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A day for human rights

Last month my column ‘Human Rights 101’ published on these pages on Nov 24, elicited interesting responses from some of the readers, especially younger ones. They wanted to know some more, especially about what role bigotry and prejudice play in violations of human rights.

Since the world observes Human Rights Day every year on Dec 10, perhaps it is a good time to resume the discussion on some basic issues of human rights. Bigotry definitely plays a significant role in violations of human rights in many societies around the world. Let’s first try to define and explain bigotry in simple words. Essentially bigotry is a type of stubbornness that engenders a complete intolerance of beliefs, creeds, cultures, and opinions that differ from one’s own. Not all and everyday stubbornness in personal matters results in bigotry.

When such stubbornness crosses a certain limit and tries to harm others, it invariably facilitates violations of human rights in any society. It is the resultant intolerance that is most harmful for human rights of individuals, groups, and societies. In other words, if children learn to tolerate differences of beliefs, cultures, and opinions, they are less likely to become bigots. This has a lot to do with what kind of education our children are getting and how they are brought up at home and schools.

And it is not always security operatives who violate human rights. If the whole society – or most of it – touches a high level of bigotry, common people are also likely to violate others’ human rights. The more people are brought up as intolerant, the more violations of human rights we witness. Just consider the recent cases of brutality in Faisalabad and Sialkot. In Faisalabad, some poor women became victims of shopkeepers who accused these women of stealing. Even if they were thieves, the shop owners were too stubborn to consider any legal way of redress for their complaints.

In Sialkot, a couple of days earlier, an even more horrific incident took place when a Sri Lankan factory manager was lynched by an angry mob. The details are too gruesome to repeat but at least one point is clear: in both incidents, and in many other such cases, the crowd – which represents society at large – demonstrates a high level of apathy and callousness. This callousness is a sign of the bigotry that has permeated our society at all levels. Most of our common people are not aware of duties and responsibilities that they carry. As our education system infuses bigotry through curriculum our youth is increasingly becoming intolerant.

Are bigotry and prejudice the same? Perhaps, there are slight differences. Prejudice has more to do about an unfavourable opinion that we form about other individuals or groups without adequate knowledge about their actions and personalities. Like bigotry, prejudice is also irrational and contributes to violations of human rights; be these violations by non-state or state actors. In the two examples above, we saw the same irrational behaviour that did not have a thinking process behind them. Both bigotry and prejudice are thoughtless attitudes that prompt many of us to violate others’ rights.

To counter these tendencies, again we need to teach our children and youth how to contain preconceived opinions about others. Bigoted and prejudiced feelings are mostly unfavourable to the target individuals and result in hostility. If such attitudes and feelings become embedded in us, we develop a hostile nature. This hidden hostility is also one of the prime causes of human rights violations in societies. Essentially, it is the failure of the education system that is unable to inculcate tolerance of other ethnic, professional, racial, religious, or social groups. When journalists become victims of attacks, the perpetrators are both bigoted and prejudiced in a certain manner.

Such attitudes need a collective response from those who themselves are not bigoted and prejudiced. Sadly, many people end up occupying top positions in societies and become role models for others who become copycats. The war against human rights violations needs to incorporate comprehensive plans at various levels to counter bigotry and intolerance in society. This appears to be a never-ending process as many highly educated societies also produce people who display such tendencies.

One of the primary lessons that all educational institutions must teach is about not inflicting damage or injury on other people in any case. Even if somebody has committed an illegal or unlawful act, there are laws to manage that. If we are able to groom our children and youth in manners that are not detrimental to others, perhaps we can win at least half the battle. A related concept is stereotyping which is kindred to bigotry and prejudice. A stereotype is – in most cases – a simplified concept that an individual or group holds against another or many others. If we categorise all non-Muslims as enemies of Islam, we are stereotyping. When we consider all scavengers as thieves, we are doing the same. When we label all left-wing activists as enemies of the state, it is stereotyping.

Our children grow up with many such stereotypes and then the state itself injects even more stereotypes in people against certain ‘enemies’. Most non-state and state actors who violate human rights have had an overdose of such stereotypes which helps them target their victims. To avoid this, we need to eliminate all ‘standardised conceptions’ or images from our education and from our state narratives. Such images are invested with special meanings that people carry for most – if not all – of their lives. If they become common in society, or by members of a group – they feel no compunction in violating human rights just to satisfy their stereotypes.

Then we also have in society idiomatic stereotypes whose meanings people do not infer from knowledge. Behind all these bigotries, intolerances, prejudices, and stereotypes, there is a wide gap of knowledge about the target individuals or groups whose rights non-state and state actors violate. In a nutshell, human rights is a wide-ranging concept which calls for modifying attitudes and customs in society and buttress them with institutions and laws that facilitate conducive economic, political, and social structures. This is likely to facilitate elimination, or at least reduction of discrimination for all members of society.

Government and state institutions need to ensure equitable opportunities for all to participate in the management of society. If all citizens do not get equal benefits of amenities, they are unable to realise their creative potentials. We need some fundamental modifications in attitudes that are in line with expanding human knowledge of the world.

To sum up the discussion, human rights violations have deep roots, which the education system waters and the state narrative nurtures. Unless these two are taken care of, or the higher ups realise these fundamental flaws in their approaches, the war to defend human rights will go on.

Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "A day for human rights," The News. 2021-12-12.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Human rights , Social structures , Social groups , Intolerance , Prejudices , Education , Sri Lanka , Faisalabad