The Virtues and Limits of Rights

Monday, December 1st, 2008 by Dr Keith J. White

As friends and colleagues are aware, I have always been intuitively uneasy about human rights. For this reason I rarely write about them, but as this issue of Children Webmag takes rights as it main theme, it seemed to me that as a good team player I ought to try to say something.

Let me begin by saying that on balance it seems to me that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) was a “good thing”. I did not oppose it, like the USA and Somalia, but neither did I welcome it with enthusiasm and open arms. The middle way is to believe that having an agreed statement of some of the basic standards and conditions we aspire to for the children of the world makes good sense.

So why am I uneasy, not just about the Convention, but about the use of rights language, in general?

Rights Are Ignored.

First, like Jeremy Bentham, though not necessarily for the same reasons, I have come to fear that rights talk is always at risk of being “nonsense on stilts”. Rights are in essence rhetorical devices, if not flights of fancy, in that they cannot be guaranteed or enforced. So when we look around the world at this very time, and think of the lot of children and young people in the countries that have signed the UN CRC what do we find? Sadly, it is demonstrably true that millions of children are deprived of the most basic of these rights for any number or combination of reasons, including war, famines, disease, corruption, selfishness, greed, lack of imagination and so on. But, I hear you say, is not this the very case that needs to be made for the whole notion of rights: the world is a very dangerous place for children and do they not therefore need all the protection that they can get? Indeed, but we should be very careful about the language we use. Is it not better put as a vision that we have for children, an aspiration for a better, more child-friendly world? We long for the ushering in of this new world, but we cannot guarantee these rights. When war erupts in a region, there is not even the mutest voice raised in articulating the CRC: rather it disappears from view. From the children’s point of view, is it worth the paper it is written on?

For the record it might be worth noting that in the past few years I have had the privilege of staying in many countries on every continent of the world, and so I have seen the condition of many children first hand. I am not sure that it is realized in the West just how desperate life is for millions of children. I will not speak here about gender, but the realities of life for girl children around the world (when they survive abortion, and infanticide) continues to horrify me.

For the record too, I believe that life for many children in the richer parts of the world is not “good enough” (to use the phrase of Donald Winnicott). I tried to spell out the five basic ingredients of a good enough childhood in my book, The Growth of Love: they are security, boundaries, significance, community and creativity. Many children lack the very basic security that comes from attachments to fathers and mothers and family members, and that will not falter as a result of separations and splits between parents, for example. And many lack the basic elements of family or community life, where there is a sense of well-being of the groups of which the children are a part.

Rights Talk is Clumsy Language.

Second, there is a limit to what we can put into the language of rights. We can talk about the right to formal education (whatever that may mean worldwide), and the right to a name, and so on. But what about the stuff or essence of emotional life: interdependence, loyalty, trust and love? The language of rights becomes clumsy and inappropriate at this point, rather like English in North Wales: it may do for very practical business matters, but when it comes to feelings and the affairs of the heart, only Welsh will do.

And this is not a small matter, as if rights language covers nearly everything, and leaves just a few minor gaps. Rather the converse: the really important things in a child’s life simply defy the language of rights. We could set up institutions like schools, hospitals and children’s homes, based on the language of rights, and from these rights derive minimum standards, but only the most starry-eyed of legislators would ever fool themselves that they could create anything resembling the warmth of family, home and parenting.

Bring in Children’s Rights Officers, professionalism and every other resource you wish to choose, and you may prevent some of the abuses of children, but you will not provide a substitute for the reciprocity, warmth and love inherent in the parent-child relationship.

Demanding Rights is a Source of Conflict.

Third, rights talk creates insoluble conflict (Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope, p. 241), because there are inevitably competing claims: the child versus the group as a whole; the child versus another child and so on. If we raise the consciousness of a child about her rights there is a genuine risk that this will breed disillusionment as she discovers that what she was promised or what she thought she was promised cannot be delivered. Families, communities and associations are built not on the notion of the fundamental rights of each individual, but on a sense of belonging. “We” is as important as “I” in the process of daily living.

What is more, true belonging requires that each member of a group is prepared at times to lay aside their rights in order for others, and the group as a whole to function effectively. Teamwork requires personal sacrifice.

Communities Cannot Be Based Only On Rights.

When I first shared a flat with other university students a fundamental truth of human society struck us all: if each one of us insisted on his rights and did only what was agreed in our informal contract, then the condition of the flat degenerated. The well-being of the place required that we each did more than seemed to have been agreed. Rights in themselves did not lead to the creation of community and communal living.Years later I came to live in the residential community called Mill Grove, and it is here that the need for a firmer foundation than rights is essential for the establishment of living, thriving families or communities. Rights presume that somewhere there already exist such groups, but their origins lie rooted in other soil.

As you will have gathered, I could go on to develop this general line of argument, but I hope that what I have written is enough to give the gist of how I have come to see things after a lifetime of reflection, scrutiny and experience.

Perhaps this all seems unduly negative, not least as we prepare for the 30th Anniversary of the Year of the Child. But I beg to differ. It does no one any good, if we settle for pretence rather than truth. So let me conclude in the spirit of John Bunyan who wrote in his preface to Pilgrim’s Progress, “Him that liketh it, well and good: him that liketh it not, let him produce a better.”

An Alternative To Rights?

What is my preferred alternative to rights and rights talk? It is to draw from the deep well of human experience, and to dream dreams of a better world. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is rich in such visions. Inspired by these dreams and longings, we must then try to distil some key elements that we can aim for, and then to go about trying to deliver them in whatever situation we find ourselves. Therapeutic communities are a modern example of those who have set about this task with tenacity and imagination.This alternative is modest by comparison with the global CRC, but it is only by taking little steps that we can climb mountains, and by lighting candles that we can begin to dispel the darkness.

That said, I am aware that at what for Christians is the season of the year when we focus on the Christ-child, we often read the words at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “To those who received him…he gave the right to become children of God”. The language of rights is not wholly foreign to the Christian story. This, however, is a fundamental and single right that does not take us into a whole field of rights-discourse. It is a right that is purchased and guaranteed by the death, the blood of Jesus as the Lamb of God. It is sealed with a sacrifice, not a bill of rights.

I hope and pray that next year will be one in which we take steps, however small towards a more child-friendly world: if so, this will not, in my view be primarily because we espouse conventions of rights, but because we are individually and collectively willing to lay aside some of our rights in order that children may give and receive love. (Such a process gives due weight to a principle of duty, which is at the heart of justice.)

Happy Christmas

May I wish you a happy Christmas, whatever your faith or none. We will be performing A Christmas Carol at Mill Grove this year once again, and will be reminded again that it is a change of heart that leads Scrooge to share what he has with Tiny Tim and the Cratchett family, not assent to a list of rights. I am always moved by this story, - in a way that you can see I will never be moved by the CRC.Though happy that the CRC exists, I rejoice that A Christmas Carol connects with heart as well as head in a way that meant a better life for one child and family.

Perhaps it is a matter of age that I will now settle for such small changes in single families, rather than attempt the grand sweeps and gestures. I would be interested to know what you think.

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