By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
Separation of ‘right’ from ‘good’
Both colonial and post colonial structures of thinking and action for ‘educating and governing’ a captive population relied on a brand of objectivity and reason that dominated or excluded subjectivities and emotions. As Portia said in The Merchant of Venice,
“The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree; such a hare is madness the youth, to skip over the meshes of good counsel the cripple.”
This basic flaw in the application of ideas related to both education and governance has distorted them in the developing world. In post war Sri Lanka ‘truth’ itself is confined to ‘facts’ in the sense of ‘who did what’ with a powerful mainstream media and an overwhelmingly ‘literate’ public concerned with little else. The final product is a comedy of Dickensian proportions – well outlined in the opening salvo of Hard Times:
“NOW WHAT I WANT IS, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir!”
Such has been the plight and fate of our entire system of education – where learning based on self knowledge has been driven out.
And so we need to get back to two simple ideas of what is Right and what is Good? Western culture (in its application to us) starts with what is right and then seeks to discover goodness. Thus our education commences with norms, standards and definitions of the meaning of words. The traditional eastern approach to education and consequently governance was to help the disciple discover what is good within. It would then set the young person free to work out what is right in different situations. The western approach does not trust the human being so much but seeks instead to control him within ‘established norms.’ Goodness must be found within those limits or you would be imprisoned, put in a mental hospital or children’s home to be ‘re-educated.’
However, goodness as we normally know it is something that is spiritually, socially and culturally conditioned. It is about good communication, positive relationships, caring, empathy, forgiveness and all the so called maternal values of human society.
Ideas as to what is right (usually solidified with ideas of justice, equality, human rights etc) must naturally be derived from this matrix of co-existence, conversation and dialogue so that we can genuinely build a consensus that will last. I have often said that from this perspective it is relationships that build rights – not the other way about. This is the solid and organic bottoms up approach that most ancient societies that now belong to the Third and Fourth Worlds enjoyed prior to the colonial interference. In a word the starting point in this so called eastern approach is the SELF.
With colonization and neo colonization that came to be associated with hegemony and violence in the name of ‘development’ this power to define what is right came to be exercised by a new top down elite process that accorded primacy to the intellect and reason over intuition and emotions. In other words the western cultural preference for objectivity and certainty was accorded primacy over other less developed and insufficiently articulated but nonetheless valid felt reservations of subjugated peoples who were emerging from a long period of both native and colonial oppression.
This colossal act of disempowerment became the new raison d’etre of the anglophone, francophone and spanish cultured elites the world over to teach, guide and prescribe to their own peoples what was right and accordingly good for them.
The attempt (and this can never amount to anything more than an attempt) to extract what is good out of what is right according to this new elite begins with an easy establishment of objective truth and then proceeds on a long and laborious journey back to the self. Consequently western style education is just beginning to understand the values of spirituality, inter-personal relationships and happiness and well being – living ideas that were previously integrated within most ancient and medieval cultures until the violent disruption of human order by globalized colonization.
So called ‘Rights based approaches’ of international donors
This is the reason that most international organizations that claim to promote human rights get lost in the course of their long journey back to self and the social and spiritual realms of the people. To them reality is simply a problem for which the answer lies in intellectually established instruments like the human rights based approach. Consequently they work very much in the dark as they unwittingly stumble through the informal and formal patronage systems of developing countries – the benevolent charity based approaches into which they ultimately fit without a murmur. But all the time the rhetoric of rights is maintained. Donors forget that any approach to rights that exclude the suffering beneficiaries from their high security gates and which only use ‘consultations’ and discussions instrumentally for pre-conceived agendas and objectives fed from New York and Geneva can only fit within the description of cold, hard charity.
So long as the lack of respect for the local resources and the actual people who live and work for their fellow citizens in developing societies continue, goodness will remain a closed book. One cannot search for the truth by monopolizing the truth at the beginning of your journey. This is a point that both the secular (and incidentally spiritual) elite in this country must never forget.
Top down rights
Human rights to me is –
worshipping people – not facts
forgiveness – not punishment
our shared vulnerabilities – not the pretensions to power of some
a revolution – not the establishment
However we in Sri Lanka are still in the process of understanding and implementing our own praxis of human rights. For this there is a need to disentangle ourselves from the conceptual dominance and muddle created by two elite processes which captured and exploited the human rights discourse from the beginning.
In the 1978 Constitution civil and political rights were cast as ‘fundamental rights’ and made enforceable through an action in the Supreme Court. This transferred to the establishment the power of defining the scope and ambit of these rights. They became ‘state obligations’ on the assumption that the struggle of the people to fully establish them was over. Three decades later we know better.
Together with the state concession of enforcing fundamental rights many academics and professionals became the interpreters and teachers of ‘human rights’ to the people. They also contributed to the fragmentation of rights with different professionals taking the cue from international donors pursuing narrow agendas to branch off and specialize in the rights of children, women, minorities, the disabled etc.
Both were top down authoritative processes that left little room for a genuine dialogue to construct a truly indigenous meaning that would be fluent with the identities, beliefs and cultures of the people. This failure to connect with the life of the people meant that the rights discourse did not penetrate the social realities at grass roots level. In general there was little effort to understand society and its dynamic personal, family and social cultures. The young foreign educated development professional could easily identify those ‘human rights violations’ in terms of complaints and police reports that represented ‘data’ and then proceed to apply the provisions of the relevant international convention and conclude how far behind the country is in terms of compliance. Such a simplistic approach continues to be sanctioned and dressed up as a ‘situation analysis’ or ‘rights analysis’ that follows the ‘rights based approach.’ Such false trails need to be abandoned and also rejected.
Dissecting the right
A right may have been agreed to by countries sitting together or by a parliament of a country in an exercise of law making. It seems to me however that the true source of a human right is an exemplary human action taken by some human being in a living situation. To contextualize that living situation we must read the biographies of great men and women and dig into their spirits to uncover the way they combined what was good with what was also right. Thus Mahatma Gandhi once said in a classic dictum that:
“Peace and justice are within the world’s grasp. But they must be pursued together, as one vision.”
He also reminded people that the rue source of a right was the duty and that we should refrain from talking about rights. Applying the lessons of the Bhagvad Gita he said:
“Action alone is thine. Leave thou the fruit severely alone!”
As the right is sacred and valuable we must avoid all frivolous talk about it and dig deep into perfecting our individual and collective duties.
In this way we can see that the right is useless without a person who is ready and willing to perform the duty. Remedies, services and the commitment of procedural, financial and organizational resources stand behind rights as their indispensable supporting elements. When these supporting elements are developed we occupy a stable and orderly legal and institutional realm where the letter of the law will determine the outcome.
But the whole of life is not governed by this ‘stable and orderly legal and institutional realm.’ In unstable times and societies we find that people are not duty conscious; that remedies are not available and services – though they may exist in theory do not work in the way they were originally intended to work. When this happens we move out from the legal to the social realm where outcomes will be determined – not by the letter of the law but by the quality of human relationships and the efficiency with which needs are expressed and responded to. This is a move from the formal into the informal level but that does not necessarily signify an exit from the sphere of human rights.
Indeed, rights and relationships together provide a complete and realistic conception of human rights and this was made explicit in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 which said:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The first sentence is an accurate expression of the objective truth while the second is a similar expression of our subjective truths. Grasping this paradox which lies at the heart of the meaning of human rights is essential.
In practice we can see that the spirit of brotherhood has all but been forgotten today. Mainstream human rights activism has got imprisoned within the formal realm and it simply elects to deal with the uncertain social realm by simply stating “I am not interested in all this psychology, sociology, history, politics, economics and culture. Rights are rights – full stop.” This is how formal activism now takes refuge within the International Criminal Court in its effort to solidify an increasingly besieged and inadequate formal realm. The criminal law is a last resort and an admission of failure on the part of human rights activism. It is not an integral component of the art and science of human rights.
Human relationships are the forgotten twin of human rights. As we move out of the Age of Reason and into an increasingly irrational and violent age of emotions where rights are of little avail we must now seek to understand ourselves and how our relationships shape us and make our world. This is no longer an option for the lonely self seeker or wisdom seeker but a collective imperative if we are to survive as a species into the next century.
Using both eyes
Even though this flawed objectivity originated with our colonial administrators the post colonial re-colonizers; our politicians, have found the same limited formula a handy device to perpetuate their duplicitous subversion of governance in this country. Flawed it may be but it is the only form of thinking that mankind has adopted for several centuries to deal with both education and governance. Until we develop an alternative we will remain stuck within this framework.
The solution is not to reject the objective or subjective but to bring them both into a perfect balance of cooperation with each other.
Devdutt Pattanaik – the clever young translator of Indian myths and Gods and Goddesses and their ingenious symbolism ends most of his works with the following words:
Within infinite Truths lies the eternal Truth
Who sees it all?
Varuna has but a thousand eyes
Indra, a hundred
And I, only two
I like to think that these two eyes represent our human capacity for using the head and heart, of being objective and also subjective so that we remain in touch with our essential faculties. The real battle is always within us even though we fight so many outside.
*This is a continuation and elaboration of an earlier article entitled ‘The crisis within the human rights movement today’ published in this page in July 2012