Seeing the images of women and men around the world marching on January 21st in the collective defense of human rights is uplifting. If only Thomas Jefferson could see, for it was he who wrote in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These ideals were picked up shortly after by the authors of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, expanded to “all citizens” and “every society” and they were considered “natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man” (Article 2) derived not from kings nor from a supreme being, but made from the relationship between human beings. By 1948, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoed the first article of the French Declaration in stating that “All human beings are born free and equal in the dignity of rights.” The problem, of course, is that none of these documents were binding and that these rights only hold concrete meaning in the local context and mainly come into question upon their abuse. That it took time, and more importantly hard work, reason and contestation to expand “man” to include the non-propertied, non-white, non-male, and non-Protestant and Catholic—reminds us that human rights are the product of history. As historian Lynn Hunt argued it also took “imagined empathy” (that is, “imagining that someone else is like you”) for the human rights revolution to occur. In the 2017 Women’s March, we see the broadening and intersectionality of these rights: women and men defending the rights of others for whom they are able to imagine and empathize with (a white woman carrying a sign “black lives matters” or a father who brings his two young sons in support of women’s right). These rights were gained through history. They have to be maintained and expanded in our present and beyond. Human rights (collective and individual; social, political, economic and environmental) are still the cultural battleground of our societies. We cannot assume their universality nor their inalienability. They must be protected, as so passionately understood by those who marched on January 21st.
“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.