Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Human Rights Language Gets a Foothold
Events of the past two weeks were amazing. From Burwell to Obergefell to the President’s Charleston eulogy, the national energy was higher with each passing day.
One of the lower keyed but significant changes that happened during the whirlwind of opinions and celebrations was the solidification of human rights language in official government comments. Two branches of our government engaged language of spirituality and human rights principles.
In his Rose Garden comments following the release of the Burwell decision, President Obama noted: “We finally declared that in America, health care is not a privilege for a few, but a right for all.” For the moment, the country could focus on our obligation to provide all citizens with basic health care, shifting the perspective from health care as a privilege to a fundamental right.
As has been well reported here and elsewhere, Justice Kennedy continued his theme of dignity in same sex relationships when he referenced dignity as a foundation in recognizing the right of same sex partners to marry. ‘The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm… They [the plaintiffs] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
In his moving eulogy of Celementa Pickney, President Obama alluded to the everyday affronts to their dignity that African Americans experience. “That's what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.”
What the President alluded to and what is unstated in Justice Kennedy’s opinion is an accounting of the daily pain suffered by members of excluded communities. Microagressions are the “small” indignities that are suffered due to bias, implicit or explicit.
Thanks to the human rights references of recent weeks, the language is embedded in the American lexicon. Language will not bring a sudden end to danger for gays or blacks, or create an immediate political shift toward providing for the poor. But the language of dignity and community obligation lays the foundation for cultural change.