces that can and do turn us into robots or obsessive consumers in today’s society.
In his book “The Sane Society,” Erich Fromm lays out some basic needs that we, as humans, need to stay “sane.” These needs make us human and separate us from other species, whose needs are primarily to eat, sleep, drink, mate, and survive on a day-to-day basis. Among the needs he cites are relatedness, rootedness, and a sense of identity. For relatedness, we need relationships with others, care, and respect. Rootedness is the need to establish roots and to feel at home again in the world. Productively, rootedness enables us to grow beyond the security of our family and establish ties with the outside world. The drive for a sense of identity is expressed as conformity to a group and productively as individuality (Arcaro, class notes on Fromm, November 12, 2013) . It is the sense of identity that I most connect with the right to be oneself. It is both a human right and a human need. Fromm believes that we need to have a sense of identity, of individuality, in order to stay sane. This need is so powerful that we are sometimes driven to find it, for example by doing anything for signs of status, or by trying desperately to conform. We sometimes will even give up our lives in order to remain a part of our group. But this is only pretend identity, an identity we take from others, instead of one we develop ourselves, and it fails to satisfy our need. He proposes that what being human means comes down to dignity and these basic human needs (Fromm, “Sane”).
Fromm lectured on “The Automaton Citizen and Human Rights” at the American Orthopsychiatric Association 1966. In this lecture, Fromm discussed the importance of examining the individual’s experience of alienation in modern consumer society. For Fromm, alienation was fundamentally opposed to the basic human right “to be one’s self.” In regards to psychology, Fromm claimed that “the psychiatrist and the clinical psychologist have an important task – that is, not to be over-impressed by individual sickness but to think of man as a total being, and of applying their basic findings to the pathology of normalcy which threatens to undermine the very rights which we are so proud of having achieved” (“Eric Fromm: Automation”).
To support my statement that the study of human rights is applicable and relevant in multiple academic fields, I will share some of Fromm’s insights from his lecture that was given to the American Orthopsychiatric Association. Fromm hypothesized about what the standpoints of political scientists are on human rights in a democratic society. Political scientists might say that the most important human rights are the right of every citizen to express himself freely without any fear of retaliation or pressures against him, and the right to participate actively in the process of governmental decision-making. Fromm, in his lecture, points out that an economist would define human rights as the right of everybody to have a sufficient material basis to live a dignified human life. He then goes on to say that a philosopher would probably define human rights in the sense of saying that it is a fundamental human right of man to be an end of himself and not to be used as a means; not as a means by any other man nor by any organization including the government (Fromm, “Automaton”).
We have a basic human night not to become a robot and not to accept a faux dignity. Fromm makes this argument and I have decided to adopt and expand on that assertion. The right “to be oneself” is a human right that Fromm had particular interest in. Personally, I believe that to be “oneself” means to be a person and not a thing. It means that we have a right to not let society or government or other human beings turn you into an object, or anything less than a human being. We live in a western industrialized society that has essentially created a new type of man, a type of man that Fromm called the homo consumens. The homo consumens is “the consumer man,” the man for whom all things are simply articles of consumption. These things can be alcohol and drugs, or iPods and cell phones, or even love and sex. We consume and consume and consume and define ourselves by the objects we own and buy. If we are define by objects and things, does that not seem to violate our right “to be oneself”?
More than that, we devote our lives to producing things just so that we can continue to consume more, and in this process we are transforming from peoples into things because we are defining ourselves by the objects we buy and consume (Fromm, “Automaton”). Are we now more homo consumens than homo sapiens? Fromm asserted that a homo sapiens is an animal that uses his intelligence for the purpose of survival. If one sees that today men do not seem to use their knowledge for the purpose of survival but rather for the preparation of mass consumption and eventual destruction, then one may have some doubts to what extent the most basic definition of homo sapiens still is true (Fromm, “Automaton”). The problem that stems from this is that we are losing our ability to embrace the right of “being oneself.” If you are not yourself, you are a thing. It is disturbing to think about the fact that we are willingly giving up this human right so that we can be the ultimate consumer. Karl Marx would probably add on to this argument with his work on capitalism. Through Marx’s influences, Fromm came to see a capitalistic society as a strong determinant of the individual and believed that capitalism has taken over society by being a “market that puts man second” (Arcaro, class notes on Fromm, November 7, 2013).
I suggest that the issue of homo sapiens becoming homo consumens should be studied further because it is one of the most important problems that goes on in the modern world and because it infringes on our ability to embrace the right of being oneself. Fromm argues in “The Present Human Condition” that modern industrialism has succeeded in producing an automaton—an alienated man. Man is alienated, in the sense that our actions and our own forces have become estranged from us and we define ourselves by our possessions. We are disconnected from our true selves and mankind’s “life forces” have been transformed into things and institutions. Fromm states, “Just as primitive man was helpless before the natural forces, so modern man is helpless before the social and economic forces he himself has created.” In our consumer society, man experiences himself not as the active possessor of his own forces and riches but as an impoverished “thing” who is dependent on other things outside of himself. To overcome the alienation, which makes us impotent and irrational, we must overcome the market-oriented and passive attitudes that dominate us now, and chose a more mature and productive path. We must reacquire a sense of self and be capable of our work a meaningful and concrete activity. I think that people have become ignorant of their right to be themselves and not be defined by any material goods. We need to emerge from a materialistic orientation and arrive at a level where spiritual values like love, truth, and social justice truly become of ultimate concern to us. Fromm’s asserts that building a “sane” society in which all human rights are accepted and social justice is found means taking the next step and ending the “humanoid” history phase in which man has not yet become fully human. The new phase of human history, if it comes to pass, will be a new beginning and a chance for man to rediscover himself and overcome alienation (Fromm 1995/1996, “Present”).
Another aspect of the right to be oneself is having a sense of identity and being able to say “I” in a meaningful and authentic way, rather than to feel as though you are just one insignificant person in the crowd of billions on the planet. I have learned that our lack of a sense of identity leads to the obsessive need to conform with everybody else and be accepted. Friedrich Nietzsche’s input on this is that political institutions feed into the herd mentality (Arcaro, class notes on Nietzsche, October 29, 2013). Naturally, if I do not know who I am, then I have to join the herd in order to be sure that I am somebody, that I am at least like the rest, that I have a place somewhere in this world. It is important that we recognize the human right to having a sense of identity apart from the objects we own. If we embrace this right, then we will not feel the need to simply be part of the herd as strongly (Fromm, “Automaton”). Embracing this right of identity also helps to combat alienation. I think that a great deal more can and should be done to study the problem of identity in modern man and the threat that it poses to embracing our rights as human beings. I am approaching the topic from a contemporary perspective but, as I mentioned in my introduction, there are many sociological theorists who have also made the argument that there are parts of our society that make it difficult to embrace our full rights as human beings.
Max Weber warned us about the dangers of bureaucratization, and I wish to extend his warning to cover how bureaucratization can infringe upon human rights. In relation to the future, Weber believed that we (society) are not going to eventually plateau off into a utopia in which; he essentially predicted that things are just going to get worse and worse. Bureaucratization is inevitable and there are consequences. I think that Weber was right—it is going to get harder rather than easier to defend our human rights and fight for social justice. The way that we define our rights as humans and decide what is and is not just will also change as society changes, I think. Weber looks at us as more like victims than anything else—he believed that we will be steamrolled by bureaucratization and that we will become more alienated and “thin” as time rolls on. He humans as weaker and not as resilient as Karl Marx did and he held that “no matter how bureaucratized or impersonal a society becomes, the search by individuals for a meaningful existence is unending” (Ashley and Orenstein, Arcaro class notes on Weber, September 24, 2013).
I think that part of this search for a meaningful existence is a search for a way to ensure that all our human rights are protected and realized. Weber was more pessimistic than I am about our ability to achieve that, but his warning of bureaucratization making us even more alienated and “thin” is important and should not be brushed aside, I believe. Another theorist, Nietzsche, provides insight on the subject of human rights with his comments on morality. As previously mentioned, I think that, in defining human rights, it is necessary to consider the morality aspect of those rights. Considering the role that morals play in identifying human rights also helps us to better understand what it means to be human. Nietzsche’s musings on morality compliments this discussion. Although he occasionally referred to himself as an “immoralist,” in one important sense Nietzsche was not one, if only because he did not in fact think that there was a single, distinct phenomenon—“morality”—which it would make much sense to be universally in favor of or opposed to. Nietzsche was a conscious anti-essentialist in that he did not think that terms like “morality” always and everywhere referred to items that shared the same defining traits. I think that this is an important point even today. “Morality” encompasses a wide variety of different sorts of things and this makes it difficult to use morality as justification for a human right. What is moral to me may not be moral to you. Does this mean that a human right to one person may not be a human right to another because of how they view what is and is not moral? Furthermore, is it a problem that we do not all define morality in the same fashion, or not? Nietzsche was very critical on the topic morality, but I think he brought up a very good point in his assessment of how we, as a society, define our morals (Guess, Arcaro, class notes on Nietzsche, October 24, 2013). The academic dispute between scholars that advocate moral relativism and scholars that advocate moral universalism in relation to human rights is ongoing today. Relativists do not argue against human rights, but concede that human rights are social constructed and are shaped by cultural and environmental contexts. Universalists argue that human rights have always existed, and apply to all people regardless of culture, race, sex, or religion (Wong). I find myself intrigued by this debate and unsure of which side I fall on, as I am sure that many of my peers do. With all that I have learned throughout my sociology courses and my journey through sociological theory this semester, I am tempted to agree with the relativists that human rights are socially constructed and by societal forces because it seems that just about everything else we hold to be the norm is. As I discussed before, moral universality can be a sticky subject due to the fact that we all define morals differently, from person to person and culture to culture.
George Herbert Mead is an additional sociological theorist who shared his ideas on human rights through his theory of natural rights. It is part of a theory of society and selfhood that encourages and provides intellectual guidance for social reform and social justice. This theory argues that democracy and human rights are mutually implicatory and rise or fall together. It explains how even drastic changes in the definition of rights can be orderly and can be based on rights to request and realize changes which make revolution unnecessary. It also shows how societal stability and advancement are able to coexist with each another (Betz 199). Mead reveals that that rights exist only in society and that rights are--in a sense—society. This is another way of saying that rights are universal, "universal because in asserting his rights the individual recognized them as belonging to others also" (Betz 205). Someone who is aware of his rights is not only also aware of the rights of others, but additionally of the social unity which exists between himself and others (Betz 205).
Mead's pragmatism stresses the self in society. He held that rights are always defined contextually, within the circumstances that create them. We become conscious of some part of our situation, usually, only when there is a perceived problem with it. It is the same thing with rights. Specifically, "a right…comes to consciousness through some infraction, when there is something at hand hindering the expression of the power it involves” (Betz 211). When conflict of rights or conflict arising with the claim for rights occurs in society, and the present institutions of society cannot process those claims, then the present social arrangement proves itself too narrow for the situation (Betz 211). Mead dreamed of a society in which, “all social potential would be fully realized in a world of unity” (Ashley and Orenstein, 395). He introduces this concept at the end of his Mind, Self, and Society lectures, but never discusses explicitly what he imagined this universal society to look like exactly, though I believe it would be one in which all human rights are recognized and social justice prevails. The universal society was to be one of unlimited growth and peaceful emergence of new social forms, and thus was not conceptualized by Mead as a static end stage in human development (Ashley and Orenstein, 417). He believed that, ultimately, we will one day be developed enough to orient ourselves to all of humanity, therefore living out the idea of the universal society.
Patricia Hill Collins, a contemporary sociologist who studies issues concerning feminism and gender in the African American community, published a book Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice in 1998. Fighting Words focused on how black women have confronted the injustices against them within black communities, expanding on the idea of "outsiders within" from her previous book. She examines how outsiders resist the majority’s perspective, while simultaneously pushing for and creating new insight on the social injustices that exist. Collins also notes how acknowledging the social theories of oppressed groups are important because their different experiences have created new angles of looking at human rights and injustice. This has not always been the case because, as she points out, the “elites possess the power to legitimate the knowledge that they define as theory as being universal, normative, and ideal" (“Thinker” Presentation on Patricia Hill Collins, Collins).
Classical sociological theorists strongly advocated the concept of social prediction largely because they believed it would enable sociologists to manipulate the future so as to reduce needless human suffering and enable the realization of human rights and social justice. For Comte, sociology as a whole is concerned with prevision; Spencer similarly believed that the discipline of sociology must go beyond historical analysis in order to see where we are heading in the future (Ashley and Orenstein 474). Durkheim insisted that sociology must look beyond the horizon of the present “transitional” period to perceive a new type of social organization (Arcaro, class notes on Durkheim, September 12, 2013). Even Marx outlines the fundamental features of the coming society and Mead discussed the possibility of a universal society in which each of us can take into account a generalized other that represents the totality of humanity. Weber believed that our ability to predict was limited, but he still argued that, if we are to deal with modernity’s effects, we have to come to terms with its inexorable tendencies (Ashley and Orenstein, 474). The ability to predict, for them, meant that social theory could analyze present suffering and infringement on human rights and discover what action might be taken toward its reduction or even its eradication. As I asserted before, I think that the focus should now be turned to the prevention of man becoming a robot because it is a human right to know oneself and not have a false sense of identity. If the prediction is that we are to become automatons in our consumer culture, then actions must now be taken to analyze this infringement on our right to having a identity that is not created by our possessions or place in the “herd."
Although classical sociologists were interested in different cultures and different civilizations, they were even more interested in grasping principles that would explain forces affecting humanity as a whole, such as the quest for securing human rights and social justice. Classical theorists like Hegel, Marx, Mead, Freud, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, and Nietzsche believed that modernity was creating one world with similar worldviews and concluded that the task of the modern intellectual was to show humanity as a whole how to adapt, understand, or appreciate the forces that controlled a common destiny (Ashley and Orenstein, 473). The classical theorists believed there was something cumulative and inexorable about modernity. Weber, for instance, would point out that, in the modern era, cumulative or irreversible processes of cultural development clearly have been identified and that these have to do with changing complexity and reflexivity. Weber believed that, because such change was irreversible, its impact on humanity as a whole had to be acknowledged. I would agree with Weber. Approaching the issue of human rights and how to make sure they are realized is complex, but it is part of our cultural development (Ashley and Orenstein, 474).
I think that the question of “What does it mean to be human?” comes into play when discussing human rights. Being human comes down to having dignity and to having a unique identity. This is why the right to be oneself is so important to me. We can live a life without dignity in which we conform to the world and go along with the herd mentality. We can choose to define ourselves by the material objects we own and consume, but by doing so we are disrespecting our right to be oneself and embracing a faux identity. As humans, we have choice. If we take for granted and give up one human right, such as the right to be oneself, what is to stop us from giving up another and another until we are left with nothing to define ourselves by? When people better understand human rights, it will be easier for us to promote social justice and the well being of our society. Human rights are what makes freedom possible. Without our rights and freedom we wouldn't be much of a civilization, yet these rights are taken for granted all the time. In the words of Lady Gaga, “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights[,] pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones” (“Thinker” Presentation, Lady Gaga).
Our uniqueness as human beings makes agreement on any one issue very difficult. Even when we have agreement, there is dispute on what path to take to achieve our goals (such as social justice). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows that it is possible for the world to come together and agree that we do indeed have inalienable human rights and the right to social justice, but the current state of the world reminds us that we have a long way to go before each man and woman is able to fulfill their rights and social justice prevails. Unless humans are able to internalize some kind of moral code or learn some kind of generalizable philosophy that they can rely on in diverse circumstances, it is difficult to see how the fulfillment of human rights for everyone can be achieved. As humans, we are unique in our ability to determine our rights and have free will. What other species has a written list of rights? If we are going to take the step to lay them out there and universally agree that these rights are inalienable and natural, then it is our duty to ensure that they are achieved by all human beings. It is our duty to overcome the temptation to conform and to embrace the right to be oneself. It is our duty to embrace our uniqueness and define ourselves by it. We have the potential and we have the ability to do this and to do anything less than pursue this mission with vigor and determination would be shameful. What does it mean to be human? Being human means to have dignity and to have dignity means to respect yourself. If I am respecting myself, then I am embracing my humanity for all that it is worth and being active in ensuring that my human rights are not infringed upon by myself, by others, or by society that increasingly defines an individual by his or her material worth. It is our charge to actively pursue our human rights and address the anti-human social forces that we encounter together. As an individual, we can only do so much, but as a collective force for human rights, we have power. Where we go from here is up to each of us. Do you join the fight for human rights and social justice or do you shy away from the battle and let yourself be content to let your rights go unfulfilled and be infringed upon? It’s up to you. But I do not suggest waiting until its too late. We need to act now.
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Class “Thinker” Presentation Notes. 2013.
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Fromm, Eric. "The Automaton Citizen and Human Rights." Lecture. 1966 American Orthopsychiatric Association. Eric Fromm Document Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
Fromm, Erich. “The Present Human Condition.” The American Scholar (25), no. 1 (Winter, 1955-1956), pp. 29-35.
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Geuss, Raymond. "Nietzsche and Morality." (1997): n. pag. Blackwell Publishers. Web.
Wong, David B. Moral Relativity. Berkeley: University of California, 1986.
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