“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy
This familiar quote from JFK, the 35th US president, is worth contemplating in these tumultuous times (and might also be great advice for the 45th US president*, but then again, he is a self-professed “stable genius”, knowing more about “Wall Street, taxes, trade, steelworkers, politicians, renewables, drones” etc, etc than anyone, so, if there was ever a guy who didn’t need to ask a single solitary question . . .)
You watch enough people march in the streets, locally and globally, for the freedom to NOT wear a mask, hoisting signs like “MY FREEDOM DOESN’T END WHERE YOUR FEAR BEGINS”, and you could get to thinking about human rights. I feel a mask protects you from me (although I did read recently there’s proof you get protection from it too) so I figure I’m kind of doing you a favour, protecting you in case I have coronavirus and don’t know. You refuse to wear a mask yet want to be in public places where masks are mandated? So . . . you don’t care about my health? Oh yeah, slap-myself-in-the-face emoji. As the sign says: it’s my “FEAR” you don’t care about!
I guess this is where/how human rights get tricky. I feel I have the right to protect my health and you feel you have the right to “FREEDOM”. But, surely freedom comes with some responsibility?
That GINORMOUS word, with it’s SIX friggin’ syllables! Oh man, it used to weight me down. Back in the day, when I had three young children and a full time job? Responsibilities made my TO DO list as vast as space. Until! I took a course in which the instructor flipped the word on me.
“Stop thinking of them as responsibilities,” he said, “and start thinking of them as your ‘ability to respond’.”
Wow! An Oprah “ah ha moment”, right there. How empowering is that? We all do have varying abilities – and gifts and strengths and so on – that enable us to respond appropriately to demands of home, work, community, country.
So, living in countries like Canada or the US, one does have the right to freedom, but there are several responsibilities that accompany that freedom, like for instance, obeying the law, paying taxes, and being community-minded. In Canada, “protecting and enjoying our heritage and environment” is another – a good one to be reminded of in this time of climate crisis. In the US, supporting and defending the constitution is also on the list, which confirms that the “guy-who-didn’t-need-to-ask-a-single-solitary-question” is sorely lacking in the ability to respond.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as set out in Article 1 by the UN in 1948 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Oh that second sentence: “reason and conscience”, “spirit of brotherhood”. Maybe we’ve lost something over the last 70something years? Or the UN made a GINORMOUS assumption?
In an article for vision.org a quote by Mary Ann Glendon, from 1991, points out a possible quandary: “Converging with the language of psychotherapy, rights talk encourages our all-too-human tendency to place the self at the center of our moral universe.”
Ah. And there’s this biggie: humans are heterotrophs. This is a new word for me, I’ve been dying to use it! What exactly is a heterotroph you ask, if you’re inclined, unlike some, to ask questions? Oxford dictionary: “an organism deriving its nutritional requirements from complex organic substances”. Meaning? Humans – and other heterotrophs – cannot live on sunshine and water alone. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Eat or be eaten.
We’re consumers, for cripesakes, working hard at consuming every living thing Mother Earth has to offer!
I learned the word “heterotroph” from Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of Braiding Sweetgrass, a book I highly recommend. She talks a lot about another word, “reciprocity”, which is the practice of exchanging things for mutual benefit. Kimmerer, with her indigenous background, observes nature from an all-inclusive perspective. Trees, along with many plants and animals, were here for a long time before humans came along, so they actually know more than us. What can they teach us? How do we show them respect? How do we give back?
Okay, so I’ve strayed a tad from the topic at hand, which was mask wearing during a pandemic. But what I’m trying to get at is that rights and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. We should not have one without the other. Being born human should give us many rights that seem self-evident, but what if we flipped it, thought seriously about what we can give back – to others, to Mother Earth and all the bounty she generously provides – for the sheer privilege of spending time on a beautiful blue planet?
If a majority of humans don’t start, soon, giving back, showing gratitude? I fear Mother Earth will say, “So glad to be rid of those ungrateful humans. They may have been born free, but wow! Expensive experiment.”