Other Writing

The Precious, Irreplaceable Individual in the Diversity Era
September 17th, 2021


Diversity & The Precious, Irreplaceable Individual 


Everywhere, the precious individual is under attack through violence or war-like politics in its various forms, including propaganda, and all-too-often, the written word, whether in fancy-sounding Journals, university classrooms, online or in the media. Each time & place has its unique dangers. The angles of attack are numerous, but the dehumanizing effect is the same.

I am not alone in these concerns. In an article in The Guardian, columnist, foreign affairs commentator, and former editor-in-chief of Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrède, reminds us that “Human rights are best defended one unique, valuable, irreplaceable person at a time.” She notes that the Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other human rights legislation focus on protecting the “rights and dignity” of each individual human being “regardless of whatever characteristic may be attached to that person, willingly or not.” What is sacred is the individual – not the social group.

She worries that today we often focus on the “category” of person we want to defend, and forget “what’s universal about human rights.”  She quotes writer Vasily Grossman – “Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel, and live in his or her own way.” This is legitimate provided we understand that such groupings are only a means – not an end. Grossman continues: “The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities, and in his right to these peculiarities.” Grossman, who wrote, among other things, eyewitness accounts of the discovery of the Nazi death-camp Treblinka, and whose novels were later suppressed by the Soviet Government – knew something about the dangers of social groups.

I have, occasionally, tried to intervene on political issues as a writer, always ineffectually. Years ago, I wrote Who Speaks for the River?, which had a few themes but mainly catalogued the injustices faced by one First Nation in Canada. Much to my surprise, in the past few years, new dangers have arrived in Canada from the United States, from a different angle, the so-called progressive but at times illiberal left.

The danger to human rights for the individual can come from the political Left or Right. Ultimately, words like Left or Right are less important than what is actually happening in that society at that time. If any group is formally excluded from their rights, the society is in big trouble.  Thus, we must push back using reasoned discourse, fair process, the law, and human rights tribunals, to protect the precious individual from all forms of judgment based on any factors other than their own conduct. Whenever a group dares to proclaim that they are morally better due to their group membership, we must push back on this. There are no better or worse groups, only better or worse values, such as universality and compassion, as opposed to tribalism and intolerance.

Robert Girvan, September 17, 2021




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