When a group of previously marginalized people steps forward and asks to partake in the civil rights which other members of their society share in, some other group of privileged, powerful people will say: “but that would end society as we know it!” Normally, the marginalized group and their non-member advocates then hunker down and dig in for what they know will be a long, protracted, bloody yet ultimately successful battle. And they begin to win more victories, and the powerful people mutter under their collective breath, and civilization lumbers wearily onward, rolling its eyes at the idea that a little bit of justice could derail all of humanity.
Honestly, this is one of the things that baffles me about the world we live in. “Civilization as we know it” was built upon slavery, oppression of women, and exclusion of interpretations of normalcy and reality that differed from the official line. Yet when slavery ended, when political entities officially acknowledged that all racial groups ought to have equal rights, when women began to share in the civil society that men had previously thought their own exclusive territory, when all-around diversity grew to be viewed as desirable rather than repulsive, civilization did not collapse. The polis was not overrun by bloodthirsty Huns. In fact, life got better for a lot of people. The people who weren’t immediately affected still had avenues of opportunity for positive change opened to them which had never before been possible.
But, in classic human style, we never learn. Each advance in human rights and justice is eventually accepted by the brains of us powerful and privileged middle-class white Americans. Then, someone else comes along asking for their human rights and a little justice, and we freak out all over again. It’s like we think human rights is a zero-sum game and if we give some to that gay Hispanic factory worker, we won’t have any left over for ourselves. To which I say: bullshit.
If you can believe it, hardcore Bible-thumping Protestant types used to kind of be a fan of individual rights. They may have devolved into a lot of old white guys with bad hair who preach terrible sermons against gay marriage, but back in the 1500’s, Protestants were the first advocates of popular literacy. That’s right, Martin Luther himself (great-great-granddaddy of every Protestant who ever judged you for thinking for yourself) wanted every plow-pushing farmer to be able to read and interpret the Bible for himself, rather than having some ecclesiastical institution telling him how to think. It didn’t take more than a few years before these educational egalitarians began getting quite violent over minor doctrinal issues, but the fact remains that you can thank the chaos they brought down upon the fairly institutionalized monolithic Middle Ages for some of the freedoms that you’re entitled to today.
Which just goes to show that people are usually big fans of rights and justice until their own rights are achieved. Then they tend to sit back on their asses and try to hoard all the human rights for themselves, as if other people on this planet aren’t really human enough to deserve rights. That’s a depressing thought. For instance, if in my lifetimes women’s rights are fully realized, will I then lock myself in my ivory tower and stop caring about other peoples’ rights? I truly hope not.
There is so much progress to be made still on this planet. There are billions of people whose basic rights are violated constantly. We cannot be content with the progress that has already been made. We cannot be stingy.
Will justice and the progress of human rights really bring a violent end to civilization as we know it? If it will, I say down with civilization. I say that ten thousand years of history built on the broken backs of oppressed people is not worth it. If giving people their rights brings an end to civilization, I will be the first in line to burn it all down. But we know better. Despite our contradictory actions, the society we have built is what gives us ways to fight for what we know is right. Justice can only be a good thing for humanity. Civilization as we know it might indeed change, but as long as it is changing for the better we should just stop the hysteria already and get to work.