The choice between civil rights and human rights is a question of priorities and world view. Civil rights are rights granted by law to a citizen of a state, whereas human rights are inherent rights we are born with as humans. Both “rights” vary according to country and culture. In Human Rights in the United States, Sally Engle Merry and Jessica Shimmin state, “A human rights framework expands the focus beyond a relatively narrow civil rights approach, which requires only punishment of the offender, to a broader social justice one combining civil and political rights with social, economic, and cultural ones” (116). The United States and her early founders are renowned in history for having established a doctrine of equality and liberty through the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but the rights set forth in these historic documents have become more political and narrow than universal in nature.
It is said that civilization is either ruled by “the one,” “the few,” or “the many.” The United States was founded on the vision of a democracy where the voices of “the many” would be represented by “the few” to ensure the well-being of all the nation’s citizens. Current unrest with the unequal distribution of power and wealth in modern day society – as evidenced by grassroots movements such as Occupy Wall Street - demonstrates that while we may have certain civil rights, many minorities and economically disadvantaged populations are not afforded essential human rights. Human rights violations in the United States most often take the form of inequality and unfair discrimination according to race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation. For example, marriage equality is a controversial topic in the sociopolitical sphere. This issue is too often framed as civil rights issue – rights and benefits that should or should not be granted to individuals by the federal government – instead of a human rights case. Read more of my thoughts on marriage equality here.
In our fear driven society plagued by illusions of division, the power to either extend or deny civil rights gives power to “the few.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the closest our civilization has come to a definition of universal human rights, yet it is no more than a declaration. If our nation were to allow gay marriage, we would be upholding Article 16 (1) of the UDHR, which states, “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.” To sign a declaration, unlike a convention, does not require change to existing law and policy to uphold certain rights. Civil rights are at the mercy of the state, and in the United States our government is bent on protecting our sovereignty from international law or conventions that may encroach on established rules of the land. It is for this reason that the United States has such a poor record of ratifying human rights conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of 1979, or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) of 1989.
In my opinion, United States society is overrun by fear and humanity’s quest for answers to quell that fear through reason. We are against marriage equality because we fear it will compromise the sanctity of our own homosexual unions, just as we oppose liberal immigration reform because we fear foreigners bring cultural corruption. We may even trace evidence of this love affair with logic in simple everyday news, such as ever-increasing government funding for research in math and sciences thanks to budget cuts to humanities and the arts. When we rely so heavily on logic and deny our own inherent knowledge and connection to universal intelligence – which I believe naturally guides us to love, unity, and equality – we look outside ourselves for guidance and affirmation. This has been our downfall. Howard Thurman wrote, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
We have become a society of blind faith, pulled by strings in our search for answers and guidance to lead our lives, when what we seek lies within ourselves. In his book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David Brooks discusses the innate power of our subconscious mind. He references Timothy D. Wilson, who writes that “the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these.” Brooks goes on to compare our conscious mind to a general analyzing the landscape from a distance with a linear and linguistic perspective, while our subconscious mind acts as the scouts that are immersed in all aspects of the environment, whether seen or unseen. The scouts report back to the general with signals with emotional significance. He writes that while they do not control our lives, they guide us, like a “spiritual GPS.” I believe that we have come to rely too heavily on the general, instead of our intuitive scouts. Why? There are some things, like emotions or ethics, which are not easily expressed because they are something you feel. You cannot easily rationalize them or define them through logic and our conscious mind.
The illusion of division has saturated our everyday lives and even our relationship with ourselves by disconnecting us from our subconscious mind and its power. When we ignore the value of the scouts, or our “spiritual GPS,” we slowly remove our connection with the “bigger picture” and the essence that all humans share. When I see an issue being framed as a civil rights issue instead of a human rights issue, I believe that it is because of a lack of faith in our spiritual GPS and our ability to define human rights.