Monday, November 16, 2009

Barack Obama and the Question of "Universal Rights"

Barack Obama made a bold move in participating in a "town hall" meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai. However, on the basis of the Al Jazeera English account of this meeting (taken from both wire sources and their own staff), he was even bolder in how he participated:

During the question-and-answer session, Obama said that "universal rights" of expression, religious freedom and free information should be available to everyone, including those in China.

Aspects of the event, which was streamed live on the White House website, were subject to delicate negotiations between US officials and Chinese officials up to the last minute.

A transcript of the session was posted on the website of the state-run Xinhua news agency and it was broadcast on local Shanghai television with a several-second delay.

It other words he chose to speak his mind about his value system; and, whatever their general practices of censorship may be, the Chinese government allowed the circulation of news of his actions.

Is there any significance to this event? The Chinese must still remember the link between the official visit by Mikhail Gorbachev and the initial protest gathering in Tiananmen Square on May 13, 1989. One assumes that they weighed heavily whether or not Obama's presence would induce a repetition of history, possibly as a second tragedy rather than a Marxian farce. If so, then they seem to have concluded that the risk of protest in the name of "universal rights" was too low to pose a threat.

This led me to consider the proposition behind Obama's words and why so little threat was associated with it. Presumably, he (with or without assistance from his speechwriters) took his words from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Consider, however, the text that introduces this Declaration on its Web page:

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."

I found myself reading this in the context of how difficult it had been to get a unanimous endorsement of our own Declaration of Independence by all thirteen colonies and wondering just what the adoption process was. Considering conditions among the initial member nations, it is hard to imagine that adoption was a matter of a unanimous vote of approval. Cynic that I am, I cannot imagine anything other than a rather vague voice vote having established adoption.

So perhaps it is time for us to let go of this rhetoric of universality and its close ties to the worldview of the victor nations of the Second World War. Instead, we should recognize that, on a global scale, there is considerable diversity in the underlying view of the nature of humanity itself, which precedes any questions of "inalienable rights" and "inherent dignity" in the language of the Universal Declaration. Consider, to choose an example that does not pick on any individual countries, the radical difference in the sense of humanity assumed by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank and that of the more profit-based financial institutions that dominate the world economy. If there is no universality of humanity in the business of finance, regardless of the countries in which that business is conducted, what hope is there for agreement over human rights?

Yet business goes on, because business runs through negotiations, rather than agreements to accept universal truths. Those who succeed in business tend to be those who succeed in communicating; and communication involves engaging with a wide variety of interests (suppliers, partners, customers, competitors, etc.), each of which requires different communicative strategies, tactics, and actions. Like it or not, worldviews and value systems differ; and we probably understand more about how the diversity of life forms has evolved than we do about the emergence of such differing views of humanity itself. We should definitely see to our own interests and values, but that is likely to involve negotiation with those who do not share them. Negotiation, in turn, is more about being able to get things done, rather than whether or not one worldview can "win" over another. To a great extent the history of the world is a chronicle at just how poor we have been at such negotiation. Can we look back at our track record for getting it wrong and start thinking about getting it right for a change?

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