Thursday, December 17, 2009

Who Decides?

Does awareness of perceived injustice compel one to act?

Over the weekend I got into a debate with a colleague over who is responsible for development. His opinion is that in the case where human rights are being denied it is the obligation of those who are in a position to do so to intercede (though not necessarily militarily).

I politely disagreed.

Outside of the obvious cases such as genocide, sex trafficking, and child slavery, my argument was and is that as much as I may think that certain practices and aspects of a society are reprehensible, it is not inherently my responsibility as someone outside of that culture/country/society to do something to ‘fix’ them. First, because to do so supposes that I am coming from moral high ground, which has nasty hints of Colonialism which apprehended religious speech to justify unjust actions.  Secondly, until a certain amount of movement comes from within those nations clamoring for change, there is almost no way to sustain change – it becomes something imposed as opposed to something home grown. And finally, when speaking of developing nations we act as though the playing field is even – it is not; often those who are most in a position to act wield economic or military power over those they seek to change. Change comes, then, not from the will of the people, or out of the needs of the people but rather the needs of those interceding: be they economic needs or needs of conscience.

The risks of interceding are clearly on display in the case of Uganda and its Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. The bill would sentence HIV positive homosexuals to death for having sex, severely punish any homosexual with up to life imprisonment, and punish any Ugandan, gay or straight, who knows a homosexual and fails to report him or her to the authorities with up to seven years in prison. The bill goes so far as to repatriate homosexual Ugandans living abroad so that they can face sentencing at home.

How is this ugly bill related to the dangers of those in a position to intercede according to their moral code?

It’s simple. This bill is the outgrowth of years of several decades’ worth of effort on behalf of a US Based Evangelical Christian organization called The Family. The Family has used its power and influence in Uganda to promote anti-gay rhetoric, and a Christian agenda which promotes among other things abstinence only education. Because of their efforts Uganda’s AIDS education program once one of the best on the African Subcontinent is flailing and homophobia which was always problematic is on the rise as evidenced in this bill.

It would be easy to say that The Family and its ilk are misguided, and maybe they are. But who is to say that others acting in accordance with their own conscience are not equally misguided. As it stands now we have The Family on one side, western anti-homophobia activists on the other and The Ugandan people in the middle; their destinies shaped less by their own wills but by whichever side wields the most political influence over their government.

In addition, something my colleague could not seem to wrap his head around was that by acting on behalf of those he deems oppressed in other countries takes away their own agency. It creates a broad brush labeling and creating victims, a view that those people may not hold of themselves. What right do we have to define another individual, never mind entire groups of individuals?

His response was simply that denied education many of these people were simply not in a position to know better and in essence that it was our obligation to think for them. And yet, history is littered with the stirring actions of an uneducated minority: The United State’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln only had about 18 months of formal education, Harriet Tubman had none; Mussolini on the other hand had plenty. A hungry person is not too stupid to know that he is hungry, an uneducated person can and often is still wise enough to draw the links between their own hunger and the social inequities in the world around him or her, and to be bold enough to take action. To presume otherwise, is to laud our own intellect while degrading that of those we presume to want to help.

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