Before examining if cutbacks in social science research under President Obama’s Budget Sequester, such as the “nearly 1,000 grants from the National Science Foundation [which] will be cancelled or reduced” (NY Times Editorial, 2/17/2013, p. 10) will affect the human rights situation in the United States, it is first necessary to examine what we mean by human rights. Generally, public discourse tends to define human rights violations as something happening in far away lands, such as Somalia where roughly 90% of women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM); dowry deaths in India; or the cutting off of hands for stealing in Iran. Certainly, such actions that tend to be massive, of a gross nature, in which domestic remedies have been exhausted, essential criteria for human rights violations, ought to be the concern of the entire world community. Yet, under scrutiny, the question is why such discourse often does not mention violations here, such as gun deaths, lack of health care or security in old age, unemployment, and lack of paid parental leave, as human rights concerns.
It is as if the advertising of such extreme cases in faraway places, can cultivate smugness, if not a feeling of superiority among a country’s inhabitants. It may also deflect that country from looking at its own historical legacies, such as the use of atomic bombs in World War II, genocide against Native Americans, and participation in the slave trade. To be sure, such atrocities still appear reflected in the fact that African and Native American men in the inner cities and reservations respectively have a longevity rate of approximately 43. To be blunt, such hypocrisy is not only common in the USA, but other countries, like some in Europe that historically have had official policies of torture, concentration camps, and excessive taxation and massive killings of people in the Third World. Issues of cultural relativism can also raise their ugly head, as FGM is one way a woman gets a husband in some countries, whereas in the West, if the reader can pardon my facetiousness, a woman may have to be dead from anorexia nervosa to get married! What psychiatrist Robert Lifton also spoke of as the sanitization of oppression in his qualitative study of Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1986) as psychiatric nomenclature may mask insidious practices, such as the gassing of individuals with low IQ’s by the Nazi’s, but in contemporary times, the funneling of children with disabilities to educational tracks of questionable value, as well as, the overmedicating of those considered disruptive, are practices that have occurred all in the guise of helping.
The Human Rights Triptych
But, despite such complications, we ought to view human rights standards, which ought to be seen as the bedrock of social justice, as those comprised of what Rene Cassin called The Human Rights Triptych with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed without dissent in 1948, at its center; on the right panel the conventions, actually international treaties, that followed it, such as the Convention on the Elimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination Against Women (CERD); and on the left panel, implementation mechanisms, such as human rights reports to United Nations monitoring committees, the Universal Periodic Review, and World Conferences.
Having thus a more or less visible and what I would like to call an “educated layperson’s” set of guiding principles would be an excellent way to assess a society’s progress towards a socially just world, rather than relying primarily on intuition or having such things as government hypocrisy or sanitization of oppression discussed earlier underpinning our discussions. Agreeing on such principles, the Triptych thus represents largely the collective wisdom of much of the world’s community vis-a-vis the United Nations, allowing nations to engage in creative dialogue and nonviolently develop their own venues to adhere to those standards. In effect, the playing field is leveled with the aim of following essential spiritual principles, such as humility and adhering to the ancient adage to examine the log in one’s own eye before plucking the spec from another’s.
Towards the Creation of a Human Rights Culture
What we are talking here ultimately is what I have referred to as the need to create a Human Rights Culture, which I have described as a “lived awareness of human rights principles in one’s mind and heart and dragged out into everyday lives.” (See. www.humanrightsculture.org) In this ongoing blog, then I will attempt to add to the debates principles found in the Human Right Triptych as the bases to assess any policies, purportedly to be in the direction of social justice, in this case, the cutting of social science research. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the federal government will cut research overall by roughly 8%, the actual programs to be cut at present, not entirely clear. But, if we look at some of the research over the years some funded largely through government auspices we can easily discern some rather important findings directly relevant to improving the quality of life. Take, for example, the work of David Gil, recent recipient of the lifetime achievement award in social work, who in his classic Violence against children (Harvard University Press, 1970) found a direct correlation between unemployment, underemployment, and lack of collective bargaining in the workplace with domestic violence. Very briefly, anger in the workplace, which has no due process, may be easily displaced to more vulnerable family members. It is also now well known that satisfaction in one’s employment is often directly related to a person’s longevity, as well as, the quality of life and that unemployment is the greatest predictor of imprisonment. To be sure, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other conventions assert employment as a human right
Human Rights as Dangerous to Governments
All of those findings would not have been possible without a sincere commitment to social science research, now directly threatened. It may very well be that Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was indeed dangerous to governments may be a factor in government’s desire to hide their dirty laundry. Human rights is an idea whose time has come and today no government would dare say that it is against human rights. Why fund initiatives that bring to light violations? An easy argument might also be used by governments not to use human rights standards as a basis for research in the first place. For example, I had previously compared the federal constitution and all state constitutions with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and found that major rights, such as rights to health care, shelter, meaningful and gainful employment, security in old age, rest and leisure, and others are not guaranteed in the US Constitution and state constitutions, which ought to act as “laboratories of democracy” in the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, asserted none of those rights just mentioned. The majority, however, did guarantee the right to education (see for example my Human rights and social justice, Sage, 2008 and Human rights and social policy in the 21st century University Press of America, 1992).
I must say, however, that I have some sympathies for those who assert that more and more research is not necessary, that what we need is a social conscience, no more, no less. A child, for example, simply needs someone who is crazy about him or her; we have societal obligations to provide education and health care for all; and we already know what we need to do to create a clean environment. I am also reminded furthermore, of Jean Paul Sartre’s lament in his The emotions: Outline of a theory (Philosophical Library, 1948) that research often results in meaningless facts, rather than meaningful essences. I have yet to see, for instance, the efficacy of bubble gum as a reinforcer and understand why one has to study the effects of maternal deprivation on infants, bringing to mind the infamous Spitz studies which noted that such infants became anaclitically depressed, and died of marasmus. Who cares where the poor have gone after leaving the welfare rolls? There shouldn’t be any poor in the first place!
Only Chosen Values Endure
But if whatever we do can add to the debates as to how we can have a human rights culture and, such debates are extremely necessary as only chosen values endure, then let us not cut any social science research funding that can bring to light to the human rights situation in one’s country, in this case, the United States, however “dangerous” it may be. Whereas it may be painful to look at one’s self, we have no choice but to do so, in order to tackle the world’s problems with a sense of humility, let alone serve as moral leaders for the world’s community.
- Dr. Joseph Wronka is a Fulbright Senior Specialist in the discipline of social work with expert areas in social justice and poverty. He is also Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva for the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW). The author of four books his most recent one is Human rights and social justice: Social action and service for the helping and health professions (SAGE).
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