September 1, 2014

Using ‘Human Rights’ to Squelch Free Speech

In the June issue of Reason Magazine, Ezra Levant details his long and unnecessary struggle with Canadian human rights watchdogs over charges that he insulted a Muslim extremist, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. This sorry episode also cost Levant, the former publisher of Canada’s Western Standard magazine, about $100,000. Read “The Internet Saved My Life: How I beat Canada’s ‘human rights’ censors.” (HT: RealClearPolitics). Levant sums it up this way:

The investigation vividly illustrated how Canada’s provincial and national human rights commissions (HRCs), created in the 1970s to police discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services, have been hijacked as weapons against speech that offends members of minority groups. My eventual victory over this censorious assault suggests that Western governments will find it increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet to continue undermining human rights in the name of defending them.

In a review of “Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns” by Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), I talked about the archbishop’s critique of human rights laws and how they should be properly understood by Christians.

In the essay “Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” Anastasios takes a critical view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, and the later development of these declarations into exhaustive lists of economic, social, and political rights. Anastasios makes an important distinction between rights declarations, and their enforcement through legal and political forms of coercion, and Christianity’s preferred method of persuasion and faith. “Declarations basically stress outward compliance,” he says, “while the gospel insists on inner acceptance, on spiritual rebirth, and on transformation.”

Anastasios reminds us of Christianity’s contribution to the development of political liberty. “Human rights documents,” he says, “presuppose the Christian legacy, which is not only a system of thought and a worldview that took shape through the contributions of the Christian and Greek spirit, but also a tradition of self-criticism and repentance.” Those words should be hung from banners everywhere new constitutions and declarations are being drafted.

Anastasios rightly discerns the secularizing motive and thrust behind much of what passes for human rights activism these days. He points out that a predominant ideology behind these declarations advances the “simplistic” view that people are radically autonomous beings, capable of advancing on their own innate abilities. This strict reliance on logic, the “deification of rationality,” is but a short step to the logical denial of faith in a living God. Anastasios asks: Are human rights simply and merely an outcome of human rationality, or are they innate to the human personality?

“Rights declarations are incapable of inducing anyone of implementing their declarations voluntarily,” he concludes. “The hypocritical manner in which the question of human rights has been handled internationally is the most cynical irony of our century.”

Anastasios’ solution to the problem of human rights is thoroughly Orthodox: “The power and means for promoting worldwide equality and brotherhood lie not in waging crusades but in freely accepting the cross.” He urges a radically personal solution, one that takes as its model the saint, the martyr, and the ascetic. Here Anastasios draws on the traditional Orthodox understanding of freedom, which is ordered and tempered by ascetical practice, self-control, and placing limits on material desires. Churches are to become “laboratories of selfless love,” places where the Kingdom of God is manifest on earth. “Our most important right is our right to realize our deepest nature and become ‘children of God’ through grace,” he says.

Lest this approach be interpreted as a justification of passiveness and quietism, Anastasios also urges Christians to exercise their ethical conscience in the world. “Christians must be vigilant, striving to make the legal and political structure of their society ever more comprehensive through constant reform and reassessment,” he says.

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