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Why Do Humans Oppose Human Rights?

The curious case of humans who oppose human rights doesn’t make sense – unless you understand both the workings of authoritarian minds and the faulty logic of collective rights and privileges-as-rights

“Most people think human rights are important for creating a fairer society, but the socially disadvantaged are less likely to feel that human rights benefit them.”

“Nearly 9 in 10 people (88 %) in the EU think that human rights are important for creating a fairer society in their country. This ranges from a ‘low’ of 76 % in Hungary to a ‘high’ of 96 % in Malta.”

–Fundamental Rights Survey, 2020 (pdf)

Politicians have a lot to answer for when it comes to the erosion of the support for human rights. They keep acting as if human rights were the only thing standing between them and defending the nation/performing a miracle/etc.

How on earth could a justice minister stop a hate preacher from hate preaching if she cannot revoke his citizenship? (Seriously?) How can a president heroically stop terrorists with his bare will if he has to respect his subjects’ rights to privacy and free movement? How can an inept, corrupt politician do his thing if he has to cope with a free press shedding light on his theft? How can a leader lead if he is supposed to behave like a rule-obeying public servant, who is not allowed to kill, imprison, silence, or torture his (supposed) employers in his efforts to protect them?

Human rights are easy targets because they don’t defend themselves. But why don’t the humans to whom they apply defend them much harder?

It’s not just politicians who renounce human rights. Some humans also do it. And if it doesn’t sound logical, it is because you don’t understand the curious logic of authoritarian minds.

But before we get there, we must clarify what a human right is – and what it isn’t.

By human rights are freedoms – not privileges.

For individuals – not groups.

And who wants freedom if he feels he can’t use it?

An authoritarian mind would demand and defend his ‘right to housing’ before he defends his ‘right to own property’. Indeed,he would give away the second in the hope of the first.

Giving away liberties (like the right to own and keep property so that not even the state be allowed to take it) sounds great until you become the one whose property is taken (or money, house, labor) to secure someone else’s “right” to housing. But that convinces no one.

An authoritarian mind can be tricked into accepting the replacement of liberties with privileges because a privilege sounds like safety, while a freedom is is just tedious liberty. And what use is liberty when one feels helpless to use it in his own interest?

An authoritarian mind is happy to think of rights as handouts and privileges – and give away freedoms. It is because he feels fundamentally helpless to improve his own life.

And helplessness crowds out the appetite for freedom.

The tragic mistake is that once he gives away said liberties, there will be no need to observe his privileges and give him housing as promised. Without his liberties to protest, to express opinion, to own and keep his own property he can’t make the ruler to give him property. On a collective level we can only lose to our rulers if privileges prevail over freedoms.

Fear and helplessness crowds out the appetite for freedom

A free and able entity wants more freedoms and less regulatory obstacles to tackle challenges. An unfree mind and a person who doesn’t feel in control wants help. He wants someone to protect him, tackle the threat for him, do something. And for that, he agrees that the ruler must have all the power.

There are a number of authoritarian thinking habits that accumulate to cause this fallacy.

1. An authoritarian mind has its locus of identity in the powerful 

In much the same way an abused victim of domestic violence always thinks with the head of her abuser, an authoritarian victim never stops putting himself in the shoes of his leader. The leader’s viewpoint is well-known to him, he always takes into account the leader’s interests – but never his own.

Indeed, a victim of authoritarian oppression (domestic or political) is legendarily incapable to formulate his or her own will, to know his or her own interest. But they can always recount what the powerful would think or do. Always.

But what point is to have one’s own desires, one’s own will, if it can never come to fruition? It is painful. But thinking with the oppressor’s head is comfortable – because he is powerful and not helpless. It is safer – because the powerful would not like dissent.

Authoritarian victims are not inhabiting their own mental space because their point of view is profoundly uncomfortable. They are helpless, they have no tools, they can’t control their own lives, prosperity, or even protect themselves from all those threats that stubbornly refuse to materialize.

So when an authoritarian voter supports his tyrant, always think of the abused housewife defending her husband and saying “but I love him”. Or “but he loves me”. And “where else would I go?”. And “he would come after me”.

2. Human rights are the limitations on organized power

No wonder a fearful and helpless mind would find them intolerable. The only relief from the constant pain of fear and threats is the thought that another entity, his ruler, is not as helpless against them as he is. What’s more, the ruler uses his empowerment (the lack of human liberties) to protect us. If only that were true.

But more often even the threats are fake or manufactured. And not surprising. It only takes a few seconds before a discussion of human rights devolves into discussion of virus-laden, pedophile terrorists. Authoritarian minds are conditioned to jump from one topic to the other. (See report7 in 10 Europeans (68 %) think that some take unfair advantage of human rights. One third (33 %) agrees with the statement “the only people who benefit from human rights are those who don’t deserve them – such as criminals and terrorists”.)

3. When the (perceived) stake is survival

Survival is not the same as living. When one aims to just survive, just to fend off death, one is not aiming for prosperity. One is not living. It is not about improvement – just keeping something negative at bay. It should be temporary. But for authoritarians survival thinking becomes permanent – always applied to whatever threat is perceived.

During survival, the priority is avoiding something. During living, one has to want things. The ability of wanting things can, however, completely be missing. Permanently. And that is another little crack authoritarian oppression can creep in, offering collective goals, things to want in place of our hollowed-out existence.

There are millions of reasons why someone would not want freedoms – and there is only one reason to demand it: and that is confidence is one’s ability to reasonably control life. And that is the opposite of helplessness.

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