Social media is all aflutter about perceived human rights violations that many are trying to link to the Duterte administration. However, such people should be reminded of another thing: human rights violations are an issue in other countries and cultures too, even developed ones. Back in 2014, writer Eric Posner wrote about why humanity has failed to uphold human rights worldwide, and abuses continue. In a reply to fellow blogger Mike Portes, I said that most cultures and societies don’t support human rights. Posner mentioned that human rights was not as universal as hoped, and this is because many cultures thrive by taking away human rights. Now some of you may find this shocking and would vehemently disagree, but look again at many cases around the world.
Things like arranged marriages, footbinding in China and female circumcision in Africa. Headhunting as a tradition, too. Slavery in many cultures. The caste system in India. Many cultures that dictate dress and even taste, what one should love and not love, even who should live and die (the punishment for some people who don’t follow the culture could even be death). Then, I saw on a Facebook friend’s wall the picture of a baby found in the trash and left to die – even a mother did not respect her child’s rights. The story of humanity has been all about people violating rights, because they believe they need to do it in order to survive. It goes back to what I’ve explained about the survival mentality – many people believe that for them to survive, at least another must not.
We would want all this to stop, but there is this irony to be pointed out. The thing we see that builds societies and creates beautiful things like clothing styles, dances, art and can also give birth to abuse. It can give birth to human rights violations. It is culture.
That’s why Get Real Philippines sees culture as the center of everything. Culture is the source of how people behave in a society, and it is the root of the mess that our country is. Any solution for our society should address our culture. For that, we need to accept that cultures can be wrong and need to be changed. Then we need to understand how cultures work and how we go about that change.
Going to the understanding part, I believe that, as one aspect, culture exists as a social control.
People have found ways to control others through rules, traditions, and customs. It’s likely a product of steps taken by primordial tribe leaders to ensure that no one does something stupid during times where survival is difficult. But later on, times get better, and some make traditions and customs for selfish reasons. For example, old people created the superstition that sleeping with your head wet will make you blind, but the real reason is because one’s pillow will become smelly from the wetness. They just don’t want any whiff of a bad-smelling pillow reaching their nostrils. In another case, one may contest that the tradition that forcing children to take care of them in old age is more a product of desire for control rather than instilling respect in others. After being a means of survival, cultural things became a means for control and manipulation of others.
Culture is also based on making an identity that separates you from others. One reason culture develops is the “us versus them” mentality. Some people identify with a group to make sure they are not part of another group. They create traditions and customs for this. Circumcision and kosher are examples for Jews; that identifies them as apart from the rest. This is often what people call on as a source of pride. But this pride causes divisions. Culture builds walls.
Here then is the problem of human rights. It is mainly a western invention, an abstract idealization created by people in comfortable societies who might have little or no exposure to what people in societies they see as backward really think, feel and do. As a writer previously said, it may be a partial product of ivory tower academism. They are the types that, when they hear of female circumcision, they go to change.org and sign a petition to stop it. The thing is, a fat lot of good that petition will do. One has to really be on the ground, right there where it happens, to work with people there and influence the society directly. And that’s only one part of the problem.
When you try to change a culture, there is resistance. For example (a fictional one), you want a certain village to stop cutting off pinky fingers of children as an identifying mark for their village. They will scream back, “you dare tell us to stop our tradition that defines our identity! You lecture us about human rights, what about our rights to keep our tradition!” What if some ivory tower people who support human rights also support “respecting” other cultures and traditions? If you say, “we must eradicate some cultures because their wrong practices are intrinsic parts,” they’d be shocked and call you evil. So there is that dilemma.
When people express shock at today’s situation, with so many killings happening within a short time under the Duterte administration, one must recall that this is really a product of our culture. I previously explained that Filipino society, even in today’s modern age, is still premised on the master-servant relationship. Some are rich, some are poor, some are masters, others must be their servants. And masters expect to have the power of life and death over their servants. Inequality is still a defining aspect of our society. It is part of our culture. The apparent solution is changing our culture.
Some may keep on yapping about Duterte allegedly violating human rights, but they may ignore other possible human rights violations in the country. For example, we know poorer couples in the province tends to have lots of children, such as from ten to twenty, in the hope that they get lots of financial support when they get old. When some of those children die from disease or accidents, they might say “ganun talaga” (that’s how it is). But would this callous regard about children’s lives be considered a violation of human rights? Some would, some don’t, I guess. Our webmaster Benign0 also hinted that being trapped in slow, ponderous traffic on roads can be seen as a violation of our human rights. So here then, how would you define human rights?
Make no mistake, I also agree with making human rights universal. But in doing this, the political vehicles prove to be ineffective. The cultures need to be brought on board with the program. Otherwise, they won’t agree to uphold human rights. We probably need a sort of “evangelistic” approach. This involves getting people to believe that what they have been doing for most of their lives is wrong and they should change it to the right action. There are sure to be some people who would favor change. There are headhunters who have given up their old ways and live peacefully. But there are also those who would resist and keep doing what the “human wrong.” Breaking that down would be necessary as well.
I find sound the idea in a Huffington Post article about the solution being economic. Posner cited development economics as an essential associated topic. The ability to enjoy human rights is largely based on economic condition. One could accurately say that many cultures that violate human rights are found in undeveloped or less developed countries (such as ours). If you can help people have better economic status in life, they would be more open to changing their lifestyle and beliefs. Applying the economic improvement is less likely when you change the form of government, such as changing to the parliamentary type. As I said before, culture is more influenced by business these days, and even politics is influenced by business. The power for cultural change seems more in the hands of those with economic power; that includes consumers as well, who should realize that they can exert pressure on the business sector. Filipinos who are exposed to other cultures as OFWs should bring home not just money but practices and ideas to improve our society. And that’s only one of the things we could do to change culture.
We need to stop treating culture as a sacred cow and we should believe that it’s something we can remake. Many “advocates” find it popular to stand up to political leaders. Has anyone thought of standing up to our cultural leaders? They have been leading us the wrong way in culture as much as politicians have. For me, human rights supports culture as something that cannot be imposed on people, and should instead be freely chosen or rejected by individuals. In today’s time, we have the tools and the framework to individually make that decision and act on it.