Elon University Home

15. Human Rights and Social Justice

Author: Caitlin Rudd, Junior

Emile Durkheim thought, like a biological organism, society can be healthy or sick. We must be the doctors to fix our society, just as a physician helps to fix our bodies (Ashley 88, 2005).This is a huge topic which leaves me with many places to start. At first I really was not sure where I should start. I think where all of this should start is with humanity. Things relating to human rights and social justice have to do with people being treated or viewed as less than human. I have seen these injustices happen to people around me and happen all over the world. I have even experienced many of them myself from others, both close to me and distant. These are problems causing suffering and hardships all over the planet, problems that need to be solved. They are hard to fix and just thinking of them for this paper is daunting. It is defiantly larger than me, larger than any of us alone. But it’s not larger than us all together, which is how we can really make a difference. Now that I have built up that hope, I will be sinking down again. I want to talk about problems. I want to call out and point to all of the human rights and social justice issues that I have seen and experienced. From there I will build back up and see where we are headed, all the good that is being done and can still happen. We can make the world a better place for everyone, but first we must address and acknowledge the problems.
First, I will start with race. All of these issues connect in some way, but I want to address them individually to point out some of the specifics. I have not personally suffered, institutionally, because of my race. Because I am while, I have many things running in my favor. In an article by Peggy McIntosh, she talks about the many things she has working in her favor and doesn’t have to worry about because she is white. For example, she lists things like seeing her race’s accomplishments praised in history and academia, being able to criticize the government  and speak freely without worry of policies being made to work against her, being able to use large sums of money, credit cards and checks when buying expensive items without being questioned about her financial reliability, and being able to go out into public being sure that she will not be harassed or followed because of being considered dangerous or untrustworthy (McIntosh).
One of the most upsetting racial issues is profiling by police and law enforcement as well as problems getting jobs because of their name and ethnicity. These problems arise because of stereotypes that say non-white people are lazy, greedy, violent, aggressive, unintelligent, and all around less than white individuals. We see these ideas reinforced in the media constantly. In much of our media non-white individuals are the ones who play antagonists and negative role models. This automatically generates a negative perception of non-white individuals, because we begin associating the skin tone or cultural attitude with these negative aspects of a character. This type of reinforcement is happening from a young age because of how soon people are introduced to television. These perceptions are also coming from a history of white superiority that many with power and control don’t want to give up.
Much of the racism that appears today has moved away from the direct and violent, and moved towards a type of racism that is founded on language use and the assumption that racism and preconceived notions of racial biases do not exist any longer. This is most defiantly not true. People know that it is not appropriate to be directly hostile about race in our current time. We have now turned to a more subtle type of racism, such as color blind racism and modern racism. People high in modern racism will use types of language to indicate their feelings, but the language will not be as direct. For example if one heard that a non-white individual struck a white individual, someone high in modern racism would say the person was aggressive or hateful, while someone who is not high in modern racism would say the person simply struck or hit the other individual (Beal, Ruscher & Schnake 136, 2006).
The idea of laziness comes, primarily, from the fact that a large portion of the non-white communities are poor and impoverished.  This leads me into talking about the misconceptions and mistreatment of the poor in this country. Our country is incredibly class driven and the divides between the classes are strikingly obvious. As we all know, one percent of our nation’s population holds an overwhelming majority of its wealth, leaving nearly nothing for the rest of the people. When I really began to understand this was a reality, I wondered how in the world this managed to happen. The answer is in the way America carries itself and its hyper dedication to capitalism.
America is the country where individual freedom and accomplishment are praised, where you raise yourself up by you own bootlaces and make yourself great with your own power and will. The problem with this ideal is, after a while, it creates a wonderful environment  for the allowance and justification  of rampant poverty that now pervades our country. If you make money, according to our individualistic society, you deserve to keep every last bit of it, not matter how much it is, and if you do not have money then it is because you are lazy and unwilling to work. Government aid is hated and dismissed as socialist and anti-capitalistic because you should not take hand outs from the government. You should just push through and deal with it, and eventually, if you really care enough, you will be where you should be. These claims are incredibly bad and this set up is justifying a world where the poor deserve to be poor and the rich should just continue to live off their work, making money from it. Any attempts at showing the positives of universal healthcare, government aid programs, changes in taxes that could lead to increased taxes for the rich, or suggestions about increasing minimum wage to a living wage brings forth accusations of communism and socialism, as well as claims that that would be taking away someone’s hard earned money. Money that should not go to aiding someone who is lazy and unwilling to work.
This type of ethic and the huge success of capitalism might also be attributed to the fact that a huge number of the people in America are Protestant, and America was founded by Protestants. Max Weber claimed that Protestantism’s teachings and work ethic set up an environment well suited for capitalism. He said that the idea of casting off material things and the idea of accounting for how we are spending our time lead to a group of people who saved up for investment, which lead to the appearances of small businesses. He felt there was a “significance of religious orientations in the development of the capitalist West” (Ashley 244, 2005).
These arguments collapse against the fact that many of the poor are unable to get work because there is a distinct lack of available jobs. This lack of jobs seems to be coming from the fact that the people with the money are plainly unwilling to pay workers more or hire more people because it would cost them more money. This is apparent with the current fight against raising the minimum age to a point where someone could live off of it. Most people receiving government aid are not on it because they want the free hand out. Most are on it because they cannot get a job. They are on aid because they have no choice. These problems are also steadily killing the middle class. The rich are slowly taking all of the money from the poor and middle class. Capitalism has become an inefficient system and is now just a justification for the egregious wealth disparities in our country. Karl Marx talked about how capitalism was a grand system for making money but would eventually fall flat because it was ultimately self-destructive. As it matures the system becomes unstable and “the cost of constant capital would progressively become more expensive in proportion to the costs of variable capital” (Ashley 206). This would eventually lead to exploitation of the workers which then leads to a worker revolution. We will have to see if this appears in the future.
Now I move onto a couple of subjects that have directly affected me. Those are gender and sexual orientation. I will talk about these somewhat together, as I talked about the others because, like those, many of the problems run hand in hand with negative assumptions about each. To give some background about myself, I am a trans* individual. I refer to myself as bi-gendered, or as tending to be more male than female. I have felt this way for a long time, but never had the words to really explain it and understand it until I got into college. The other part about me that is relevant is that I am asexual. I do not have a drive to have sex or be physically intimate with my partner. While this may seem like there is not much problem with my situation, being asexual can be very hard and trying.
I really understood that I was asexual when I started dating my partner. I told him shortly after we started dating that I was not comfortable with having sex and did not desire to do so. This caused some tension in our relationship until he happened upon, AVEN, The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (The Asexual Visibility & Education Network, 2012). This really shed light on how I have felt my whole life. I felt a sense of understanding about myself I had not had felt in a long time. I wanted to share this with the other people around me, especially my parents, who were the ones who would worry about my sexual activities the most. Unfortunately, the first talk I had with my mother was not at all what I had thought it would be. Instead of the relief and understanding I had come to expect from my usually supported mother, I was barraged with questions about my partner, and his feelings and opinions on the matter, all asked in a tone that implied I was a naïve ten year old who could not possibly understand how I felt. After questioning me about talking to my partner about the situation, she said that my partner might want to have kids one day so that he could pass his name on, and then said I would understand when I was older that I would want sex. These questions are ones that are typical along with a complete dismissal of the societal pressure which causes erasure for an asexual individual. Many people ask the common question of why does it matter if less than 1% of the population is being recognized as something different. To quote Anthony Bogaert in his book Understanding Asexuality, “the relevance of having an identity (and being able to express it) goes beyond gaining acceptance for, and therefore access to, behavior that might otherwise be prohibited. It has to do with answering some basic questions about oneself. It also has to do with expressing oneself and seeking some level of acceptance from others for one’s existence” (Bogaert 84-85, 2012). Our identity is how we validate our existence both to ourselves and others. If we are not accepted by others, it can be incredibly hard to accept ourselves.
This is a situation is one that almost all asexual individuals face.  The expectations of our society to get married and have children are all over the place. Not to mention all of the media showing me that I should be having sex, especially with my partner (but only if it is straight). I remember all of the comments in high school after the Navy Ball put on by my NJROTC, asking if I had had sex after we had left, and the disappointed and contemptuous faces I received when I told them we had not had sex. Even now the constant reminder of “can’t wait for those grandkids” or “someday when you have kids…” from family is incredibly hurtful.
To relate this back to a talk about same-sex relationships, The fact that sex is implanted into marriage is what is causing the problem for same-sex couples as well. If marriage was really only about sharing the love and support of a partner, then the bars against same-sex marriage would have potentially been removed a while ago. The idea that marriage is simply for child bearing is actually from ancient times. This is how things worked in places such as ancient Greece. Marriage was a union of a man and wife for the purpose of creating children. It was also considered a lesser relationship than the homosexual relationship between two men, because of the way women were viewed at the time. As times have modernized the definition of marriage has changed to include a love and care for the other person. Government now provides benefits that are incredibility beneficial to people trying to find a life together. Still, though, homosexual partners are denied these benefits and the associated label because they cannot have children with each other in the same, conventional sense.
Many would argue that, if benefits are what the problem is, let there be civil unions, where they get all of the benefits, but just do not call it marriage. There is a huge problem with that idea. While the denial of these benefits is an injustice on its own, denying these couples the label of marriage is also an injustice. Labels are an incredibly important part of our culture and our construction of self. How we understand and present ourselves in our world comes from the way other understand us. George Herbert Mead said that a self is what makes the individual and individual rather than just an object affected by the natural forces around them (Ashley 403, 2005). A denial of self, or a part of self, is a denial of personhood and individuality. Being unable to claim that they are married means that same-sex couples are unable to publically acknowledge their relationship on the same level as those opposite-sex couples who are allowed to claim the label of marriage. Giving out benefits to all but only allowing the label to a few in this way is only half the deal and so still disrespecting their humanity. I am a citizen, so I can vote, own property, and work here as freely as I wish. These benefits are great, but it also means something to say that I am a citizen. That label means something aside from its tell that I will receive certain rights and benefits from the government. If I could own property, vote, and work freely in America, but could not call myself a citizen, it would draw a line in the sand, separating me from all of the others and devaluing my place in this country. The same goes for the label of marriage and its relation to the benefits it legally confers. By denying same-sex couples the label of marriage along with the benefits that come with it, we are labeling them as less than others and so are devaluing their humanity.
As I mentioned before I am also trans* and typically identify as more male than female or just as bi-gendered. As you may have also noticed from my name at the top of this paper, I go by a female name. This may seem to compete a little with the idea of me being trans*. The primary reason for this is I have not tried to talk to my parents about how I feel about myself because of the way my mother reacted when I talked to her about being asexual. I have been afraid of trying to talk to any of my family or close friends because of the possible backlash I might receive if I tried to ask people to call me male or use gender neutral pronouns like they/them. This is a fear many people deal with. Many comments accompany a situation like this, where people do not believe the individual is what they say they identify as unless they prove it, by acting a certain way. If I do not want to go all the way through with a gender reassignment surgery, many consider my identification as nothing more than talk that does not need to be acknowledged. On the flip side, people who do go through the surgery are sometimes called rude things like tranny and it because many people consider them to be freaks. These words, like derogatory racial slurs, devalue the person’s humanity and treat them as a lesser being, when in reality they are just as much a human as all the rest of us.
Along with these, sexism is a huge problem as well. Women are considered lesser creatures in many places, and the remnants of these times still linger heavily in our country as well. Female genital mutilation and the killings of wives and daughters because of religions practices still goes on. These are human rights problems that are harming women all around the world simply because they are women. These things happen less in America, but our country is not without problems when it comes to gender and sex issues either. Huge amounts of adds continue to harm women all over our country by placing unobtainable body expectations on them as well as reinforcing the idea that women are sexual objects rather than people, will at the same time saying they should be chaste and virginal, placing her virginity as a prize to be won by a man. Our language also implies that she has had some part of her taken from her, and she should be ashamed at the fact that she had sex at all. All the while women are expected to be ready to have sex with any man who comes up to call.
And call they do. I have talked to many women who receive cat calls and lewd remarks while walking home from work or shopping. I have subsequently heard those women talk about how afraid they are to be out alone because of things that have happened before. Women are sexually assaulted, harassed, and raped all the time in our country and so many go completely unnoticed. Many times women are told not to report the assault because of the reputation of their assailant, or because it will stain them because they had had sex with someone. Just as victim blaming is rampant when it comes to the poor, victim blaming is a constant when it comes to rape victims, both female and male. The issues associated with sexism also affect men as well. It leaves unreasonable expectations on them for their body image, as well as promotes men to be violent, angry, and aggressive machines who cannot show any other kind of emotion except those feelings listed just a moment ago. At the same time it is considered negative to be cooperative, friendly, agreeable, compromising, and passive because these are typically feminine traits. The idea that feminine traits are negative is once again a way to devalue  someone’s value and humanity simply because they are not in a position of power.
So I have talked about a huge amount of negative things. All of these are ways that human beings are being devalued both openly and more subtly through language and attitudes. The fact that all of this is happening and much of it is driven by taught ideas that are more like relics of the past and less of anything backed by real science makes the fight to end it seem daunting and overwhelming. But as I mentioned in my introduction, we can do it if we work together. If we spread the word about the problems, the injustices, then we can work towards making a more informed world that will steadily change to being a place of solidarity amongst all humans.
Even now we see parts of the media shifting to portraying women in a better fashion than they used to. Some of the new animated shows on television that are showing women of different ethnicities and body types as main characters, completely autonomous and in charge of themselves without the aid of a male character.  Some are even exploring things like non-gendered characters. Soon I hope that the rest of the media begins talking about minority groups and marginalized people as what they are, people. Many celebrities are now beginning to support these groups, though there are still many things they do that hurt other groups. More and more people are beginning to speak out and become aware of many of these issues.
We are making a difference because of how open many of these groups are being now about these disparities. There are groups for all of these minority groups being vocal about the problems facing them and openly welcoming allies to aid in movements to end the negative ideas, stereotypes, and assumptions that go along with these people who just want to be accepted for who they are. Georg Simmel believed that our selves are ever changing, ever being influenced by society and culture (e.g. 2013). If we all work together to raise awareness and visibility then we can make a better world. We can put pressure on those who have the power to make a change. We can live in a world where the poor are not blamed for their condition, where the monetary imbalance of our country has been fixed and the difference between the classes is not so strikingly apparent, where women and men, and races of all kinds, are treated as humans, not as separate species. Where all people can be married to whoever they wish to and can be public about who they love, and where people can just be themselves without fear of ridicule for feeling that they are a gender that does not correspond with their genitalia. All this takes is for people to understand. We must look at the problems for what they are and understand what has caused them to arise. We must accept the historical atrocities as well as the current and the modern. Those in power cannot just cast aside these problems because it does not affect them or because they want to run away from the guilt that comes with being associated with these problems. We must accept them and use them as a model for what not to do, for what to fight against. I think this world is possible. I think this goal is possible. All we have to do is work together with those who are already fighting, and together we can make a difference, and make this world better for all.

Works Cited
Ashley, David, David M. Orenstein. Sociological Theory Classical Statements. Boston: Pearson Education, 2005. Print.
Beal, Daniel J., Janet B. Ruscher, and Sherry B. Schnake. “Modern Racism and Intergroup Bias in Casual Explanation.” Race, Gender & Class. 13.1-2 (2006) 133-143. Web. 5 Dec. 2013
Bogaert, Anthony F. Understanding Asexuality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012. Print.
e.g., Arcaro, class notes on Simmel, 10 October 2013
MacIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. 1989. PDF file.
The Asexual Visiblity & Education Network. n.p. 2001. Web. 5 Dec. 2013

Make an Appointment

Events