The Nose of The Other
In 1947 the world as we know it today was not yet fully conceived.
In that year, and by a number of accounts, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was centered on three persons although the formal body, the UN Human Rights of Commission (UNHRC) responsible for the work, had eighteen-member nations. Two of the core members – Charles Malik of Lebanon and Rene Cassin of France – were representatives of an initial “executive” group that later became a part of the “drafting committee” (or sub-committee) whose task was to frame an “international bill of rights” that subsequently became a “declaration”.
A third person in the core group was John Humphrey, a Canadian although
These drafts were debated within the executive group and presented to the drafting committee, at which Lebanon, ironically, had no representation in the person of Malik, a Christian Arab and Thomist (one might say existentialist) philosopher. Still, Malik’s influence on the final declaration is mentioned in the various documented accounts; and one in particular, by his son Habib, noted that his father wrote the preamble that underpinned and gave the Declaration’s entire theoretical and ethical foundation.
Cassin’s role is more ominous for, it seems, he alone revised the entire draft that started with Humphrey and passed through to Eleanor Roosevelt, the chair of the Commission, Malik and Chang Peng-chun, who represented China, then a country at war with itself and whose government, the Kuomintang (Nationalist), failed to keep its seat at the UN General Assembly after the Declaration was passed. Chang was the fourth person in the executive core.
The preponderance of influence of the three persons on the initial and final drafts of the Declaration is not inconsequential, for Tom J Farer, the historian, was later to observe in Biblical terms: “At its outset, we had the Word, the Universal Declaration.” In this Biblical sense, the philosophy of the liberated, free, autonomous, individual self is everywhere in the Declaration. Humphrey, for example, had borrowed generously from the “Statement of Essential Human Rights” issued at the time under a study sponsored by the US-based American Law Institute. And, in another instance, Malik’s son Habib said that Chang had objected to the word “inalienable” that had been inserted in the preamble. His objection was voted upon, and rejected.
Much later, in his memoirs, Humphrey was to note about the arguments between Malik and Chang, with him caught in the middle. The two men, he said, “were too far apart in their philosophical approaches to be able to work together on a text. There was a good deal of talk, but we were getting nowhere. Then, after still another cup of tea, Chang suggested that I put my other duties aside for six months and study Chinese philosophy, after which I might be able to prepare a text for the committee. This was his way of saying that Western influences might be too great, and he was looking at Malik as he spoke.” Throughout, Mrs Roosevelt said “little and (continued) to pour tea.”
Here, when Humphrey says the philosophical approaches were “too far apart”, his reading of the dispute is erroneous. Humphrey would have to assume that they were common grounds, or a single platform, by which to consider issues like inalienability and the rights of man. There were clearly none, for Chang had suggested to Humphrey (while looking at Malik) that the latter spent six months studying Chinese philosophy, by which he would mean the range of Confucian canons that date back more than two thousand years. Much of these texts have no English translations. And, even if translations exist, the “approaches” between Confucian and Western concepts related to self, virtue, dignity, and rights do not circle within the same, or a compatible, framework. Differences lie not just in shades of meanings; indeed the vital metaphysical ingredients in the concepts between the two worlds are almost entirely incongruous which Humphrey evidently hadn’t noticed.
As Habib’s remarks suggest, the differences had boiled down to a metaphysical level. This had great import. Humphrey, in his first to fourth drafts, had inserted clauses that pledge a person’s “duties” to his society and “loyalty” to the State. The wording might have cheered the Chinese, or many other nationalities. But, the Declaration when passed in its final form in 1948 had completely removed any reference to such obligations.
Years later Cassin was to explain that he had wish for an “ethical” document that would subject an individual to “international law in respect of his life and liberty”. This meant, to Mary Ann Glendon, in writing about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, removing the primacy of State control over the individual. Cassin’s influence was also felt in other ways, namely in that the Declaration became more like a civil law code than a promulgation to reflect the bills of rights emanating from the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution from which Cassin had drawn his inspiration.
Although over the years many States have reaffirmed the compact in the Declaration and its supporters – like Amnesty International whose reason for existence rests on the force of the document and all that came after – had attempted to dissuade further objections to the document’s mono-cultural import, one thing remained inescapably controversial: what defines humanity or man, and who should define it.
Glendon in her work, despite some reservations about the Declaration, insists that it is still a synthesis of cultures and legal traditions. This might be true seemingly and, if true, it then suggests there exists a single defining nature of man. Yet the influence of such a synthesis, if it exists at all, is arguable because in 1948 the world had fewer than half as many independent states as they exist fifty years later. And it was not a world unfettered by the dominance of Western history, politics, legalisms and intellectual thoughts, all of which were infused with the legacies of Aristotle and down to Thomas Aquinas, Kant and Descartes.
Where is one to find a forceful, standalone, independent culture to be held aloft as a mirror to the Western philosophical tradition, which in the Declaration had found expressions that seem to roll together bits of socialism and John Locke? Independent of Western influences, such cultures do exist in
For the Chinese to throw up this kind of a doubt harks back to an element in Chinese conventional thinking: the ethical and material lives are fused in the self, and are not and cannot be separate categories. Cassin, from and through earlier intermediaries like Rousseau, would be representative of the Western tradition. Malik’s philosophy, in spite his Arab background, would be traceable to Aquinas. Whereof Chang?
Chang, it was reported, had attempted (and failed) to take a Confucian standpoint by rejecting the concept of inalienability. Why Chang should object to the word, can only guessed at, but this is not difficult to fathom: inalienability, as innate, inherent or born-with, is a modern-day abstraction traceable to teleological Christianity and, before it, to Socrates, probably in the latter’s statement: Know thyself. Confucianism, even as it exists today in the societies of China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and to a certain extent Japan never sees an indivisible, standalone self. The credo of Confucianism is instead: Cultivate thyself.
Chang could have gone farther, rejecting even the concept of rights because Confucianism does not interpret human relationships on the basis of rights, which inferred contractual obligations – somebody confers something for somebody else to accept. Rather it prefers a set of governing ethical code of conduct.
Chang, too, could have stressed that a rights-based document presumes a State’s invariable hostility towards individuals. And, why should that be? Then again, he too could object to the entire project, for it assumes that cultures can be somehow amalgamated like religious beliefs into a single book of Truth called a Universal Declaration.
Indeed, it might have even occurred to Chang that such a work as the UDHR could have only been initiated from the West with its ability to posit the individual as a self, and with references to little else but to its own, internal being – hence the concept of inalienability. Asians, speaking for much of
The Confucian self, as an individual entity, is dependent on the relations with other entities. The notion of a Western self, and divorced within itself between one part spirit and one part body and each parceled out and conferred with certain “rights” is to deduce that all other selves around him are potentially hostile. To the Confucian self the starting point is never an individual alone, requiring protection, from a possibly hostile crowd or State. Instead each day he faces multiple circumstances and multiple individuals, and within these subsets attunes to a panoply of governing relations and demands. Hence, in this conceptual incongruity and discussing soul and salvation during the eighteen century, Jesuit priests (such as Matteo Ricci) and neo Confucian Korean scholars (Sin Hudam) were literally “talking past each other”, to use the common expression.
In Confucian societies, even today, thinking is a process conceived simultaneously in both the heart and the mind. And, in the single character (想) used to depict this process, denotes a dominant East Asian idea that reason without the heart or compassion (心), or thinking without feeling can be, respectively, dangerous and empty. The ability of the Jesuits to categorize thought as completely separate from emotional life (hence, the idea of private and public lives) continue to astonish and puzzle East Asians today. Once again, the Thomist duality principle (body-soul, mind-matter) is absent in East Asian consciousness.
There is something to be said about Asian consciousness in the Confucian (and related to it Daoism) tradition versus Islamic thought. In Islamism, the individual or the self is probably far closer to European philosophical interpretation than it is to Confucianism. This is to infer that when Oriental philosophical or Asian thought exists in discourses, the debate must make clear the distinction between the two.
The Muslim objection to a number of clauses in the Declaration in 1948 appeared to be entirely on religious grounds, rather than on the core metaphysical disputes that a Confucian is most likely to take.
Even the UN accepts that violations of the Declaration are “legion” and human rights backers, like Amnesty International, have tended to interpret the document largely as visionary, an affirmation of humanity’s cause to preserve humanity, a model for all countries, all societies and all civilizations to aspire. Indeed, who could, and how could, anybody question such a lofty principle as is contained in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
Where violations exists, Amnesty International would say, the problem lies not in first principles but in its exercise thereof. The Bible has already made this known: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Largely associated with the difficulties in applying the Declaration is the question of “traditional culture”: some cultures, as they are practiced today, are clearly in violation of the human rights charter. UN officials and human rights backers are adverse to admit this openly or forcefully, for in doing so it would defeat the multicultural label that must stay with the UDHR.
But keeping the label weighs heavily on the authority, the legality and the ethical soundness of the Declaration on a number of grounds, especially since these cultures preceded the document.
The more important reason is this: individual cultures, each encompassing its own traditions, customs, and religions, is entitled to be ranked at par to any universal ethical code, if not, then universality is meaningless and equality a farce. This position is implicitly vital to the survival of the human rights charter because, once cultures are equal, and its principles made universal, it blunts any criticisms that the Declaration arose from other, and alien roots. The ability to make this claim – that human rights brings together all cultures – would immediately raise a problem for liberal, multiculturalist: How to stand on their side of the rights-based liberalism and be multicultural at the same time? Or, to rephrase the question: How to defend human rights and yet defend a culture that goes against the grain of it?
Such doubts are not just claims; they constitute a certain reality. This reality grows hand-in-glove with another truism: the human rights charter has a mono-cultural flavor, if not in deed then in the force of intellectual and philosophical grounding. Invariably – invariable because no matter how the die is tossed – these roots have only Western philosophical import for the substantial and important part of the content, beginning with the preamble.
Inside the UN and outside, the attempts to defeat the criticisms went along on two parallel tracks. One track, as expressed through Wiktor Osiatynski of the Central European University, is that non-Western States, hence their cultures, have supported and repeatedly reaffirmed the universality of human rights, never mind its intellectual origins. He cites Confucianism as example, but exempts Islam. The other track (as represented by Susan Waltz of Amnesty International) says the Declaration is a political construct and, as with any negotiated deal, it intends only for the minimum standards that states must observe, human beings everywhere being the same. The effect of this line of thought is to counterbalance any culturally derived, and ethical and philosophical weights that may be attached to human rights.
In short, again, the human rights framework has no single cultural root. If this is to be the concession of persons such as Waltz, then it is all the more remarkable to Confucians than to the Western opponents of the UDHR because denying the cultural roots amounts to a denial of a past, no matter’s whose past it may be.
Much of East Asian intellectual discourses that permeate its educational system even today rest on examining varieties of past literary and historical texts for lessons to be learnt for the future. Texts of the Confucian cannons and, for example, of the first systematic Chinese historian Sima Qian (c 400 AD) are full of typical references to such lessons. What were the ethical principles adopted? Where did the Emperor go wrong? What had such and such an official failed to do or had done right, and why?
Traditions, therefore, and the rites observed in respect thereof, were not venerated for its sake but to be preserved as lessons for cultivating the virtuous man. This brings to mind about the philosophical underpinnings in “ancestor worship” at family altars, and why Koreans and Chinese still get riled up each time a Japanese prime minister arrive at a shrine for the war dead. There is more to it than the mere symbolism that Western reporters carelessly attribute to in the visits. Each visit becomes an imprint of a reality in the consciousness, that is, the barbarity of the war at the time is now still held in the highest esteem.
In the bipolar, Western-Confucian metaphysical universe, the ostensible rights of man are not mutually incompatible. Both have a humanistic outcome. Where the differences lie, most plainly, is that the Western position is irrevocably stated by first abstracting then extrapolating core concepts like self, indivisibility, freedom, liberty and turning these into a fixed code of practices, or legalism. The Confucian position worries endlessly about legalism, even long before human rights were encoded as a mechanism to govern relationships. This is because legalism, like human rights, presumes the nature of man as fixed, and that the Will is seated in the self of a person, independent and standalone. In existentialist terms: existence precedes essence.
Confucian thought is to the contrary, seeing instead the self – not as essence preceding existence, for this doesn’t quite capture it – but as evolving from sets of multiple layers of relationships. The father is to the son, as he is the son to his father, as bureaucrat to his superior, and as a colleague to colleague, official to citizen, as citizen to State, and so on. In this multiple, and often times interconnected roles, the self evolves through multiple imprints and is cultivated over time. The varieties of experiences eventually shape the essence of a person and that, in turn, drives forward the reason for his existence. A man is thus determined virtuous in the totality of his relationships with his environment, that is, with other people or with animals, but always beginning in the family, which is the unit of the State. The self, therefore, is not a fixed position on a Cartesian plane that is governed by principles (Christianity in the Western tradition) but by his multiple roles (as a son, father, factory hand, and so on) within the dynamics and principles within each set of relationships. Here is to quote from one of the canonical texts:
“The Master stood by a river and said: Everything flows like this, without ceasing, day and night.”
Given this is how East Asians have come to regard the self, this is also how they have come to define reality – indeed it is the primary means towards identification. But it is a kind of reality entirely different to the Western conception that takes the individual out of its environment, which in the Christian tradition would be necessarily if it were to posit the person, alone and face-to-face with his single, monotheistic god. Kungzi’s (Confucius’s) own view on god is to the contrary: respect him, but keep your distance.
Because of the secular nature of and the humanistic tradition within Confucianism, its ethical system has therefore much in common with the motivations in constructing the Declaration. But, whether or not Confucianism might wish to condone its precepts and enshrine them as rights that would be an entirely different matter.
To the Confucian, the peace of his society and his environment begins, first and foremost with his ethical conduct within his family, his neighbors and so on. The self of the individual has a greater, more influential role in the overall conduct of public affairs, if he first starts in good behavior with his family and onwards to the State, more than by the individuals demanding rights from others and from the State. To say that the State should grant those rights is to concede to the authority of the State on ethical conduct. More than that, it is to admit that, along this chain of relationships, there is a dysfunction, so much so that the State has emerged as an entity separate from its citizenry, a creature to itself, beholden to nobody.
For the implication that nobody is responsible to the State, other than perhaps a tyrant in control of a mass bureaucratic apparatus, a Confucian will find great difficulty accepting. This is so because within the dynamics of the Confucian culture, in its teachings and the conduct of its people, a society has every bit to do with producing the kind of all-alone despotic figure. The existence of a State at odds with its population demonstrates to Confucianism not just a failure of society but also the culture of an entire civilization.
This is not to say that the Confucian philosophy is in accord with the Hegelian view of a collective consciousness: the State being a supranational consciousness. It is relatively easy, within a disassociated Thomistic self, to conceive of such a ruler. But, in the Confucian order of things, the emergence of such a despotic regime often necessitates a serious, internal self-examination. And this is why the protest language of the students at
Another plausible reason why Confucianism is adverse to explicitly granting rights to individuals is that those rights confer a relationship of power, to borrow from Foucault, rather than to ground relationships on the basis of ethics. And, as with any relations of power, it is subject to abuse. And this abuse comes potentially from the very nature of a society that Confucianism sees with misgivings and sees as inherently unequal, even as human rights seek to fight by bestowing equal status to all.
Plainly said, the Confucian might be tempted to ask: how are we born equal? But whatever the answer may be it is not only unreal, the question itself is unproductive. This will amount to pure philosophizing, for it presupposes a position that is the very denial of the inequalities inherent in social, cultural, economic and political reality. Better then to ask, how are we to lesson the problems of inequality? Thus, whatever the suggested answers, those answers should, first and foremost, address the reality of the day. To the Confucian, the single overarching answer is to be derived from grounding a set of ethical codes of relationships between individuals and groups and among groups and between groups and the State.
Granting equal rights seems like scattering the seeds of self-destruction. It is said by human rights advocates that a person, in seeking his complete freedom, all his rights may end where the nose of the other begins. From one individual, who seeks the maximum utility of his freedom, this is surely a contradiction from another individual’s standpoint. But it is nevertheless redressed by, say, criminal law so that in the continuation of the logic, the more freedom that is to be granted to one self the more laws that must be drafted to safeguard the nose of the other. In this circumstance is an endless cycle of rights being propagated and advanced alongside even more laws to protect the other.
Hence, an East Asian reads with astonishment, stunned even, that
All this is to suggest two things about the Confucian position in relation to the child. The “rights” of the parents supersede the authority of the State (under certain laws in early Imperial China, children can be punished for certain kinds of rude behavior to their parents) in educating the child; and, parent-child relationship is not grounded on relations of power but within a filial code of duty consciousness.
By and large, Chinese society or culture has little, if any, to say about another culture adopting practices distinctly different from its own. In discourses over several millennia, Confucianism has largely looked inward, rejecting legalism in the process (excepting several instances during especially the Qin dynasty) as a means to govern behavior.
But there is something else to be said also about the progression and the march of laws created within the human rights framework. Conceivably, to the Confucian mind, this schema of things would work within a society of generally shared culture, values and traditions, such as was
In an environment with millions of individuated selves, each seeking its utmost freedom, and others requiring protection, the condition is created whereby there would be an ever-expanding set of equality demands and counter-demands. Within the rights framework this situation easily evolves into an almost never-ending passage of laws to suit the taste and likings of 400 million individuated selves. This could have happened only in the West, that is,
Contrast, however, the situation elsewhere and outside
Only in the
Only in the Europe and the West could Muslims made demands not in the framework of equality of religious culture – for that would be contradictory because Europe is secular – but on the basis of equality of rights. Elsewhere, in dominant Muslim societies, all that can be expected of other, non-Muslim believers is not equality but the separation of rights, for the greater the separation the better it is so that one set of culture does not impinge on the other. No Hindu or Christian wants to be tried under Sharia law.
Hence, from an East Asian, Confucian, view of the ongoing struggles in
These conditions exist on the grounds that, if there is to be equality among native Europeans, then there must also be equality between native Europeans and non-native Europeans. This equality is already granted in terms of rights. In the same way animal rights, economic rights and social rights are handed down, Muslims (or people of other religious faiths) have found it convenient to demand the same. Indeed, it is sometimes said,
Yet this is precisely the nature of the problem: the secularism in the human rights framework cannot function if one side speaks on religious terms. This framework, or specifically the UDHR, is a mechanism for dealing between the self and the other, and between the self and the State, but it collapses when faced with contending cultures, religion being a critical part.
Thus, is the situation arrived at: it is the nose of the Muslim other. An existing European secular rights-framework, applicable to liberated individuated native European selves, now impinges on the rights of the other faith. Now, to protect the other, new laws are deemed necessary, which is to mean that if Sharia law is to enter the European legal system it requires no backdoor approach: the rights system demands it because religious freedom is at the top of the pecking order in the hierarchy of rights.
Yet, paradoxically, the protection is not for the protection of the secular, native European population, but for the Muslim community. But if
From the East Asian perspective, one of the peculiarities of the European struggle with its Muslim population is the focus of religion in its tension against a secular base. This could only happen with a rights-based culture.
Within the secular Confucian ethical system, religion is likely to be treated like all other human activity. God has no special place within the culture. Consequently, some States in
At various levels, political and intellectual, there seems to be in
Where a culture is different but not in contradiction to another, the rights framework might still stand. But, in
The case in
That framework was the conception of an ideal world. It was not just a political or an ethical construct, it is cultural, much as the opening lines in the UDHR preamble may wish to made secular and universal: “…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
Such is an ideal world in which
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