Respecting Ancient Traditions: Not for allocating Human Rights

Respecting Ancient Traditions: Not for allocating Human Rights by Christina

We all want to clap our hands and applaud the great founding fathers of human rights. It is true we are indebted to them for our present way of thinking though I cannot say that I am truly thankful. We live in a patriarchal society, for which we can thank ancient and still dominate traditions for, where all past oppression has been culturally sublimated, but is nonetheless still existent. Can we really appreciate past advocates of human rights when they, in practice, meant rights to only a select few? Ishay accounts of the world traditions, “They all urge protection for the poor, the disabled, the sick, and the powerless, praise good and impartial rulings, encourage some forms of social and economic justice…” (60 The History of Human Rights). What protection is there for the poor when the majority of wealth is always in the hands of few? What economic justice is there in Capitalistic societies such as America? Are the disabled really protected when there is not universal heath care? How are the powerless protected when women and slaves were made powerless for thousands of years? It is true that in the ancient texts of these traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Greek, Roman, etc.) there exists a desire and yearning for human rights, but only for those who are deemed worthy within that tradition. We cannot praise past intellectuals or religious leaders for being advocates of human rights when they supported and propagated gender and racial oppression. These men wanted a better life for themselves and continued subjugation of ‘others’ to reaffirm their self-value as men.
We can go on and on about what so and so did to make sure man had laws against thievery and murder but it means nothing when women were legally allowed to be murdered due to adultery, “An adulterous wife (and her lover) was subject to death at her husband’s discretion…” (47). Why do we want to forgive these men of their trespasses against our fellow humans? Why overlook the subjugation of women and certain cultures just because these ancient traditions thought ‘man’ should be allowed to live in peace with his superiority? Humans are still in distress due to thousands of years of inhumanity and people seem to want to make allowances for past oppression, saying, ‘oh that’s just how it was’. Man created himself free while having his slaves and subservient women to affirm his dominance. Can we condone this type of human rights advocation? To regard women as inferior is a blatant violation of human rights and if we do not hold these traditions accountable they will persist in oppressing the masses. Any hegemony that has enslaved and oppressed other human beings, under the veil of moral authority, should not be looked at with any amount of respect. Even in Buddhism, which typically is thought of as more gender friendly than Christianity, women were disdained as inferior, “To be born or reborn as a woman was seen at times in Buddhism as a form of punishment” (51).
Ishay claims heartily, “We must not forget that Judaism gave the world the concept of human rights” (19), but I claim that we must not forget that Judaism is an agent of oppression created by man. Men wanted rights or laws to protect them, and also perpetuate the idea that women were inferior, in order to enable man’s ‘superiority’. Men have used notions of supremacy of race and gender to justify thousands of years of domination. The Bible blames Eve for the fall of mankind and therefore man, in his mind, is justified in subjugating women, “Because of Eve’s transgression, women were to pledge their submission to their husbands…” (55). Humanity seems so willing to thank Christianity for the allocation of human rights even though Christianity so blatantly propagates gender oppression, “…women were always subordinate to men and at times were regarded as the property of their husbands. There are references in the Bible to marriage by purchase” (48). We must not give credence where it is not due lest history should repeat itself.
We should not respect these world traditions nearly as much as Ishay seems to think. I believe we have cultural blinders on that make us complacent towards the past, due to society seeming more progressed. We are far from being a peaceful humanity. If we continue to disregard and excuse past intellectuals and religious leaders for their misjudgments we will never see social injustice for the evil it really is. We cannot submit to nor thank these past traditions for allocating human rights because in fact they only gave rights to those of whom they deemed worthy, which is a violation of human rights. While these traditions hold that humans should have certain rights or laws to protect them, it is only for the elect or ‘superior’ that these rights or laws initially existed for.

The Ten Commandments, c. 1260 BC
The mythology of the Bible includes commandments. In this way the government, or leaders, were able to instill certain moral codes into the people. Humans thus have the right to not be murdered or have property stolen. Practical application of Christianity proves to have exhibited bloodshed for the glory of ‘God’. The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, and the massive wipe out of Native Americans are just a few examples. Christianity has stolen lives and cultures through slavery while they claimed to be against murder and stealing. The Bible is a book of stories attempting to explain the origins of life and how to behave; it functions much like other mythologies have functioned such as Norse and Roman Mythology.

The Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776
When the founding fathers of America wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” what they really meant was that white men had these rights, to the complete exclusion of women. This declaration also implies that all Americans should believe that they were created by some supernatural life-force. It also paints a picture in which the government requires the citizen’s consent to rule and the citizens have a responsibility to abolish the government if it becomes destructive to freedom. We may never actualize these words in action but one can hope and raise awareness.

From Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792- Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft perhaps took up her pen to amend where man left her out. According to The Declaration of Independence the citizens of America were supposed to have say in the government. Women were not represented politically and were secluded to a life of domesticity. Women did not have the same rights as man; they were not able to actively pursue happiness due to the limitations placed on them. Wollstonecraft discusses how women have been excluded from public life to the extent of making them narrow-minded. Men have attributed gender roles to women such as care giver and obedience. This is not due to any inherent nature of woman but simply for the reason that man sought to maintain control over women’s lives, in such a way as to limit her mental capacity for reason. This has allowed man to maintain his attributed and not inherent role of ‘superiority’.

“I have a dream”: speech before the Civil Rights March on Washington DC, 1963- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Slavery may have been abolished but racial injustice was still pervasive. He urges citizens to realize “the fierce urgency of now”. Presently there is racial injustice in America therefore humans need to realize the urgency of now, more than ever. Injustice has gone on for too long. There needs to be more cognitive unity between all humans and the earth. Instead of thinking of ourselves as genders or races we should think of ourselves as all a part of the same existence and therefore have a responsibility to the freedom of others (including animals) and the earth. 1963 was not such a long time ago. King was right in repeatedly exclaiming, “One hundred years later,” and African Americans are still being oppressed. I wonder what he would say about the condition the world is in today.

A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped our World. Edited by Jon E. Lewis. Carrol & Graf Publishers, New York:2003.

Ishay, Micheline R. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: 2004.

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