The concept of ‘rights’ has interested me from the beginning, that is, when I first gave a set of lectures to an adult education class, in the early 1960s. I’ve written about rights, too — here, for example.
My position is a simple one. If someone has a “right” then it is embodied in legislation somewhere. If it is not so embodied, it is not a right, only an aspiration. I don’t want to rehash the matter in this essay. Rather, I want to extend it, following a line of argument I have drawn from a most enjoyable and interesting book, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind (2011). Its author is Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Harari argues that while it is true that, at least from the evolutionary perspective, humans are not born with rights, it is important that we believe that they are so gifted. His general argument is that societies cannot function unless most people in them believe in the same things. He calls those things ‘myths’, and our consequent behaviour in believing in them, an ‘imagined order’. A natural order is different. Gravity continues to operate as it does whether or not we believe in it, as is the case with radioactivity. But myths vanish when people cease to believe in them, as does the imagined order. There was a time when people believed in the malign work of ‘witches’, and part of the imagined order that went along with that myth was the burning at the stake of women identified as witches. We no longer believe in witches; it is not part of any 21stcentury Western imagined order.
‘Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order’, he says. But ‘an imagined order can’t be sustained by violence alone’. It requires a lot of ‘true believers’. How do we come by them, you ask. First, he says, the imagined order becomes part of the material world. We in the West currently believe in ‘individualism’, that every person is of equal validity. So our houses have rooms for everyone, even the children, who are able to decorate their room as they wish, and even deny entrance to others of their family. It is theirs. Mediaeval castles did not have private rooms, and had few doors. The eldest son slept in in the hall along with other young men. He knew who he was, and you did too. You paid him proper respect, or else! You and he had your proper places in the social hierarchy — those places determined your true worth, not whether you had a private room.
Second, ‘the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries’. We are urged to see a holiday abroad as the true expression of our values. We will learn more about other people, their tastes and cultures, and in doing so we will extend our knowledge of ourselves. Our consumer-oriented society tells us we usually need some ‘retail therapy’, and that buying things and surrounding ourselves with objects will make us happy. ‘The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences.’ A wealthy Egyptian long ago would not thought of taking his wife to Babylon. Rather, he would have built her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted. Wealthy Australian graziers in the 1880s built grand homes to display their wealth and status. Why? That’s what the wealthy English did. We followed suit.
Harari calls this kind of imitation ‘inter-subjectivity’. We like to keep up with the Joneses. Not to do so is to admit that the Jones family is ahead of us, and therefore better. Now I can decide not to take trips overseas or build a better home than I can really afford, but what one person does hardly matters. If the great majority still do those things then our culture keeps these behaviours as central, and I am scorned.
Finally, there is money. Money is the universally accepted means of transacting business, not just between two of us in Canberra, but between one of us in Australia and another person in Japan. Barter did that job when we lived in tribes, and straightforward co-operation worked earlier still (I’ll help you now, because if I do then you’ll help me later). But as our settlements grew so did the need for something tangible that was widely accepted. Standard measures of barley did the job in the Sumerian civilisation, then came the silver shekel, and after it the coin, stamped with the name or face of the ruler, who thereby warranted that it was worth something. Amazingly, coins were accepted in other realms, so the Roman denarius was used as a coin in India, even though the nearest Roman legion was thousands of kilometres away.
In our society there are people who want to get back to nature, or to a sort of rural simplicity, where they grow their own food, and try to be self-sufficient. Of course, to do this they need to spend a lot of money first (as with solar energy) in the hope that in the long run they will be free of the rat-race. Money is really hard to escape, or to do without. Harari says that today the physical side of money is disappearing. The sum total of all the money in the world is about $60 trillion, but the sum total of all the banknotes and coins in the world is only (!) $6 trillion. The other 90 per cent simply exists in computer servers. I carry with me in my wallet a small amount of money in banknotes and in my pocket what cashiers describe as ‘metal’ — coins. Yet my bank summary on the computer says that I am worth more than that. If I want to buy something it is the credit side of my bank statement that everyone is interested in. And banks want me to have and want more money, too. Our whole society believes firmly in the value of money. My neighbours believe in our rather elegant Australian plastic money because I do, and I do because they do. The use of money like this is part of our imagined order.
So, back to rights. They don’t exist unless they are conferred by law, but the feeling that they are important is part of our imagined order. I hadn’t thought of it all like that, and I am glad that this book came my way (from a daughter, who said I would find it interesting, in which supposition she was quite right). Indeed, the notion of ‘an imagined order’ existing only in our minds but structuring our life in all its complexity is something I will continue to think about.
I was going to talk about Anzac Day and other legends, too, for these are also part of our imagined order, but this essay is already long enough. Legends can wait for a future essay.