WickedEye's Quotient

11/22/2008 at 23:20

Evolutionary Theory of Rights

A friend wrote a blog the day after the election, a blog expressing his hurt and anger and disillusionment and near-despair at the passage of Prop 8 on the very same day on which we elected Barack Obama.

I commented on it at the time, expressing both sympathy and anger and my hope for change, but, I think now, in a somewhat shallow manner. I've had a little bit more time to think about what he said.

As a dark-skinned person growing up in the South, I experienced a level of unreasoning hatred and bigotry—especially as a young child—that very few people know about, because my family and I simply don't discuss it with our friends.

First, because we don’t want it to affect how we think of ourselves or others think of us. We are no-one’s victims. And second, because we know perfectly well that anything that happens to us is mild in comparison to what routinely happens to others—to black men and women—around us.

I may blog about it someday, but for now suffice it to say that, though it faded somewhat for me as I grew up—I still have to be aware of it every day, and it affects how I dress and behave in many public situations—I’ve had to watch my brothers endure treatment that (still) infuriates me no matter who experiences it...much less my beloved little brothers.

And so I thought about my friend’s feelings in that context—about how I'd feel if the situations were reversed.

And I sympathize with him nearly entirely.

I'd be mildly encouraged by others’ success, sure, but for the most part I'd be furious, and hurt, and betrayed—dispirited and disheartened and...well, wounded. What I'd say would be bitter and as wildly inflammatory as my post on Obama's victory was wildly hopeful. The feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization I’ve felt over the past 8 years would intensify—moved me further away from identification with this country and towards depression at how it'd devolved from the extraordinary accomplishments of those who founded it.

I'd think, as he does, that living here isn't enough of a reason to believe that America can hold to its ideological heritage.

The part on which I think (of course I can't be sure) that I'd disagree is the part where I'd lose all hope of justice. I might not hope in America—not necessarily. But I’d still hope in the idea that people can act on ideals that we consider to be American, whether America fully embraces them or not.

I've always believed, you see, in incrementalism. A large part of that is my study of science—humanity assimilates ideas much more slowly than it discovers them. Microscopic organisms? Okay. And 150 years later, 50 years after it's noticed that they hang around people with diseases much more than normal people, a short French guy manages to break through the thousand-year-old beliefs that disease is caused at random, or by an inherent flaw, or by a deity.

And hey presto, a vaccine for rabies.

It’s not just our view of the world, though. It’s our view of each other too.

We’re at our most dense, afraid, and resistant when it comes to looking at and recognizing each other as equals. But still, that sort of gradual awakening has happened over and over.

Humans equal under the law?

Okay. We’ll start with members of the nobility. Male, of course. White goes without saying. But they still have rights that even the king can’t overrule.

Then landowners—still male, because women can't own property—have rights under the law.

Then women can own property, even though they're still too dumb and too emotional to vote.

Then comes the idea that all dark-skinned people, all slaves, are human and not animals. Not objects. Not equal—not that. But human.

Then slaves—because they’re human, and humans shouldn’t be property—are free men.

The former slaves have “equal rights under the law”.

Then former slaves are citizens.

Then it’s illegal to keep anyone from voting because of the color of his skin.

Then women can vote.

Then dark-skinned soldiers can fight with white soldiers—not just be led by them.

Then black kids and white kids can go to school together, because keeping them apart is a mockery of equality.

Then it’s illegal to hire or refuse to hire someone because of his or her race or sex.

Then it’s illegal to hire or fire someone from the federal civil service because of his or her sexual orientation.

Then laws enacted or enforced just to ban homosexual sex are unconstitutional.

Tiny steps, all of them. In context, “baby steps” isn’t too much of an exaggeration. It’s the incrementalism that all evolution shows—small, nearly undetectable changes, culminating in a change so apparent that it’s visibly and unmistakably transformative.

And in all cases but a few, the passing of the law or judgment in a court case follows decades of shift in attitude amongst the general population, so that the legal right, when it’s gained, is a legal acknowledgment of a right already considered legitimate by the majority of the population.

But every now and then, there’s an incredible shift, a surge forward, a societal demonstration of the inimitable Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium—of the idea that evolution progresses in tiny steps and then, every once in a while, a giant leap.

Leaps like the declaration of Lord Mansfield in Knowles ex parte Somersett in 1772 that slavery “is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law”, like the Emancipation Proclamation—both of which preceded by decades national acceptance of their premises. As did SCOTUS’ declaration in Brown v. Board that “separate institutions are inherently unequal”.

All of which is a very lengthy way of saying that we’re capable of another such leap.

That we’re long, long overdue, but still capable.

And now, with the Supreme Court of California agreeing to hear the Prop. 8 cases, we’re ready for and hopefully nearing it.

The people in California who want to be the arbiters of others’ beds, hearts and lives have spoken. But they’re not all of us. And their bigotry and insularity and their small minds are not ours.

And if the Supreme Court of California fails to do the right thing—to take the leap, to bring those who are held back forward until we can walk beside each other, to drag the California kin of those who howled at Somersett and Brown along with the rest of us on our journey—still we are capable of making the change.

We are capable of ensuring that the demeaning and devaluing of human love do not persist.

We are capable of making certain that the cold fiats of blind bigotry do not overwhelm the small flames of honest joy.

We are capable of guarding the rights of others’ hearts and lives as carefully as our own.

We are.

We can.

We will.

Here is a more detailed timeline of selected human rights.

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