Elizabeth Cook: The 'right' side of history

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 11:19am

In deeply embedded systems of oppression, the most basic elements of human rights are stripped away. The right to plan your family size. The right to drink water without being poisoned. The right to get life-saving medication without bankrupting yourself. These issues are obvious in unstable and undemocratic developing countries. But, they also hit extremely close to home.

In political systems marked by corruption, high violence and extremism, there is a festering wound that is often overlooked. The rights of the affluent are prioritized above all else; elections are blatantly rigged, the wealthy can bribe the police and afford exemplary lawyers to further benefit themselves in the legal system. Challenges to the status quo of government are “extreme” or “too radical,” even when the statement is as harmless as a social media post. Those who are not prioritized by the state must be silenced, or at the very least, disempowered in order to maintain an unchecked system that protects a small number of specific people (tied by class, family ties, religion or race). This can be executed by the state in multiple ways.

In authoritarian regimes, freedom of the press and freedom of speech are typically the first things to be eliminated, like in China, where the infectious and potentially fatal COVID-19 originated before spreading across the globe. The restrictive policies that prevent people from speaking about their experiences, fears and challenges directly contributed to the slow spread of information about the virus, highlighting how domestic human rights policy abroad impacts our domestic well-being. Governments sometimes progress from illegitimate (dictatorships and extreme citizen suppression) to legitimate (a government with some available representation of citizens). In this process, the powerful politicians and entrepreneurs have to earn some respect from those that work for (and are always beneath) them, in order to keep their power.

After the American Revolution, the founders had to reckon with a few challenges. These challenges came primarily from non-land-owning white men. In order to stop violent uprisings (like Shay’s Rebellion), the powerful threw the disgruntled a bone 80 years later — giving them the right to vote. Despite what we know and understand as an obvious flaw in democratic liberty, at the time, these white men were depicted as radical. While their concerns were included in political discourse, other disenfranchised groups (African Americans, immigrants, women and the intersections of these identities) were still forced into cultural silence through subordinating and dehumanizing systems like race-based chattel slavery and disenfranchisement through strict voting laws.

Over time, as states become stronger, the affluent and powerful have to mitigate more challenges. When abolitionists (and other grassroots movements) had clawed their way into political discourse, forming voting blocs dedicated to the end of slavery, the issue many faced had to be reckoned with. When white women and working-class white men came to personal terms with the atrocities of slavery — which African Americans had been traumatized by since the 1500s — the affluent and powerful were forced to find a solution, nearly tearing the country in two. In 2020, the impact of slavery on generations of African Americans is easily understood as a horrific human rights violation. But before slavery was abolished, abolitionists were depicted as radical. The barriers that exist today, upheld by past race-based chattel slavery, are swept aside.

As mobility, progress and change begin to occur and restrictions are lifted — for example, the fight for gay rights demanding media representation — and as individuals who are hurt by the political, economic and social limitations enforced by the government finally gain a say, they see a glimpse of what the affluent and powerful have always had. This movement led to the majority’s basic tolerance of their humanity, which then led to the acceptance of their legal ability to marry who they love. Now, the adoration of a handful of white gay icons (Ellen Degeneres and Pete Buttigieg) have worked for their recognition. Once these political, economic and social freedoms are actualized for some, they justifiably want to keep their sense of autonomy, affluence and power. Sadly, the legal restrictions and oppressive policies that they have progressed from still have a firm grasp on non-white LGBTQ+ members who face disproportionately higher rates of violence. Despite the expectation of marriage as a human right, for centuries, any display of LGBTQ+ affection was depicted as radical. Today, the legacy of those barriers that many still encounter is often ignored.

Human rights issues are prevalent in every country. In China, the suppression of free speech contributes to the spread of a complicated and deadly virus across the globe, while the continued lockdown and persecution of the Uigher Muslims renders them specifically vulnerable to COVID-19. In the United States today, racialized immigration policies are leaving children in cages without their parents or basic supplies to support themselves. In the U.S. today, polling places with high amounts of minority voters are closed despite massive lines. In the workplace, LGBTQ+ Americans are fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Any state-enforced policy that strips people of their basic humanity, from their right to live to their right to critique the government on social media, isn’t an attack on one group alone. It’s an attack on everyone, whether it is immediately apparent or not.

It is unfair to argue that fighting for fundamental human rights is radical, and the fear of social ostracization should not prevent privileged citizens from advocating for a progressive candidate. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to vote because of the resilient and heroic actions of those before us — those deemed radical, unreasonable and idealistic — need to vote. Rather than pointing fingers at international human rights limitations, American voters must first reconcile with the historic and present-day oppression, discrimination and dehumanization in their own country. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone. While the freedom of speech, political participation and financial security may finally be in our grasp despite centuries of discrimination, we must use what we have fought for to help our neighbors, not just ourselves. And this applies to those currently in power, too — continue to silence and dehumanize others, and you will have serious moral and pragmatic fissures to mend. In 2020, vote from a place of hope for humanity versus the fear of its failures, and with the understanding that human rights are not, and have never been, radical.

Elizabeth Cook can be reached at elizcook@umich.edu.