Why It Matters That Human Rights Are Social Constructs

Eleanor Roosevelt descended from Mt. Sinai . . .

Let’s, for the moment, skip past the usual impossible task of explaining what it means that everything is a social construct to the guy who replies “Is this brick that I’m bashing my head with a social construct, you idio . . .” (exit stage right). Let’s go, instead to a particular example that’s been causing me trouble of late: human rights.

I recently told someone that the murder of Israelis by Hamas was immoral, notwithstanding the vastly greater and vastly more immoral murders of Palestinians by the government of Israel. I showed this person photos of the Israelis who had been killed. His response was to try to condone the murders of Israelis while also seeming to oppose them. And our language, as it has existed for a couple of centuries now, was there to aid him. I wish they had not done that, he said, but they do have that right of self-defense.

On that last bit, there is a substantive legal argument to be made that, legally, he is right, and another that, legally, he is wrong. We can set both aside, since I’m not talking about laws here but morality, and my friend was not talking about laws either. Should Palestinians murder Israelis, yes or no? What is the moral answer? To answer no, while simultaneously asserting that some unknown power has bestowed on Palestinians the possession of a right to turn your answer into yes is a convenient way to avoid answering.

The same person, like many others, utters the same assertions on behalf of Russia. It would be better if Russia didn’t murder all those Ukrainians, but Russia does possess the right to do so. Again, I’m not interested at this precise moment in the legal questions. Nor does it matter that others make the exact same arguments for Israel and Ukraine that this person makes for Hamas and Russia. My concern is with the rights claim, for whichever party.

The notion of “I deny what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” would be something of a parallel to “I oppose killing Ukrainians but will defend to the death your right to kill Ukrainians,” if not for a couple of key differences. (Let’s set aside the problem of engaging in deadly combat over free speech rights as simply a vestige of a murder-crazed culture. Let’s restate the famous aphorism less sociopathically as: “I often oppose things that people say but believe more good is accomplished by allowing them to say them than by trying to ban such speech.”) The first key difference between this and what my friend said about Ukraine is that my friend avoids actually saying that he opposes killing Ukrainians, and the second is that he never says that he thinks more good is accomplished by allowing such killing — rather he claims that Russians (somehow or other) are in possession of the right to kill Ukrainians (it’s not his fault!).

If free speech is a right created by human beings for human beings, then I can both explain that I think the net effect of maintaining it outweighs the harm of certain speech and simultaneously explain that I think other speech (shouting “fire” in a theater, instigating violence, promoting war, or whatever) is too damaging and requires limiting free speech. But if free speech is a magical right not invented by anyone, then I can imagine someone saying “I wish that guy hadn’t yelled “fire!” in that theater and caused that stampede that killed those children, but, you know, he does possess the Right to Free Speech (and so it’s not my fault and who am I to have an opinion?).

If the right to wage war (if you claim, just as the other side always claims as well, to be doing so defensively) is a right created by human beings, then someone can argue that it is or is not outweighed by other factors, and I can argue for its total abolition. But if the right to wage war is “not a social construct, you idio . . . ” then people can claim not to take responsibility for all the dead men, women, and children while condoning the killing.

That’s why it matters.

It matters that things are social constructs when they obscure, when they serve as excuses. If people didn’t use “it’s human nature” as an excuse for all kinds of horrors, I wouldn’t care that they’ve never explained how to identify or measure or record “human nature.” If the “right to work” were not a tool to suppress wages, I wouldn’t care that rightwing stink tanks, and not a god or a universe or a great woo woo in the inner all beingness of truth, had concocted it. But it is, and I do.

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