Human rights for the 21st century: by Margaret Atwood, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Dave Eggers and more
The right to home and family life is undermined by working conditions in modern society. This can be seen in the workers rights of many developing countries like the Bangladeshi garment workers.
This article titled “Human rights for the 21st century: by Margaret Atwood, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Dave Eggers and more” was written by Margaret Atwood, Bill McKibben, Anne Enright, James Bridle, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Josh Cohen, Olivia Laing and Dave Eggers, for theguardian.com on Saturday 8th December 2018 09.00 UTC
The right to be a person, not a thing
People, we have a problem. Or rather two problems. The first is a matter of definition: who or what is a human being, entitled to the rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The second is the old mind-body split: what if these two components have different wills?
I illustrate by means of the Ohio Republicans, who have recently moved to declare motherhood mandatory, and also to define any fertilised egg – whether in a woman’s body or in a Petri dish – a person under the law. Causing a non-living condition in such an entity would be murder, incurring the death penalty. Even if by miscarriage, it could be manslaughter: a woman might spend years in prison for falling off a horse, like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. (These same Republicans have plans to declare an acorn an oak tree: anyone destroying an acorn would incur the full wrath of the environmental tree-protection forces.)
But the Libertarians too must be satisfied: the rights of the individual must be respected! This could be solved by reverting to the 19th century and declaring women to be adults in respect to responsibilities, but children in respect to rights. Though that might not wash today, considering all the new rights children have been granted.
However, a more sophisticated plan is being mulled over, helped by another Republican who declared that pregnant women cannot have been raped, since a woman’s body “shut(s) that whole thing down”. According to this theory, the body is a sort of automaton.
Thus one proposal might be to declare women persons from the neck up, but things from the neck down. The things could then be requisitioned by the state, like parcels of land. In fairness, compensation would have to be paid to the head, at full market value. The head would be, legally, a she; the body would be an it.
This will annoy some of the female heads, and squawking will ensue; but anti-squawking legislation should take care of that! (Not applicable to chickens.)
However, with advances in transplant surgery a solution satisfactory to all could be legislated: a mandatory Head Exchange! Those heads that don’t want their bodies to have children would be made to switch with those heads who’d like to have children, but whose bodies refuse to comply. Joy all round! (These lawmakers would surely pass a sub-clause changing the words of “I’m So Pretty”, from West Side Story, to “I’m So Itty”. This would reinforce the message to women that their bodies are things, and have no human rights.)
People, I don’t recommend any of this. It would go pear-shaped very fast (no innuendo intended). Instead of happiness there would be strife. Imagine the arguments that would take place over the allocations of heads and bodies! Bribery and political influence would play their part – and picture the lawsuits concerning bodies that malfunction. Some heads – I hesitate to say – might declare a wish to get pregnant simply in order to obtain a body more to their liking. What uproar!
To forestall this sad state of affairs, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should add a clause concerning the Right to Refuse Ittiness. In view of the new findings that the intestinal tract constitutes a second brain, this clause would reject the mind-body split and declare the neck a protected area, much like the Korean demilitarised zone. Problem solved!
Not that such a clause will do much good in Ohio, where they don’t seem so keen on the universal declaration in any case.
The right to an inhabitable planet
It makes sense that the original Declaration of Human Rights ignores the Earth – the Earth was the backdrop to the human story. Against that backdrop, for thousands of years, the great dramas had been carried out: tyrannies risen and fallen, wars won and lost, ordinary people oppressed and rebelling. The idea of the “environment” would barely have made sense at the time – obviously the physical systems of the planet were necessary to grow crops, obviously the Earth’s resources could be hoarded or shared. But it was the scenery, not the play. As we got better at storing food and fighting germs, and as world wars terrified us with their uncontrollable violence, the physical world seemed to be receding ever further. We needed instead to focus on what humans could do to each other, for better and for worse.
And now that has shifted, decisively. Though all the concerns of the universal declaration – intolerance, poverty, ill health, the lack of education, suffrage, work – remain as acute as ever, they have been joined by an overriding if often unspoken dread. We have begun (slowly, perhaps too late) to understand what we can do to the Earth, and what in turn that damaged Earth can do to us.
It was a recognition that began to dawn in the years just after 1948 – by the early 1960s Rachel Carson had begun the vital task (in Silent Spring) of knocking the shine off “progress”. It’s given rise to one of the greatest movements the world has ever seen, this thing awkwardly called “environmentalism” that has united people across continents and faiths and races. But it still exerts a tenuous claim on power: no one “denies” war or hunger or unemployment, but many of the world’s paramount leaders continue to pretend we cannot damage the planet.
That pretence, of course, is rooted in the wealth and power of precisely those humans who do the most damage. The oil industry, for instance, long the richest single force on this globe, and one that has spent a generation insisting that climate change isn’t real, even as the Arctic melted and the sea began to rise. Or agribusiness, or the chemical industry, or many others – all of whom insist that they are merely meeting the human needs enshrined in the declaration, for housing and energy and dinner.
And so it is necessary to postulate a new right: that humans must be protected against those forces that would damage the Earth’s systems. Indeed, none of the other rights can be guaranteed on an unstable planet: a heating planet endangers everything from food supplies to political freedom. In some sense, securing the physical Earth is the first order of business now, not an add-on.
But it is a complicated right, one that comes with a corresponding responsibility not to do that damage ourselves. Or not any more than we absolutely must. And it is complicated further by the fact that we must think not only about the humans of the moment, but the humans of the future as well: the Peloponnesian war is not still claiming human lives because it ended 2,500 years ago, but our current destruction of the climate will be impoverishing people for 10 times that long.
It is complicated further still by the fact that it’s not just humans who are laid waste, but the rest of creation. We have apparently wiped out more than 60% of the animals that shared the world with us when the declaration was written – it is possible that the moment has come to expand our vision of who deserves protection.
This “right” is not an aspiration but a requirement. If we mistreat each other for another 70 years that will be hideous, but humans of 2088 will still be able to change. If we mistreat the Earth for another seven decades, implacable physics and chemistry and biology will write the next chapter in our history.
The right to live free from blame
The right to live free from blame for the fact that someone or something has made a man feel small or unimportant, for example if they are not King of the Entire World, if they have not won the medal, or made the money, if they have not beaten the opposition in the last 24 hours, even if the opposition is in their own head. The right to live radiantly free of a man’s feelings about all this, even if you are the person who makes their dinner, or the person who does not make their dinner but probably should because they really need something from you, they are feeling so undervalued, and maybe sex will do.
The right to freedom from blame if you are a woman who sleeps with a man or does not sleep with a man, who flatters or fails to flatter a man who is feeling the grip of shame or mortality because he is not the poshest, or the strongest, or the most eloquent, or in some way the most important person in the world, or at least in the room.
The right not to get hit for all the above.
The right not to get raped ditto.
The right not to make anyone’s dinner but your own.
The right not to be compared with a man’s mother, if she was lovely, or confused with a man’s mother if she was not – this especially if she made him feel small or unimportant or mortal at the age when every child deserves to feel like the King of the Entire World. We are sorry you missed all this, or that this phase ended abruptly or badly for you, it is not our fault. We were not there. Yes we have breasts and no, despite the fact that these are actual breasts and therefore very confusing for you, we were not there.
The right to bodily autonomy, of course.
The right to live free from a man’s need to use you as a way to bond with other men, by turning you into an object of shame or derision.
The right to call out the difference between wanting and possessing, between liking and taking, looking and touching. The right to your own ideas, even if a man at the meeting likes them and therefore thinks that they are his. The right to your own body, even if a man at a meeting likes it and therefore thinks it is his. The right to both these things even if everyone else at the meeting agrees with him for reasons that are completely hidden from their conscious minds and also inexplicable and strange.
The right to call it out when a man takes something and holds you responsible for the theft – of your work, your talent, your body, your sweetness or sexuality, your good thing. The right to tell this to the world without being accused of masochism or greed or of wearing the wrong underwear, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or of wanting a job, of wanting to be hurt, of wanting it, whatever it is, sex, or power, or humiliation, because when a woman wants a little she gets everything and then some. She gets the blame. The right to hand back the blame.
The right to love a good man, and to love the goodness in men, when they are authoritative and gentle and know who they are.
The right to desire, because your mind is always free.
The right to understand
We live in strange times, and we’re actively making them stranger. Volkswagen has been forced to pay out more than €28bn for designing cars that could cheat emissions tests. Political operatives use the unstated fashion choices of voters to microselect for campaign ads. YouTube’s recommendation algorithms are implicated in the radicalisation of flat earthers and ultranationalists. Artificially intelligent machines beat us at games with novel strategies we do not, and cannot, understand. The future is only going to be more confusing. Six years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov proposed his famous Three Laws of Robotics: that a robot must not harm or, through inaction, allow harm to come to any human being; that it must obey orders given to it by human beings where they do not contradict the first law; and that it must protect its own existence to the extent that doing so would not conflict with the first two laws. They’re good laws, but the robots that Asimov imagined were discrete beings, aloof and accountable – and very different from the entangled, ever-present, overwhelmingly sophisticated yet often obscure technologies we actually find ourselves living among today.
Instead of visibly dangerous robots, we have hidden programs inside car engines that poison the atmosphere, prejudiced automation systems for sentencing and job selection, covert data-gathering regimes that sell us out to corporations and political enemies, and proprietary attention-seeking algorithms which distract our attention, and amplify division and conspiracy. If it were robots that were doing all that, a contemporary update to Asimov’s laws might require them to explain themselves to humans, so that we might not be harmed by the fact that most of the time, we have no idea what they’re doing. But really, the onus is on us, not on them.
What then would this requirement look like if framed as a right? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was primarily concerned with interpersonal relationships and mutual understanding; it speaks of “a common understanding of these rights and freedoms” as well as the promotion of “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups”. But when so many of those relationships are mediated by inscrutable technologies, the understanding required is that of systems, not of one another.
Today we hear a lot about the benefits new technologies such as artificial intelligence and mass automation will bring to our lives, but even those tasked with constructing them have little understanding of the effects they will have on our societies. Lack of understanding – the feeling of being lost and powerless in the world – leads to fear, apathy and rage. It’s hardly surprising then that in these times of technological acceleration and complexity, those are the dominant emotions felt across the globe.
The right to understand, then, would be a useful addition to what is expected for us today. A demand both for better education – not just in technology, but in all forms of critical thinking – allied with the requirement that those deploying complex and life-affecting technologies must consult with those subject to them, engineer them for transparency, and actively work to make them comprehensible and accountable. Only through mass understanding, and thus mass engagement and mass participation, might we hope to get a firmer grip on an increasingly strange and inscrutable world.
The right to live free from discrimination
Everyone has the right to fulfil their potential, free from discrimination.
It’s time to recognise drastic racial disparities in our institutions for what they are – a threat to human potential. Discrimination places an insidious stranglehold on what a person can be, and how far they can go. It limits individual lives, marginalises talent, and hinders society.
No child should ever have to be warned that in the worlds of school and employment, they’ll have to work twice as hard for half the reward. That this lesson must be instilled in a child of colour before they strike out on their own is an indication that we still live with drastic inequality.
That same child should never have to look at leadership and decide that it isn’t for them, because leaders don’t look like them, or come from where they come from.
Not everyone aspires to achieve great things. Each of our understandings of “great” is different. A fair society doesn’t demand that you should be a leader, but it certainly doesn’t try to hold you back if you want to be. It won’t tell you that you’re too poor, or too female, or too black to be where you want to be, or do what you’d like to do.
Outside of aspiration, every person deserves fair treatment inside each institution that we have to interact with to survive – employment, education, housing and healthcare. You deserve to live your life without being blown off course by the distraction of racism.
No burden should be placed on the shoulders of marginalised people to live a double consciousness, in which we know the reality of discrimination, but never speak of it in order to keep the peace. Your safety and stability should never be reliant on an expectation that you’ll be silent about subtle injustice.
You should never have to make the case to be seen as a full human being. Immigrants and refugees should have the freedom to live a banal and mediocre life in their country of asylum without the threat of being sent back to danger. You shouldn’t have to climb up the side of a building and rescue a toddler to be granted citizenship, because being exceptional is not a passport to being an agreeable refugee.
If you’re a British citizen who is not white, your “not whiteness” should never be provided as an explanation as to why you did a bad thing. The fact that you are not white does not indicate a tendency to doing bad things. Black is not shorthand for bad.
You deserve to live in a society where the life-limiting aspects of discrimination are eliminated. Where your race, gender or class has a nominal effect on your life’s trajectory. Where no one is held back by structural bias.
The right not to work
Thanks to article 23 of the declaration, we can all claim the right to work. Article 23 also gives us the right to do the work we choose under decent conditions, protected from all the adverse consequences of losing both wages and a sense of human purpose. Oh, and a just living wage, social insurance and the individual and collective safeguarding of workers’ interests.
These precious provisions around the right to work are followed immediately by a recognition of the right to limits on work, or in the words of article 24, “the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”.
The adjacency of the articles implies their inextricability; the right to work is meaningless in the absence of a right to a life beyond work. Yet survey the landscape of work today, and we find the latter everywhere under assault. For the sweatshop workers of China and Bangladesh, the precarious workforce of our expanding gig economy, even for the chronically enervated workaholic bankers and lawyers of Wall Street and the City, the right to a non-working life has been annulled by the sovereignty of work.
How have we allowed the right to non-work to be so thoroughly undermined? The first point to make is that this is as a predicament of psychology and culture as much as politics and economics. It is rooted in a deeply entrenched conception of the human being as a creature whose substance and meaning lie in work above all. The declaration, in defining the right to non-work in terms of “rest and leisure”, implies that its purpose is to serve the imperatives of work; we rest in order to restore ourselves for work; leisure is the term used for play outside working hours.
While the declaration, in other words, clearly recognises the essential place of work in human self-definition, it recognises non-work only in the negative – as an interval in or limit on the state of work. What if non-work could gain a new, positive and substantive place in the declaration? If we human beings could be established by it as creatures who paint, sing, speculate idly or stare out of the window not because it restores our working batteries, but because the state of idleness is its own value?
The British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott saw us as composed of two fundamental elements: “doing” and “being”. His point was that as we grow more distant from the daily reveries of infancy and childhood, we define ourselves increasingly in terms of doing at the expense of being. But neglecting the dimension of being, he argued, can make us psychically and physically ill. “After being,” he writes in a typically terse formulation, “doing … but first, being.”
Could the declaration find a place among the fundamental human rights for the right to be? This is to be distinguished from the right to life, which secures the bare fact of existence. The right to be is the right to a space freed from the imperative of doing, from aim, purpose, productivity. It is at least as essential as action to what the declaration calls “the free development of personality”.
The right to be has as much bearing on political and economic justice as it does on human health and inner security. If non-productive, aimless time and space is protected as a basic human right, it becomes that bit more difficult for, say, Chinese corporate masters to insist that two five-minute toilet breaks in a 16-hour shift constitute a sufficiently “reasonable” limit on working hours.
“There is nothing,” wrote the great American writer Henry David Thoreau, “not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself, than this incessant business.” Let us declare freedom from this incessant business; call it a right to non-work, a right to be, a right to poetry and philosophy; or indeed, a right to life itself.
The right to define yourself
In 1910, the German doctor and sexual reformer Magnus Hirschfeld calculated that there were 43m possible combinations of gender and sexuality. His thinking came out of extensive clinical experience. Over the years he had interviewed thousands of people, whose diversity of genitalia, physical appearance and sexual desires astounded him. “The number of actual and imaginable sexual varieties is almost unending,” he wrote. “In each person there is a different mixture of manly and womanly substances, and as we cannot find two leaves alike on a tree, then it is highly unlikely that we will find two humans whose manly and womanly characteristics exactly match in kind and number.”
Hirschfeld’s words are radical even now, though versions of them were repeated right through the 20th century. You can, for example, find very similar statements in Virginia Woolf, who thought of herself as not quite one thing or another, who loved both men and women and who was perennially at sea between the fixed poles of gender. Excited by a newspaper story about a pretty young woman who became a man, in 1928 she channelled her feelings into Orlando, her ebullient masterpiece, a novel bent on unsettling binary notions of gender and identity. “Different though the sexes are, they intermix,” it reports. “In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.”
Sexual desire and gender identity are the base notes of bodily experience and yet the wish to organise them into categories of right and wrong, permissible and illicit remains overwhelming. The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights safeguards the right to a nation and the right to be safe from imprisonment, but not the right to express one’s own personal experience of gender; nor to choose, within the absolute limits of consent, with whom and how one wishes to conduct a sexual life. A body can be a prison too. You can exile or incarcerate someone simply by defining them against their own living sense of who they are, by forbidding them love or erotic range. And then, of course, you can make their life a misery, regulate their clothes, their use of lavatories and changing rooms, stop them being able to work or marry.
Anyone who’s read the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance list of deaths will know the stakes are high. In August 2013, to take a single story, Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender woman, was beaten to death in Harlem. Her assailant was a young man who had been flirting with her when his friends told him Islan had been born a boy. “I just didn’t want to be fooled,” he told the police.
What rights would have helped Islan? Not so much a right to self-define, which can be made to sound arbitrary and whimsical, as a right not to be forcibly defined by the state, to have a gender identity imposed from outside, to be told that what you aren’t is natural, and what you are is deviant, wrong, illicit, fake. The right to have the stays of gender unloosed, the right to breathe. The right to transition, to shift, to exceed or refuse the expectations and constraints that have attached to the categories of man and woman. The right to dress in whatever clothes one chooses. The right to love whoever one chooses. The right to be different. The right to be neither. The right to be both.
The right to a life offline
The framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights couldn’t foresee that in the 21st century, we would need two sets of rights – one for our lives in the physical world, and one for our lives online. But the beautiful thing is that we don’t, actually, need to rewrite the UDHR for the digital world. We might need an amendment or two, but to begin with, we only need to recognise that the same rights we expect in the physical world should be afforded in the online world, too.
Article 12 of the declaration states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, no attacks upon his honour or reputation.” Online, countless social media platforms, websites and apps may violate users’ privacy, tracking our movements online, studying and manipulating our digital behaviour, and intercepting and monetising our correspondence.
Article 26 of the declaration states that “Everyone has a right to education” and that “Education shall be free”. Increasingly in elementary and secondary schools, students are required to access, complete and submit their homework using digital tools. Given a laptop can cost at least $1,000, and having wifi at home requires monthly payments to private providers, education in such a situation is no longer free.
Later in article 26, the UDHR asserts that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Given the vast wealth of research that proves that increased screen time for children and teenagers leads to higher rates of depression and even suicide, schools that push their pupils into more screen usage are doing three counterproductive things simultaneously: they’re forcing young people on to the screens that have been proved unequivocally to be addictive and harmful; they’re making learning more difficult; and they’re creating a two-tiered system, whereby those wealthy enough for computers and phones and wifi at home have an easier time accessing their education, while lower income students are left to scramble and to feel inferior.
Article 27 asserts that “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.” The original sin of the digital world was the well-intentioned belief that everything online needed to be free. This led to the hollowing out of the creative middle class, as musicians, journalists, photographers and countless other creators no longer controlled their work, and consumers no longer expected to pay for it. Thus we have now had two generations that can’t conceive of the notion of paying .99 cents to own a song. Because their music is given away for free — or next to free — online, musicians have to tour incessantly to make a living, or else be forced to sell their work for use in car commercials.
Articles 28 and 29 are probably the most poignant here. They state that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order” and that “Everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” Currently the digital world does a poor job in achieving any of these objectives. Whereas laws of civility govern the physical world and lawmakers and law-enforcers endeavour to keep us safe from harassment and threats, few such protections are afforded online. The digital world is anarchic, and largely without recognition of rights, public order or general welfare. It’s every person for him or herself. That is in opposition to the soul of the UDHR, which envisions a latticework of rights and responsibilities of all humans – one that might keep us responsible to each other and invested in our mutual wellbeing.
This is not the feeling we get while online. So the digital world has some work to do. If we add to the UDHR a handful of amendments necessary and specific to the digital world, we just might create a framework within which all but the most outlaw tech entities might operate. Here are two amendments: we need to clarify that all surveillance is inherently abhorrent and should be undertaken only in the interest of law enforcement, and even then, only after an independent judiciary signs off on that surveillance. All other dossier-creation is inherently immoral and stands in clear violation of everything that the UDHR states and implies. If we eliminate all tracking from the web – and all tracking is surveillance, after all – we’d be well on our way to a digital world that actually conformed to the spirit of the UDHR.
Most important of all, though, is that we need to ensure that humans in the 21st century will be allowed to enjoy analogue lives. When a student needs a $1,000 device to do her homework, her fundamental rights are being violated. When any government service requires the ownership of a smartphone to gain access to basic services, then their rights are being compromised. Scientific studies have proved that every additional hour we spend in front of screens makes us less happy and less healthy. So we must put the brakes on moving every last element of our lives into the digital realm. We must ensure that humans can live offline as much as humanly possible.
• Dave Eggers will deliver the PEN HG Wells lecture on the Universal Declaration and digital rights on 16 December. englishpen.org.
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