Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
One of Western society’s most appealing benefits to people across the world is its emphasis on the individual rights of its citizens. It is a sign of a progressive society on the move and not being static. Liberties like women’s rights, feminism, civil and Gay rights, and the freedom to protest are all benchmarks and it is as much feared by authoritarian regimes as it is aspired to.
For example, the LGBTQ lifestyle is heavily promoted and largely accepted in most first world countries. However in Russia, it’s thoroughly rejected and considered an aberration. The recent live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, was banned in the country because one of the supporting characters is gay. In fact for most of the world over, any other orientation other than heterosexual is attacked and outlawed.
It is for this reason that Western ideas often gain so many footholds in other countries. It allows people to experiment with different ideas and concepts, and for people to behave in a way that is natural for them, short of murder of course. Anything else is backward.
However, individual, human rights as we know them are largely a modern idea. The freedom to experiment with morals and ideologies is largely a product of a prospering society not under great duress. It is true that earlier societies had liberties as well based on specific groups, classes or if certain conditions were met, but it was never universally applied. If anything in fact, history has shown that in times of great crisis, freedoms are curtailed.
Rights as Hypocrisy
Using American society as a context, its concept of democracy was considered by the European world powers to be a radical and dangerous idea. Even the French, who supported the Americans during the Revolutionary War, would never allow their own monarchy to fall two years later if they could have helped it.
Despite this, the structure of American society was not as progressive as the concept it was founded on. Slavery was still legal, women had no rights in the legal sense, Native Americans were still seen as less than human and needing to be removed, and homosexuality was virtually unheard of except as a being a sin. If anything, the only true concept of civil rights applied to White men and their freedom from overbearing rulers and governments.
Arguably, the idea of individual rights as a human obligation first started with the abolitionist movement. It pushed for an end to the slave trade in the American south, as well as supported freeing slaves illegally. All this being prior to the Civil War during the 1830s as many Americans began opposing slavery as an anti-Christian institution, even if their southern peers condoned it. Of course, this met intense resistance, with many southerners regarding the movement with increasing hostility. There was even a rule put forth in the House of Representatives against anti-slavery petitions being made on the floor.
Eventually though, war erupted and its conclusion forced Southern culture to legally forgo slavery, though it still unofficially continued for many years. The end of the war also did not give Blacks the right to vote either and it would not be till 1957, another one hundred years, before Blacks began to remotely experience the same liberties as Whites.
From this also began another universal rights movement, women’s’ suffrage, with its first leaders being veterans of the abolitionist movement such as Lucretia Mott and Cady Stanton. It slowly picked up headway and like its abolitionist peer, would also not begin to see their fruits until 1920, in the next century.
During the 1920s, young Americans did start playing around with progressive ideas such as casual sex, inter-racial mixing within the context of jazz and swing clubs, and the fore mentioned women’s’ right to vote. But only voting touched on actual legal rights. Despite that though, there are many similar factors to today. However, any potential social change was stopped dead in its tracks by the Great Depression and then war following afterward. In the face of literal survival, people had no time to deal with the uncertainty of social change, in the midst of an already uncertain time.
Flirtations with changing status quos came during times of relative peace and prosperity of the decade. Despite its struggle with culture and law, abolitionism and women’s’ rights occurred during a time where there were no major wars with foreign powers. Even during the watershed period of the 1960s, where the rights of the individual finally came into the mainstream, universal rights had already gained ground during the last decade, years before any international events and during a prosperous time. The Civil Rights movement had seen to that.
Hiding Inside the Shell
When a society feels vulnerable or threatened with extinction, there is a tendency to close ranks. The wagons of familiarity and stability start circling up because of the shakeup and chaos that is happening outside. Even when the crisis is over, should the society survive, it comes to value the wagon circle of values that protected them in times of trouble.
Change then is not tolerated because it disrupts that stability. Change by nature is unstable and its consequences unforeseeable, despite what may be hoped for. Progressive civil liberties are agents of change. They disrupt the status quo of traditional American values that are believed to be responsible for the nation’s success and part of its foundation and identity.
Many Americans would not want to risk their personal, family, or business prosperity on a gamble to offer equality to others whom were not in their immediate circles. Other lives, no matter how human they are, are not of consequence if you don’t know them.
The struggle of women in the workplace since the 1970s is a perfect example of this battle with entrenched ideas. Some people don’t want to change what works for them, what handed them their success.
Ironic that it was that prosperity which was responsible for creating the fertile ground for change in the first place. With no great war or catastrophic depression to struggle with, American society was relatively comfortable. And this allowed people, especially younger people, to begin to think about new ideas that were outside the normal confines. This allowed for a cultural revolution in the 1960s.
The Cold War was for the most part just a cold war. And by the time Vietnam began in 1963, universal rights were already well on their way when more conservative elements of American society wanted to again close ranks to rally for the new war.
The treatment of Muslims and anyone who looked like an Arab after 9/11 is a more recent example of this retroactive tendency. You could also look at many of the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, citing their fear of job loss and increasing duress on their personal economies as the reason for their decision. Were they aware of the prejudiced statements he made against Mexicans and Muslims? Yes, but it still fell as secondary concerns to overcoming their personal crisis.
Despite that, current society now holds civil liberties dear, and most acts against them or trying to restrain human dignity are now met with fierce resistance from half the American populace. Growing acceptance of others who are different has been steady and allowed to evolve under the shelter of the prosperity of the last thirty years.
Watchers on the Wall
So now that America and many first world countries are ‘morally-enlightened’ to the need for universal human rights, their challenge is going to be maintaining those standards in the face of overwhelming problems and conflicts. It is easy to be agreeable or at least peaceable when there isn’t a proverbial-or literal, gun to your head. Europe is currently going through this situation now with the issue of immigrants and refugees. The idea of liberties being extended to all people has never before existed and took centuries to evolve to what it is today. In the past, it was all circumstantial and limited, and when the society disappeared, so did the liberties.
Ultimately, universal human rights go against the grain of human nature. They are not natural to us and for any society or individual to hold onto them when the shit hits the fan, takes the strongest of convictions. Because modern, civil liberties are still a new trend, it may take another century for it to become second nature to human society. And while it would be easy to say that there is no turning back the tides of change despite the challenges, we must always be aware that our basic human nature can and has often done just that when our own necks were on the line.
© 2017 Jamal Smith