The Power of Human Rights Education

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Section five of thirteen of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 peace proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement.”

Holding a toddler’s hand through the border fence At the border wall between the US and Mexico [Photo by Peg Hunter/CC BY-NC]

The second theme I would like to discuss relates to the vital role of human rights education in surmounting social divides. In recent years, issues concerning international borders—strengthening immigration control in response to the influx of refugees and migrants, and territorial disputes over resources—have gained prominent attention. At the same time, however, we are also witnessing a rise in global connectivity through infrastructure such as railways, electricity grids and undersea internet cables that cross national boundaries.

There are an estimated 750,000 kilometers of undersea internet cables and 1.2 million kilometers of railway lines worldwide, a total length far greater than the 250,000 kilometers of international borders on our planet. Spending on infrastructure constitutes about US$3 trillion per year, well over the US$1.75 trillion spent annually on defense, and this gap is only widening. [22]

In light of these facts, Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, has proposed revising our view of geopolitics:

The absence of the full panoply of man-made infrastructure on our maps gives the impression that borders trump other means of portraying human geography. But today the reverse is true: Borders matter only where they matter; other lines matter more most of the time. [23]

Khanna stresses that this global commitment to infrastructure is not limited to regions like the European Union but can also be seen in zones of geopolitical tension, where it provides states involved the opportunity to overcome “the hurdles of both natural and political geography” [24] and mutually benefit from such an undertaking.

Khanna’s efforts to foreground the role of functional geography while also recognizing the role of political geography in the context of cross-border infrastructure projects is cognate with the perspective expressed by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in his work The Geography of Human Life. Makiguchi, who stressed that the behavior of human beings and states was profoundly influenced by their understanding of geography, called on them to base their activities on the principle of what he termed “humanitarian competition,” which, he explained, meant to consciously choose to set aside egotistical motives, striving to protect and improve not only one’s own life but also the lives of others.

Even if the contours of national borders are seen as nonnegotiable, the continued growth of these lattices of global infrastructure linking one country to another can engender richer ties between and among them. Such activity, I believe, can be seen as a nascent expression of the kind of humanitarian competition that Makiguchi advocated.

related article The Spiritual Sources of Human Rights Law The Spiritual Sources of Human Rights Law The first important element of a human-rights-based approach to resolving global issues, writes Daisaku Ikeda in his 2018 Peace Proposal, is the vow to prevent others from suffering what one has endured. It is a compassionate spirit embodied by the hibakusha and individuals such as John P. Humphrey and Nelson Mandela. One of the foundations of Makiguchi’s philosophy is the idea that value arises from relationality. This same principle can be applied to the challenge of human rights, where it points to the importance of expanding networks of connection that bring people and things together across difference.

Through expanding his network of individual connection, for example with his white nurse and guards, Nelson Mandela strengthened his conviction in the humane possibilities of all people, which became the foundation for his political activities following his release. In this way, he offers an example of how relationships can be transformative, giving rise to positive value despite deep differences.

Shakyamuni, who expounded the dignity of all people, regularly warned his disciples against the danger of allowing our language to cast things in a fixed or immutable light. He admonished them that it is not by birth but through one’s actions that one becomes a brahman, [25] that is, a person worthy of the highest respect. Put differently, a person’s worth should never be determined by the language with which they are described.

The teachings of Buddhism include the phrase “loathing, rejecting and severing the other nine realms.” [26] This is used to describe and critique the worldview that separates Buddhas from human beings and expounds that in order to attain the highest, most sublime state of life (Buddhahood), one must first loathe, reject and cut oneself off from all other life states (the nine worlds).

With this in mind, Nichiren writes:

The doctrine that those of the two vehicles could never attain Buddhahood was not a source of lamentation for those of the two vehicles alone. We understand now that it was a sorrow to ourselves as well! [27]

This is a statement of how denying the dignity and potentialities of a specific person or group not only assaults their dignity but also undermines the basis for our own. While this represents a perhaps specifically Buddhist understanding of the nature of life, it also points to a reality—the dangers inherent in putting up barriers to anyone’s experience of human dignity—that must be taken into account in considering today’s human rights challenges.

Throughout the world, we see disturbing examples of xenophobia in which individuals or groups are singled out as the objects of loathing, avoidance and isolation. Two antidiscrimination resolutions were adopted during regular sessions of the UN Human Rights Council last year: one on combating intolerance based on a person’s religion or belief, another on starting negotiations on the additional protocol to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted at the General Assembly in 2016 also warned: “Demonizing refugees or migrants offends profoundly against the values of dignity and equality for every human being, to which we have committed ourselves.” [28]

To a certain degree, it is only natural to feel a sense of attachment to a group composed of people with whom one shares common attributes. It is likewise perhaps to be expected that we should feel some apprehension at welcoming people of different national origins into the community we call home. However, we must recognize how such feelings can lead to exclusionist behavior and human rights violations as feelings of enmity and hostility are externalized in hate speech and other forms of discrimination.

Two people on train hunched over smartphones Information searches are often attuned to users’ preferences, creating the risk of enveloping individuals in a bubble-like membrane of filtered information that obscures other views [Photo by Runs With Scissors/CC BY-NC-ND]

While increasing our capacity to connect with others, the rise of a postindustrial information society in recent years has also led to a phenomenon where people only associate with those who share the same frame of reference. Among the causes for what is known as the “filter bubble” are data searches that return information already attuned to the user’s preferences, thus obscuring other sources. Gradually, without realizing, one is enveloped in an isolating membrane of preselected information.

What is troubling about this phenomenon is the degree to which it can impact a person’s understanding of social issues. Even if one actively seeks out information on an issue of particular concern, the content encountered on websites and social media feeds will end up bearing a close resemblance to the views one already holds. In this way, from the outset one is distanced from differing opinions, which never become the object of careful consideration.

Internet activist Eli Pariser cautions: “In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart.” [29] The ability to make good decisions depends on situational awareness and context, and yet, he writes, “In the filter bubble, you don’t get 360 degrees—and you might not get more than one,” [30] warning us of the adverse effects of our restricted outlooks.

Research on diversity has shown how people who are members of the dominant group within a society are often unaware that they enjoy freedom from discrimination. Their lack of awareness can compound the claustrophobic social atmosphere experienced by members of minorities. I will never forget when Rosa Parks (1913–2005), the mother of the American civil rights movement, described to me during our meeting in January 1993 her personal experience under a system of legal racism that caused immense suffering to countless individuals.

Until African Americans found the means to give the anguish they felt tangible, visible form, it remained largely unnoticed by white American society. The historic bus boycott movement sparked by Mrs. Parks’ unambiguous refusal to accept injustice generated a current of change precisely because it communicated that anguish so widely and effectively.

Notes

22. Khanna, Connectography, 11.
23. Ibid., 14.
24. Ibid., 15.
25. See Norman, trans., The Group of Discourses, 2:18.
26. (trans. from) Nichiren, Nichiren Daishonin gosho zenshu, 403.
27. Nichiren, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, 2:472.
28. UN General Assembly, “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants,” 3.
29. Pariser, The Filter Bubble, 9–10.
30. Ibid., 143.

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