Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware.
“Where, after all, do human rights begin?” asked Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1958 speech before the United Nations:
“In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”
Human rights have made enormous inroads in the decades since Mrs. Roosevelt’s address, but have our “small places” seen a similar transformation?
If the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop fiasco is any indication, they haven’t.
To be clear, the case was anything but simple. The Christian baker argued he had a right to refuse to create artistic expression which violated his sincerely held religious beliefs. (He does.) The gay couple who were denied a wedding cake argued the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. (It does.) In the end, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling deciding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated part of the First Amendment by showing “clear and impermissible hostility” towards the baker’s religious convictions when it sided with the couple.
It was a narrow ruling because the decision has a very limited applicability, and a similar future case might not result in the same outcome, as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was framed as a competition of rights. But rights aren’t ends in themselves; rather, they’re one means to an end, which is the creation of a just society.
The common assumption is that the quickest way to attain a just society is to expand and safeguard rights; that is, once human rights have been enhanced legally, everyday moral behaviour of all those affected by the new legislation will improve. But is this a fair assumption?
A team of researchers with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs conducted a three-year global study to determine whether and how rights language influences the ordinary moral judgments made by people outside of elite professions, such as rights activists, lawyers and bureaucrats. One major finding, according to a paper prepared by Michael Ignatieff, was that “while ethical convergence around universalist standards may be occurring among cosmopolitan elites, human rights as law or ethics figures little in ordinary people’s reckoning with the moral quandaries they face in everyday life.” Instead, “they reasoned in terms of the local, the contingent, the here and now.” For ordinary people, researchers concluded, “virtue was local.”
Though the study was not quantitative and its sample size was small, it raises legitimate questions about the relationship of rights discourse and everyday behaviour. The rights revolution has undoubtedly changed what we believe about the duties of states, says Mr. Ignatieff, but it is “much less clear that it has changed us.”
The cultural furor over the Masterpiece Cakeshop battle is understandable, and to be honest, I wish the outcome would’ve been different. A quick glance at social media shows this decision to have further emboldened some of the loudest and most bigoted segments of conservative religious America. LGBTQ people already face enough discrimination, the likes of which the Christian baker, despite his claims to the contrary, has never and will never experience.
The court case may be settled for now, but the exhausting battle that pits LGBTQ people against the religious community is far from over. And as long as we approach the issue as a competition of rights, we’ll remain trapped in a gridlock.
But what if we changed our focus?
What if we let go of our elaborate rights rhetoric and instead forced ourselves to think about our character? What if we forced ourselves to resolve hot button issues at a local level, in the here and now, the moment they happen, without the recourse of courts?
Imagine, for instance, if the gay couple just left the Colorado bakery and simply went to a different one. Or imagine that the baker just baked the cake! While such cheek-turning would’ve been far less dramatic, either response would have been character-forming. There’s a quiet, self-possessed power in the ability to ignore the things we hate, provided they don’t pose an immediate harm to our potential to flourish.
“But how are we to ignore a bigot’s mistreatment?” “What about the rights of Christians throughout the country?” “What about the rights of LGBT across the U.S.?” To many, Masterpiece was never really been about a cake. But on some level, that’s how it began: between two parties, face to face, with conflicting expectations. It began in one of Ms. Roosevelt’s small places.
Of course, it’s difficult for us to imagine that our private interactions are truly private. In such a globalized world, local encounters don’t remain local. If anyone – sales clerk, teacher, stranger on the street – offends us, we’ve learned to immediately take our outrage to social media, in the hopes of encouraging an entire army of strangers to ruin the offending party’s life. We have turned our private desire to be unconditionally accepted into an unassailable right, and when we fear that right is in jeopardy, we expect the internet to adjudicate in our favour, and when that fails, we expect the government to issue a ruling. We are outsourcing our conflict-resolution skills to everyone else, and it is costing us our personal character.
What we need to do now is to start cultivating compassion. We need to stop seeing people as personifications of political issues, and instead see them as neighbours to whom we have ethical obligations. We need to take people one at a time, as they come to us.
The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision has given warring populations new cause to rejoice and mourn. But if we truly want to progress toward the kind of society where virtue is practised “close to home,” then we need to ask ourselves if arguing about which of us has the most rights is really going to help us achieve Mrs. Roosevelt’s ambition.