Human rights in America is something that floats superfluously in the ether. It is a mantle of greatness that those self-actualized few like Ghandi and Mother Theresa carry and that our lofty governments are held accountable for. At least, that’s how human rights exists in the minds of many Americans.
At the same time, mere civilians arm themselves with semi-automatic rifles and gun down masses of people every year. Places of worship are desiccated with symbols of hate. Women and people of color are discriminated against. These are not crimes perpetrated by some evil dictatorship or military junta. It is not terrorists or even foreigners who are squashing the rights of Americans. It is the average, the below average, and the desperately unremarkable who perpetrate these crimes.
We are our own worst enemy
More people in the U.S. die from being gunned down by neighbors or family members than die at the hands of nefarious forces from abroad. An article published in Vox last year reports that Americans are more likely to die at the hands of white extremists than by terrorists. This year there have been 68 deaths across the country due to hundreds of mass shootings and around 14,000 deaths due to other gun violence. There were only around 14 deaths by terrorism in the U.S. in 2018.
While many are, justifiably, pointing fingers at the hypocrisy of the U.S. government for speaking against human rights violations with one hand and encouraging violations with the other, we must ask ourselves what we do, personally, to foster human rights as an important value within ourselves, our families, our local communities. Not in some ethereal way of sending good vibes of peace to the world, but through concrete, actionable goals.
How to foster a culture of human rights in America
Is love and respect taught to children in an effective way? Are injustices being stood up to or ignored? Are bullies being reprimanded in schools and in work environments? Are the abused and neglected being looked after? Are the poor cared for? Is injustice and indecency tolerated? Are we toughening our personal moral fabric?
These are questions we need to ask ourselves to create a culture that values human rights. It’s not enough to criticise the government or hold a sign in the street. When Ghandi said to be the change you wish to see, this is what he meant. He couldn’t have lead a movement if there weren’t people who held values close to their hearts and decided to be the change. Nothing can be done if it is not in the hearts of the people.
Here are some concrete ways we, as individuals, can toughen up when it comes to supporting human rights.
1. Adopt a personal moral code that aligns with universal human rights
A moral code guides your daily behavior. Find a moral code you feel comfortable adopting. If you don’t know where to start, here is the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you give no thought to your values, when the time comes to be strong and stand up for what is right you will have no standard to abide by and will have less backbone. You will do things you regret more often. There are many religious and secular philosophies that encourage human rights. Some examples of popular moral ideologies in the U.S. are Buddhism, stoicism, secular humanism, and Christianity.
2. Study your morals on a regular basis – weekly or daily
Find what rings true with you and study it like a monk. A firm conceptual grasp on your morals leads to firm actions. Question your morals, grapple with them, consider hypothetical situations and decide what you would do if confronted with a challenge. Deciding to do the right thing, in your mind, before a situation catches you by surprise in reality helps. That way, you don’t have to do as much deciding on the spot when confronted with a moral dilemma. You have already thought this through and decided how you would react – i.e. in a way that supports human rights. You won’t be acting merely on impulse or fear.
3. Connect with others who share your value for human rights
Talk to others about your ideas and listen to their ideas. Other people can challenge your ideas, thereby sharpening them. Joining with others also forms a network of support. When you know you have people standing behind you, it’s easier to do the right thing. Get together with friends, or start a club, or even join an organization. Community and social solidarity make a world of difference.
4. Put your human rights values into action
Do more than merely contemplating abstract ideas. Help someone with groceries, tutor a friend, intervene on someone’s behalf, stand up to a bully, petition your representatives for change. Any action that allows you to practice your values will help you hone this the way a musician fine tunes their skills by reciting scales and technical exercises.Your ethics will become more habitual, becoming a part of your day-to-day life. Try doing something small that aligns with your values every day.
5. Evaluate your actions daily or weekly
Did you live up to your values? Were there situations where you could have done better? Is there any part of your value system that needs to be reconsidered or reworked. Keep a journal if necessary, writing what you did well and what you can do better.
Living for the greater good
There is a lot that needs to be done to improve human rights throughout the world. There are political actions that need fighting for. But there are also changes to be made within ourselves. Citizens have a vote, they voice their opinions, and they can even begin making a difference in themselves, their families, places of work, and in their local communities.
By Valorie Broderick