Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Law, Justice, and Rights

Sometimes when reading the news, a particular story jumps out at you. And while violence in the headlines is nothing new, this story hit me harder than many: Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen, is shot dead on his way back from buying a snack, for what sounds like just being out and "looking suspicious" to the "neighborhood watch" person who shot him. Racial profiling or prejudices for the shooting have been alleged, and the shooter was not arrested by the police when they arrived. He claims he acted in self defense, but from phone logs (911 logs as well as Martin's own final phone conversation) and other evidence, that does not appear to be the case. The shooting happened almost a month ago (I remember reading about it then with horror too) and has only now begun to gain enough attention and outrage that finally the federal Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has opened an inquiry into the shooting and police response.

That the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has gotten involved is telling, and gives me the hope that this might finally be taken seriously. I could write more on the probable issues that will come out in the investigation and my own outrage, but given the scope of this particular blog (on social justice and human rights), I'll be focusing instead on the legal issues that currently surround the case, and on how those legal issues created an easier environment for this to happen.

One of the things that has come into focus in this case is a law in Florida (with similar ones in other states) which allows a person who feels "threatened" in a public place to use deadly force in "self defense" before even attempting to avoid or exit a confrontation. This law sets the right to self-defense against the rights (for example) to life and to trial by jury if accused of a crime (though here the victim was only "accused" by his shooter, not even the law--he was committing no crime--and the shooter was in fact told by the police when he phoned them not to get involved). So aside from dealing with a case of vigilantism, which should be prosecuted as such, perhaps we need to take a look at laws that allow greater latitude for vigilantism to occur.

Opponents of the law in question argue that it leads to cases just like this (what they call "shoot first and ask later"), while supporters of the law say it is necessary for people to feel safe and to be able to protect themselves without fear of being jailed. It seems to me, however, that such a law does in fact disregard the rights of the person who is perceived by a potential shooter as a threat. Who gets to adjudicate what constitutes a threat? Where is the use of force justified, and to what degree? How do we look at the rights of all in society, in such a way that all are protected and respected--including those who are falsely perceived as being a threat? Bringing society to a point where profiling and racial prejudices are no longer part of people's consciousness would be a huge step, but in the meantime, perhaps we need to look at the laws that give the impression that knee-jerk violence against another person based only on suspicion is somehow legal or "appropriate".

Monday, March 12, 2012

Imagining and One Year Later

As I write this post on the 11th of March, (though by the time I finished writing it, it's now the 12th) I am reminded where I was a year ago when I first heard about the earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck parts of Japan and wrecked havoc with the Fukushima nuclear plant. I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to finish the last bits of my dissertation, when a friend called me and said, "check the news.": three words that shouldn't be so frightening, and yet when spoken in certain contexts, are deeply so. I remember asking "why, what's happened?" with my imagination already supplying several different scenarios, each worse than the one previous. He struggled for a moment to put into words what he had heard, and finally simply said, "tsunami in Japan. It's pretty bad." From his tone and lack of other words, I knew that "pretty bad" meant "indescribably awful."

He was right. As I watched the news unfold, I too could not find words, much less actions, given my geographic location on the other side of the world. Language failed me, and where language failed me, the ability to conceptualize what was happening and what I and my household could do in response was difficult. I instinctively felt the situation required a social response as part of an ethical imperative, but I was unsure what to do, and what it might mean, for example, to stand in solidarity with the people affected. Could I even do so, is such a thing even possible? How could we be part of, or support, a social response? What would such a response be?

We managed to work out what small immediate ways we could help, but they all fall flat in the face of what began as a natural disaster that triggered a human-made disaster (with the nuclear plant failure) becoming together, by the sheer breadth of their impact, a societal and environmental disaster.Over the past year, there has been dialogue and debate over how best to mitigate the effects of the radiation released, how best to help those in need, how best too rebuild communities that were wiped out--and along with the debate, there has been necessary action and material help. But the need for social response and the attendant ethical imperative is ongoing.

It's that ongoing need I wanted to talk about here--not, for once, on a practical level, since there are people far more expert than I, who can weigh in on the practicalities of getting food, shelter, and comfort to those affected, and I don't have the scientific or technological expertise to really put forward any suggestions on how to deal with the effects from a nuclear meltdown. I'm a philosopher, and one who deals with narrative and ethics and relationships and language. But I think that talking about just such things along with the practical necessities of support and clean up, are important too, because without such ongoing conversation, we're truly shooting in the dark. In a world where global relations are deepening, even practical considerations like supplying food and blankets are affected by abstract conceptions and ideologies. Part of being able to talk about social ethics (always grounded in a view of how to plan and act and put in place structures that allow positive social ethics to emerge) is being able to think about ethical action in the face of the unthinkable, whether that unthinkable is due to human action or not. And appropriate ethical action requires thinking and understanding, speaking and listening (and hearing) cross-culturally, before, as, and after one acts.

So how do we think the unthinkable, where does that begin?  Is it perhaps with imagining in order to sort out appropriate action?  And, since this is a question about social  ethics and not simply personal ethics, how do we undertake such imagining in a social setting, as a socially ethical response to situations of dire human and environmental need?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Disability Rights and the Heart of Human Rights

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The Following is a Guest Post by Deborah Stienstra, Professor of Disability Studies at University of Manitoba

On February 10, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a women with intellectual disabilities could testify on her own behalf as the victim in a case of sexual assault. By a majority vote, the Court agreed that she understood what it meant to tell the truth even though she could not articulate what truth was. She and many other women and men with disabilities challenge society to extend our understandings of individual human rights, personhood and autonomy. In this ruling we are taught that courts need to recognize that the competence required to bear witness to one’s own experience is something those often labeled ‘not competent’ have. We are also taught about the importance of disability rights. Disability rights take us beyond simple assertions that individuals in their differences need to be accommodated. While accommodation and removing barriers to women and men with disabilities in society are important steps to ensuring inclusion, disability rights require us to go beyond inclusion to transformation of ourselves and our societies.

Disability takes us to the heart of humanity and human rights. How can human rights be available to those who cannot speak, cannot move their bodies without supports, and need assistance for every aspect of human life? How do societies reflect the diversity of human bodies and ways of doing things? How do human rights move from including people with disabilities into able-bodied societies towards transformed societies that enable multiple ways of doing things, all of which are part of humanity?