Thursday, October 9, 2008

"We're Not Human" - Patti Smith, Birdland

After dealing indirectly this week with a couple acquaintances who showed sociopathic tendencies in the way they treated others, I thought back to the period 15 years ago, when pundits were talking in the aftermath of Rwanda and Croatia about whether human rights can be forfeited. At the time, I stuck adamantly to the view that human rights are not automatic and inviolate for those who fail to recognize the rights of others, but must be constantly re-won and re-earned through right behavior and right thinking.

Now, it's obvious in the aftermath of Nuremberg that humans are responsible for their actions, and cannot claim a law of obedience. It's equally clear, in the aftermath of the Vienna and Helsinki "baskets" in the UN on human rights, that certain rights are common across all cultures and circumstances. Mass murderers like Vojislav Selselj would insist that principles are not common, and that when Serbs are indicted, it's "us against the world." The International Criminal Court made it clear that, when 90 percent of a relevant population is opposed to your viewpoint, your alternative definition of sanity, and of torture, genocide, etc. has no relevance - you are insane by the consensus of the vast majority. Of course, now that the ICC has moved into indicting President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, you have to wonder - does such insistence on moral righteousness by vast majority aid anything, or does it make conditions worse?

The ties to personal behavior are obvious. Certain behaviors are expected of human beings interacting with other human beings, in a way that operates beyond cultures and race: nonviolence, honesty, some level of consistency of emotional response, etc. We can and should be cognizant of the limits to effective human behavior that alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness place on a person, but that should not be an automatic free pass for bad behavior. Nor should insistence that "I'm just that way." Making claims of being "naturally inconsistent," of being a "temperamental artist," of saying "I'm a North Italian from New York City, that's just the way we are," do not stand up as excuses or rationalizations. Do I want to see preventive detention of sociopaths? Not necessarily, though the use of repeat-offender statutes by criminal courts should serve as a guide. Rather, we should always remember that old line mommy and daddy gave you about, "With rights come responsibilities." Demanding human rights means showing appropriate human behavior, on a social level and an interpersonal level. Gross violations of mutually-agreed-upon standards should mean forfeiture of human rights. The next question is, what does it mean to forfeit your rights as a human? Is it open season to shoot the offender?

15 comments:

Ruth said...

I still struggle with the concept of playing God and taking someone's life, whatever they've done. But I also think it might be appropriate to 'take out' a murderous dictator for the protection of the oppressed victims. What are options besides execution, war, imprisonment for forcing the forfeiture of human rights?

When the kids were little, and they misbehaved, our modus operandi was to ask ourselves what the logical consequence of their behavior was. What would be an appropriate effect on their privileges as a result of their behavior, what would teach them that cause has effect?

Loring Wirbel said...

Same with sociopathic people you know personally. If someone truly acts out of line and says they're just "naturally dysfunctional," do you put them in time out? Say it's time for a spanking?

Sharon said...

I don't know. I mean you have to be very careful not to reward unacceptable conduct even with a spanking, as even punishment can be a reward. Personally I think tolerance and understanding are usually our best resources and when situations become destructive or step outside of the realm of "acceptable" then it is time to disengage (with the exception of some close personal relationships, ie. our own young children who we have a greater responsibility and commitment to.) So, depending upon the situation I think the most effective tool on a personal (not global) level is disengagement (aka you no longer have rights as far as I'm concerned. It is time to "own your own problem", but leave me out of it).

As for moral righteousness, I am terrified of the crimes against humanity perpetuated by "groupthink". So, no, I don't think that concensus of the majority is a healthy barometer. (I mean the Catholic only just acknowledged their crimes against Galileo in 1992!) And I'm with Ruth that I am uncomfortable with the idea of taking another person's life. I don't think there can be ANY hard and fast rules there.....so NO to "open season" but a MAYBE to making a hard choice in rare and isolated instances.

Sharon said...

That was supposed to read Catholic "Church"

Loring Wirbel said...

Sharon, my favorite quote about owning your own problems was from Woody Paige (I think): "Cancel my subscription. I don't want your issues."

Ruth said...

Have you ever seen "Snow Cake" - with Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman? I keep thinking of Sigourney's character, who was autistic, and she'd say whatever she thought and felt. It was interesting both to see how people responded to her, and how she responded to other people. She would just say, "I'm tired of you, go away." I finished watching feeling that we should be way more like that. It's a wonderful film.

Sharon said...

I love that Ruth. Wouldn't it be great to be able to allow each other to be direct and honest without the fear ruffling each other's feathers.

I went to add it to my Netflix queue but it was already in there so I've bumped it up to the top.

Loring Wirbel said...

I haven't seen the movie, but there was a wonderful article in Wired about six months ago, about a woman who was heading up an Asperger's support group, who was deeply autistic herself. She said that when she went around with repetitive behaviors and rubbing windows, etc., she said, "That is my chosen language, and it's presumptive of you to think it's less relevant than your language."

Ruth said...

That is so cool.

wretch said...

I'm coming from a Catholic tradition. I'd describe myself as extremely lapsed, but still.

Wrong to take a life. Why?

1) You might be wrong about a) the offender's guilt and b) motivation;

2) there should be a chance for rehabilitation and/or redemption for anyone in this life;

3) because I fear that once you (we) get used to taking life, it becomes too easy -- further, I fear that once it becomes easy to justify taking a life, it becomes too easy to lower the bar for what justifies taking a life.

The rightwingnut argument is: if you saw someone harm or murder a family member, wouldn't you want to kill the offender. The most spiritually advanced people I know of would say "no," because forgiveness is key (look at the Amish response to the murder in their community a couple years ago). The answer for me, however, is "yes."

But the next question is never raised. Would I want to live in a society that allows individuals to extract vengeance (personal, or through the legal system). My answer, and YMMV, is "no."

Isolating offenders -- temporarily or until their deaths if necessary -- works best for me on all levels.

("Closure" is the most pernicious and foolish concept of recent years.)

Brian

Loring Wirbel said...

Most of what I say about taking life is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, especially in granting the government any role in it. What I will own up to in a straightforward sense is: (1) Not actively protesting death penalty, euthanasia, abortion, etc. because I don't really care that much about right-to-life at any stage, more about a responsibility-to-life, i.e., "prove to me you're worthy enough to be wasting air,"; (2) I don't feel guilty at all about throwing a party when a member of a certain small number of people dies - I would throw a party for Cheney's or Kissinger's death, and I had a chuckle when Jorg Haider of Austria died yesterday. Doesn't mean I wish death on them, but I sure as hell don't wish continued life on them. It's probably mutual, all karma....

wretch said...

I'm with you. I can't wait for W to die a natural death so I can go piss on his grave.

Loring Wirbel said...

And some news report just says the massive outpouring of emotion in Austria for Haider rivals that of Britain for Princess Diana! For a Nazi??!!! Does everyone wear liederhosen in that smarmy little country or something?

Ruth said...

Apparently with Haider, you don't know what you've got till he's gone, i.e., people who loved him.

Susan said...

i know who the one person you spoke to me of is, and totally agree. what happened to this other unnamed person? i go by the golden rule myself, and do my best to give genuine unconditional love to my friends, unless they have wronged me. in personal relationships
there can be gray areas., such as neglect from a loved one that might bring out represssed anger.