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Excerpt from Endgame

Human Rights (p. 95)

From chapter "Listening to the Land"

I often give talks, at universities and elsewhere. I gave one such talk last week. Just before I walked on stage, the person who brought me there whispered, “I forgot to tell you, but I publicized this as a speech about human rights. Can you make sure to talk about that?”

I nodded agreement, although I had no idea what to say. Everything that came to me was tepid, along the lines of “Human rights are good.” I may as well say I’m for apple pie and the girl next door. Even though I didn’t tell her this, I think she read my face. She smiled nervously. I smiled twice as nervously back. It’s a good thing we weren’t playing poker.

She went out to introduce me. I thought and thought, and wished there were a lot more upcoming events for her to talk about. I wished she would start announcing the day’s major league baseball scores. I wished she would forecast the weather, and tell the fortunes of the people in the front row. But she didn’t do any of that, and soon enough it was my turn. As I walked on stage, however, I suddenly knew what I had to say, and was reminded, as I often am, how quickly the mind can work under pressure, or at least how quickly it can work those times it doesn’t seize up altogether. “Most people,” I said, “who care about human rights and who talk about them in a meaningful fashion, as opposed to those who use them as a smokescreen to facilitate production and implement policies harmful to humans and nonhumans, usually spend a lot of energy demanding the realization of rights those in power give lip service to. Sometimes they expand their demands to include things—like a livable planet—people don’t often associate with human rights. People have a right to clean air, we say, and clean water. We have a right to food. We have a right to bodily integrity. Women (and men) have the right to not be raped. Some even go so far as to say that nonhumans, too, have the right to clean air and water. They have the right to habitat. They have the right to continued existence.”

People nodded. Who but a sociopath or a capitalist—insofar as there is a difference—could disagree with any of these?

“But,” I continued, “I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think that instead of adding rights we need to subtract them.”

Silence. Frowns. The narrowing of eyes.

“No one,” I said, “has the right to toxify a river. No one has the right to pollute the air. No one has the right to drive a creature to extinction, nor destroy a species’ habitat. No one has the right to profit from the labor or misery of another. No one has the right to steal resources from another.”

They seemed to get it.

I continued, “The first thing to do is recognize in our own hearts and minds that no one has any of these rights, because clearly on some level we do perceive others as having them, or we wouldn’t allow rivers to be toxified, oceans to be vacuumed, and so on. Having become clear ourselves, we then need to let those in power know we’re taking back our permission, that they have no right to wield this power the way they do, because clearly on some level they, too, perceive themselves as having the right to kill the planet, or they wouldn’t do it. Of course they have entire philosophical, theological, and judicial systems in place to buttress their perceptions. As well as, of course, bombs, guns, and prisons. And then, if our clear statement that they have no right fails to convince them—and I wouldn’t hold my breath here—we’ll be faced with a decision: how do we stop them?”

A lot of people seemed to agree. Then after the talk someone asked me, “Aren’t these just different ways of saying the same thing?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“What’s the difference between saying I have the right to not be raped, and saying to some man, ‘You have no right to rape me’?”

I was stumped. Maybe, I thought, my mind actually had seized up, only so completely that I hadn’t known it. The reason the words had come so quickly is because they were just a recapitulation of the obvious. I have a few male friends who routinely take something someone else says, change a word or two or invert the sentence structure, and then claim it as their own great idea. I’ve been known to do that myself. But then I realized there’s an experiential difference between these two ways of putting it. A big one. Pretend you’re in an abusive relationship. Picture yourself saying to this other person, “I have the right to be treated with respect.” Now, that may developmentally be important for you to say, but there comes a point when it’s no longer appropriate to keep the focus on you— you’re not the problem. Contrast how that former statement feels with how it feels to say: “You have no right to treat me this way.” The former is almost a supplication, the latter almost a command. And its focus is on the perpetrator.

For too long we’ve been supplicants. For too long the focus has been on us. It’s time we simply set out to stop those who are doing wrong.