Educating about human rights

A little while ago I received a request from the Australian College of Educators, of which I am a Fellow, to assist the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in improving its education resources. I was asked to complete a survey questionnaire that might last ten minutes. As a former survey-research addict, and as someone interested in the whole concept of ‘rights’, I set out to do so. I’ve written a dozen essays on this website that refer to the notion of ‘human rights’ of one kind or another, and have a deal of disquiet about the common use of the term. ‘Rights’, in my judgment, are privileges conferred by law, but in common parlance ‘rights’ seem to be mostly aspirational — that is, ‘there ought to be a right’… of this kind or that kind, and we’ll make a fuss until there is one.

The immediate problem is that because ‘rights’ are conferred by law, if there isn’t such a law, then there is no right. There are, at the same time,  values and customs that most of us adhere to most of the time. For example,  the great majority in our country behave honestly as a matter of course , and there are laws that can apply to us if we don’t. But there is no ‘right’ to be treated honestly. Not only that, it is hard to get parliaments to write new laws about rights, and when they do (as in the anti-discrimination example), it is not at all clear what that parliament really meant, though it aids the growth in our GDP by providing more work for lawyers.

I wasn’t much help to the AHRC, since I no longer have any role in classrooms. But again and again I wanted to write — and did sometimes write in one of the boxes — surely you need to be teaching about what ‘rights’ are, not (as it seems to me) assuming that everything that is bad in the world is somehow about human rights. And in due course after I had sent off my response, I decide to go to the AHRC website, for further enlightenment.

Somewhere, I said to myself, there will be a definition of a ‘human right’. What I got first of all, was not a definition, but a kind of context:

Human rights recognise the inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe.

They are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures, religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily lives.

Respect for human rights is the cornerstone of strong communities in which everyone can make a contribution and feel included.

If I remove the first three words and the later three words ‘for human rights’, I thoroughly support what is written. But nothing there tells me what a ‘right’ is, and nothing there is a legal ‘right’, to the best of my knowledge. All this is aspirational stuff — if we were all nice people, like you and me, the world would be like this, because we would all be nice to each other — and we should be, too. So I read a little further, and got this:

The Commission has a responsibility to monitor Australia’s performance in meeting its international human rights commitments. We provide advice and recommendations so that these standards are reflected in our national laws, as well as policies and programs developed by government.

Well, that told me what the AHRC is for, and indeed that is its primary responsibility under its Act of 1986. But I could go further still, and found this, in Fact Sheet No. 1 in ‘Defining Human Rights’:
Human rights are often defined in different ways.

Simple definitions that are often given include:

  • the recognition and respect of peoples dignity
  • a set of moral and legal guidelines that promote and protect a recognition of our values, our identity and ability to ensure an adequate standard of living
  • the basic standards by which we can identify and measure inequality and fairness
  • those rights associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The more I read, the more perplexed I became. These words do not define ‘human rights’, although the last line goes close. The problem is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is full of noble statements, and indeed replete with  the word ‘rights’. But it is a hortatory document. It is simply fatuous to say that ‘human rights’ are a set of moral and legal guidelines that promote and protect a recognition of our values, our identity and ability to ensure an adequate standard of living. To say it yet again, rights are laws, not guidelines. Under certain conditions, an Australian has a ‘right’ to an old age pension when he or she turns 65. That is a right. There is no right known to me that protects ‘our identity and ability to ensure an adequate standard of living’. Nor could there be — it would be a dog’s breakfast of a law.

So I kept reading. Now we know that the AHRC is there to monitor the Commonwealth Government’s activity in observing the international treaties in this domain to which Australia is a signatory. And the AHRC has a set of papers about ‘knowing your rights’, where what is put forward is indeed based on law. But what is this?

Our Vision: Human rights: everyone, everywhere, everyday

Our Mission: Leading the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia by:

  • making human rights values part of everyday life and language;
  • empowering all people to understand and exercise their human rights;
  • working with individuals, community, business and government to inspire action;
  • keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards;

This seems a lot wider than monitoring the Government. There’s quite a few of the international treaties which our Government has signed, incidentally.  But they too are guidelines, not laws. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), for example, sets out principles, or values, that ought to guide societies in the way their laws and customs treat children, but until a nation has actually passed a law, then the Convention is simply another piece of hortatory assertion. Article 27, for example, begins like this: 1. States Parties [Australia is one] recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. See the word ‘right’? What sort of a right is this? Article 27 goes on to say that it is the parents’ primary responsibility to ensure that the child actually has that standard of living, but the State also should do what it can to help. I would say that in Australia the great majority of children are covered, and where they are not there is a real problem, often with parental neglect. And we have laws and procedures to deal with at least some of that neglect. Much of it, perhaps most, is the responsibility of State and Territory governments, not of the Commonwealth.

At the end of a lot of reading, I became worried that the AHRC has become almost a law unto itself, leading the charge to make us all nicer people than it thinks we are. I think it has come to believe that the Universal Declaration’s rights are real ones rather than aspirational ones, and that is wrong that they are not enshrined in our law. The Act does give it power to put educational material in the schools. Perhaps it is the pedant in me that wants the Commission to be clear about what ‘rights’ are, and not to go on and on about making the world a better place. Dare I say it, I think this is an example of political correctness. How could any decent person be opposed to what the AHRC is trying to do? But it worries me.

Perhaps it is the advice of my teacher father, many years ago, when I proposed putting this or that into the school curriculum. ‘What are we going to take out to make room?’ he asked nicely. Though I am open to persuasion, I do not think that the AHRC should be trying to get the curriculum expanded to include its own material.

Perhaps I should ask my teacher daughters what they think.



Join the discussion 54 Comments

  • Charles says:

    Welcome to the world of public service bureaucracy, where motherhood statements are the defining guidelines by which they operate. Don, you should ask them how they define people’s dignity, and how we should recognise and respect them. The appalling thing about this is that valuable tax-payer monies go into producing this tosh, which is really just a meaningless and expensive ‘work for the dole’ exercise for public servants.

  • Bryan Leyland says:

    In my view, human rights should be described as the privileges that one gets (or is it earns) from living in a civilised Western society.

    To maintain these privileges, we must always be vigilant against everything from terrorists to bureaucracy.

  • Alan Gould says:

    One problem when we talk of ‘Rights’ might be the verbs we use to accompany them. We say we ‘have’ the right or we are ‘covered’ by the right. But the right does not actually exist until it is exercised, so it is more accurate to say ‘we take the right’, and this becomes actual only in the taking, is known to us only in the exercising.

    I accept the ‘guarantee’ aspect of ‘rights’, namely that, within my society, I can worship, associate, say etc freely, and anyone interfering with that is warned off by the customs of my community and the blazoning of documents like Atlantic Charter etc…. And I can wish this state of affairs upon folk who live in societies where these freedoms are absent. But I suspect, Don, your baby above, is more covered by the broad decency of the community or larger society into which he comes, than by any shrine of rights, and it is an instinctual affront we feel to that decency when the infant is harmed in some way rather than an immediate identification of a right being arrogated.

    Perhaps Rights are a bit like St Augustine’s account of Time – everyone knows what it is until asked to describe it.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thanks Don, a very engaging piece which I will have to read again sometime. The words that gel everything for me come at the end — political correctness — the scourge of our age affecting every aspect of our lives from science to politics. I see it (PC) as a virus that will slowly kill our way of life. I encourage you to write a piece about PC — when, where, and why it originated so that we can maximise our chances of eradicating it in all its mutant forms. I’m sure it did not exist in the 1950s when I was at school, so it should be possible to identify a time, place, and reason for infection. I think that PC is endemic only to western culture and that other cultures (Muslim and Communist) are actually using it against us to their advantage. Perhaps I’m getting a bit paranoid. Keep up your good work.

    • gnome says:

      Well said Art, but political correctness is another of those terms which need definition. There are some genuine people who think it is just a term which means something like “natural courtesy”, and no amount of argument that something can be politically correct but not correct in fact, will turn them.

      As to “rights”, there is only one which stands uncontrolled, and that is the right to free thought. No-one can make you think other than you wish to think, and probably the deeper you think the freer your thought. All others are constrained by either society or by our own inhibitions. Once we accept, for instance, that free speech is subject to the welfare of others (eg, the duty not to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre) or the rights of others (eg by a prohibition on offence or intimidation) or simply a duty to speak only the truth, we quickly come to realise that rights end where they bump against anyone else.

      You can think what you like, but you aren’t free to say it. And as soon as you accept that you have responsibilities associated with rights, you give up the rights to the interpretation (by others) of those rights.

      Which opens the doors to nonsense rights like the right to good health, a good education, a job…

      So I’m with Don on this one too. Tell us what rights are, let it be discussed and agreed, then legislate them openly. Unfortunately, too many of those in the discussion will have forgone their right to think freely and deeply, and we’ll end up with something like the Triggs HRC.

    • Alan Gould says:

      I reckon the PC will prove a slippery subject.
      We know that we use the term to suggest that kind of orthodoxy in our own time that is nervous of challenge, and obedient to sensitivities mysteriously broad and intractable, the large majority of which involve either victimhood, or insecurity as to the safety of HOME, namely our planet. AGW is archetypical in this. But I reject the idea that PC has been cultivated in our midst by the programming of a few malignancies. Certainly Communism took the idea of PC to its caricaturable acme with those crowds chanting and waving Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ but does this enfeebled ideology prey upon us still? Negligible Cuba? China and Vietnam in full commercial conversion mode? North Korea – everyone’s pariah?
      And then there is the difficulty of ‘Who’s PC? ‘ You and I agree that the obedience of so many peopl and institutions to the AGW orthodoxy is peculiar. From someonbe else’s point of view, they might see ‘Market Forces’ as a PC idea. In the ’30’s, ominously, the idea that Jewish Mind was behind the iniquities of international financial fiddle and racial degeneracy was the PC for a while. In that instance, the provenance of the idea was clear in it origin and its energy. Today, the PC, on gender, climate, sexual matters has a less defined, but perhaps equally strong infectious presence. I accept my own (’68) generation’s part in stirring the pot, but the PC roots have deeper necessity than our fairly shallow fashion for ‘direct action’, militancy against the (then) constituted authority, and espousal of the various -isms.
      Consider. In the 1950’s there were women in the workforce, but none were bosses. Now, in broad quarters of employment, a male is likely to find a woman his boss. When individualities are put aside, then are there any broad, but critical differences between male and female sensibility whereby powerful new considerations apply in these circumstances of emergent female empowerment?
      I see my response grows protracted, and there is more I would wish to put into the mix of how PC finds its fertile acres. So I’ll desist, with the parting remark that I suggest independent thought is always at a disadvantage to orthodoxy because it is always hard-won. Let us not underestimate the place of sloth in our anthropology, physical or intellectual. Comatose inaction is our default position. Look at how the lion pride spends most of its time. Look at your family dog.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Oh yes, it did exist when I too was at school in the 1950s. In the cinema you had to stand up before the movies started when the face of the King was screened and ‘God Save the King’ was played. Communism was so evil, that it the Communists were in favour of anything, like better conditions for Aboriginal people, that was automatically off limits because the Commos were in favour of it. Australia was as conformist then as it is today, perhaps even more so. It’s just that the items of correctness have changed quite a it.

      • margaret says:

        Well when I lived in country New South Wales in the fifties we went to the movies in town once a month in a nissen hut. On one side sat we ‘white’ people and compulsorily, the aboriginal population sat on the other side. I guess they had the right to go to the movies.

  • PeterE says:

    The AHRC is a ghastly, politically correct Orwellian bureaucracy whose credo seems to be ‘ Human rights are [smack] non-violent [smack] principles of behavior that all [smack] citizens MUST obey [smack, smack!] It should preferably publish non-compulsory guidelines on ‘How to behave like a gentleman (or lady)’ and ‘Principles of chivalry for all those who wish to learn them.’

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Human rights are not ‘inalienable’. They are conferred by humans, or at worst, by human institutions. The paradigm must be the Refugee Convention [Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14], which is a shamelessly manipulated farce.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Here is another comment via email:

    ‘That was an excellent post. I had been planning a letter to the Oz along the same lines.

    I think the problem is that so few people in the rights game have neither a serious grasp of history nor the anthropological concept of formation of states. In the family or tribal units, there is usually no problem since behavioural limits are mostly understood from example or are changed by force. It is in the development of the larger units when laws are codified that the squabbles (and opportunities for lawyers) begin. I wonder what people would think of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty which united China for the first time in 221 BCE and solved the rights problem by making illegal all that was not specifically allowed by his laws. (He got done in by his own laws of course when trying to flee.)

    The creation of a state by definition limits the behaviour of those who want, or are forced, to be part of that state. In a history of a country like Russia, which has been invaded from all direction for a millennium, clearly the scope of “rights” must be less than that of a country like Australia if the state is to survive. Even now, the penalty we pay for state protection from terror is the limitation of rights, noticed especially when travelling by air.

    In an open society, the establishment of rights is close to a zero sum fight for power amongst the different segments of society. When people complain about whether or not politicians govern for the “good of the country” one need only ask for which of the opposing segments this good covers. Politics in an open society is a very difficult vocation for those who wish to be inclusive.

    For example, obtaining the next submarine fleet presents an interesting “rights” question. Clearly if we were after the most military and cost effective fleet, we would buy the Virginia class nuclear subs from the US, given that we actually believe that these would guarantee national safety. On the other hand we have a duty to maintain a technical base and provide jobs for those who would build boats. So our politicians must balance between the right of citizens to the most effective defence and the rights of workers to have taxpayer dollars supporting our own workforce.

    All very puzzling of course but much better than living alone in caves where we must balance off the right to live vs. the nutritional requirements of larger predators.’

  • Ross says:

    Should there be a right to free speech?

    • Don Aitkin says:


      In earlier essays on this broad subject I have argued that all rights must come with responsibilities. J. S. Mill argued that we should be able to live free lives, with the proviso that everyone else must have the same right. Hence, my freedom to do something might bump into your freedom to do something else. Hence laws that try to govern the bumps. We are tolerably free to say what we like, but if we do it in public we need to be mindful of the laws regarding defamation, and the anti-discrimination laws, which cover various kinds of speech (that which is offensive to others, or might incite hate). And there are laws about seditious speech. It is also not very sensible to use rude words to policemen, who can find some of what you say offensive, and deal with that event in their way. In short, it seems to me that one cannot have a ‘right’ to free speech which is not heavily qualified in various ways. The Americans appear to have enshrined free speech in their Constitution, but that freedom is also qualified — though the freedom in the USA is wider than it is here.

      I don’t know quite what you were after with your question, but that’s my present response.

      • Ross says:

        So, we don’t have the the right to freedom of speech.
        Should we have the right to freedom of speech?
        I ask, because this issue has come up at a political and legal level recently in Australia. (Changing the anti discrimination act). Tim Wilson ( formally of the Institute of Public Affairs, formally of the Human Rights Commission, presently the Liberal Candidate for the Federal seat of Goldstien) seems to believe it is very important. Americans believe in it so strongly, that is enshrined in their laws, as a break on government tyranny. They don’t see it as a left wing demand. They see it as a ‘right’. Why are they wrong?
        If we don’t believe we have the right to free speech… Well, we can hardly complain if we wake up to find we have none, can we?
        It’s a vexing issue, to be sure, but I don’t believe this is an esoteric arguement, Don.
        It’s live, and it’s happening right now, in very high places.
        Your confusion as to what I was ‘after’ is odd, considering it is fundamental to any question of rights, whether for, or against.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I think you could infer from what I wrote above that I’m not much for ‘rights’ at any time. They are legal statements, and hard to draft so that they work in exactly the way you want them to, let alone to cover future changes in the body politic and custom. Much better is the development of values and customs that have the desired affect. That takes time, but it is sensitive to changes. I’m a Golden Rule person, and think that social behaviour is best when that is taken seriously by the great majority. Then you don’t need rights at all. Rights are a form of entitlement, as in the old-age pension example. There are negative rights too, as in the case where parents must send their children to school, even if they don’t want to.

          And I don’t think that freedom of speech is fundamental to any question of rights. To me it is simply another example, like freedom of worship. As it happens, I don’t think much of the Racial Discrimination Act and thought that the Abbott Government’s propose bill to change section (c) of clause 18 (if I’ve got that right) was sensible. It didn’t proceed to Parliament.

          If you would set out what you mean by ‘freedom of speech’ that would be a help. I think it is a conceptual bog — as indeed it has proved to be.

          • Ross says:

            Hey, Don.
            Like I said, it’s a vexing issue.
            What do I mean by freedom of speech, exactly? Yup, like I said, vexing.
            Something along the lines of the first amendment, maybe? Not perfect, I agree. Often infuriating, but Americans seem to agree that it’s better than…nothing. And there it is.
            A Law. A right.
            But I guess if someone had me arrested and taken to court for something I had written or said that offended them, it would be nice to have the ‘Right to freedom of speech’ as at least some form of defence. The court can go from there. Your “Golden Rule” won’t be of much use as a defence to me (or anyone).
            My right to remain silent? My right to a lawyer? If you’re ever in trouble overseas, don’t forget to waive your ‘right’ to diplomatic aid. Not being ‘much for rights’, as you are.
            Seeing a child’s right to an education as a ‘negative’ right, is a new one for me, so I’ll just stay clear of that one.
            George Brandis thinks freedom of speech means, freedom to be a bigot.
            Tim Wilson thinks we should fight for it.
            It may be conceptual bog. But the big kids are wading in.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            There is no legal right for a child to have an education in Australia. But the state provides schools, and the child’s parents are obliged to send him/her to school unless they can establish that they have other comparable facilities that provide that education. So the child has an education because parents are not free to do what they like in this domain. That’s what I meant by a ‘negative right’. Not a felicitous phrase, I agree.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Human exceptionalism is the belief that humans are essentially different from all other animals. An obvious corollary is the belief that we, as humans, are entitled to special ‘inalienable’ rights. Regardless of the absurdity of the concept, it nevertheless has widespread acceptance, especially in the international bureaucracy, which depends on the concept for its very existence.

    • Ross says:

      Thanks, don. Understood.

    • margaret says:

      Species humility as proposed by Howard Gardner:
      “For the next millennium, I nominate a new virtue: species humility. In the past, we honored those (like St. Francis) who were humble, even as we scorned leaders and groups guilty of hubris. But we are now one, inextricably bound world, and the unimaginable, in many forms, has become possible. As a species, we must somehow arrive at decisions about what we will do and what we will not, about which Pandora’s boxes to open and which to keep shut. We have eliminated smallpox and polio, and we stand on the verge of eliminating biological warfare and land mines. Perhaps we can also agree not to manipulate the intellectual capacities of future generations.”

  • Graham Williamson says:

    There is one ‘human right’ you did not mention, a ‘right’ ‘given’ to us all more than half a century ago. This is the ‘right’ to have our ‘rights’ determined by, defined by, and controlled by, undemocratic foreign agencies such as the United Nations. It is the ‘job’ of the AHRC to transfer power to the UN to ensure these rights are enforceable by domestic laws. This includes Article 29(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states:

    “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. “

  • Peter Cunningham says:

    Further to an earlier submission – this just in from a lawyer friend:

    In first year law we were taught that there was right invested in you and the reciprocal of this was a duty invested in other persons to acknowledge the existence of that right.
    That means as you have a right to freedom of speech then each other the person must allow you to say or write what you wished providing it was not prohibited by law ,such as defamatory or seditious etc.
    Therefore for every right there was a duty, sometimes a legally enforceable duty.
    So the framework of legal systems were right/duty as well as powers/liability .
    This is not in accord with what Aitkin writes which is why he gets himself into trouble together with the authors of the many commentaries.
    Much more logical and practical to stick to the simpler definition we were taught methinks.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Tell your lawyer friend to stand naked in the jungle, and scream that he has a ‘right’ to life. The carnivores will probably have an interesting afternoon chewing over the idea.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    I find this hard to follow, and perhaps you could ask your lawyer friend to expand on it a little.

    If I have a right, such as, for example, to receive an old-age pension, then the Government must produce it, having determined that indeed I do have that right. The free-speech example you give is not a right, since you also mention conditions (as I diid with respect to freedom of speech). It is true that my rights, whatever they are, mean that other people have a duty to respect them, as I have a duty to respect theirs.

    In what way have I got myself into trouble? It is not obvious from what your lawyer friend writes. What rights do you/he/she have in mind?

    I’m happy to learn. I just don’t get the point.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Now I wonder if your lawyer friend is talking about the larger field of ‘rights’ (as in ‘legally right’) — what you are entitled to in terms of a contract. I do not want to enter on that domain; my interest here is the vague notion of ‘human rights’.

    • Ross says:

      Peter Cunningham.
      Dear god, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, do NOT get your lawyer friend to ‘expand’ on it. Even a little.
      I’m sure he’s a good lawyer, but, well, you know.

    • Ross says:

      I think you got into some bother when you declared that you were not much for ‘rights’, but preferred a ‘golden rule’. Just my opinion.
      I think Jesus had it down, with “Do unto others, as you you have them do unto you” (sorry, to Christians if I have the wording wrong) But that’s just me, and that’s usually where the problems begin. They often do unto me, quite differently. Ain’t it the way? Do I have any ‘rights’ under the law? I hope so.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    Yes, there is a Christian version, but it occurs in most cultures, and is the commonsense way of living in a society. There is a history behind all moves to have ‘rights’ enshrined in law — as with the Americans’ second amendment about bearing arms. What rights do you feel you don’t have and should have? There are ‘rights’ to allow you to do something, and other ‘rights’ to protect you (usually governments) from doing things to you. Where do you feel deficient?

    • Ross says:

      So you’ve come around then, Don. Good stuff! It’s great to have ‘rights’, isn’t it? Even ‘human’ ones.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        You haven’t answered my questions — but you don’t have to.

        • Ross says:

          If you insist, Freedom of Speech would be nice. (Curious, how so few of the other posters on this site have an opinion on freedom of speech).
          But my main aim has been to steer an older white man who has lived a comfortable life, to think a little deeper about the issue, and perhaps not use lazy rhetoric like “not being much for rights”. He who curses his legs today, may soon wish for their swift return.
          That you acknowledge the rights we have, serve us well, is welcome. You’re coming along.
          I could ask you, however, what it is that you want to say, but feel you can’t, that you would want to make changes to the Anti discrimination act? Is there an inner bigot trying to get out? (George Brandis talking, not me) If there was, a Right to Freedom of Speech could be helpful.
          I’ll leave it there for now. I think we’re getting bogged down, conceptually.
          All the best.

  • margaret says:

    Earlier today I was listening to Took the Children Away by the wonderful Archie Roach. My seven year old granddaughter was very interested in his story. We thought that the right to stay with your birth mother is more important than another culture’s opinion that you should be taken from her based on a perception of poverty and lack of opportunity – even if the (white) family that you were adopted by was loving.

    • margaret says:

      For context I was listening to a cd and making sandwiches when that particular song came on and she asked me about it. He was about five and had two unsuccessful placements after being uprooted from his parents, before being ‘successfully’ fostered. Another song of his Down City Streets tells of the lost years of his young adult life and Charcoal Lane and Munjana also give voice to a peoples’ plight when they have no rights. It’s good music by the way.
      Also, yes you should ask your teacher daughters what they think!
      If we started with the rights and personhood of children we might get somewhere by the time the free choices of adulthood are with us.

      • Don Aitkin says:


        I’ve already talked with one, who lives close. In her primary school there is no talk of rights but of expectations, and there is even a little printed sheet about it. It is based on reciprocity, which is what the Golden Rule is about. In the primary school that another pair of my grandchildren attended the school talked of ‘values’, not of rights, and these were very like the ‘expectations’ at the other school. The latter school was my primary school too, back in the 1940s. We had no such talk then. The teacher was the boss, and the cane was there for recalcitrants.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        “If we started with the rights and personhood of children”

        This is really quaint. See my comment about human exceptionalism. Do you advocate children suing their parents for abuse of their ‘rights’?
        Don’s discussion assumes that ‘somewhere’ there are ‘rights’, an assumption that I question. If you discard that assumption, then it is fair to talk about behavioural expectations.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        A daughter-teacher:

        The rights of a child document that the United Nations has had ratified by the Australian Government is a guide to what rights and responsibilities children have within a society. The rights are not laws, but suggestions of how children should be treated within a society. We generally discuss with our students that they have rights and responsibilities as part of our community. Rights can be interchanged with privileges or entitlements and is not a set of must haves. A consistent right at school is that everyone has the right to learn and teachers are responsible for the management of this. We work with behaviours that are allowing everyone to learn and some behaviours get in the way of the ‘right’ to learn. Essentially the word ‘right’ can be interchanged with opportunity or chance.

        We use the word ‘right’ as aspirational and not as a steadfast law.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      You are talking of aspirational rights, as you I’m sure are aware.

      • margaret says:

        I’m just ‘over it’ – if it’s a private school I’m just disappointed for myself that my own aspirations for giving my kids secondary school private education, in hindsight were faulty.
        So it’s partly me but I see through all that gobbledygook to schools having to have all these words that turn out to be meaningless mission statements because the people who run the schools and the bureaucracy above them are only influenced by the amount of money and power particular parents might have.
        I now like the idea of kids having to clean the toilets as in John Marden’s new school.

  • margaret says:

    So many of you presume in your explanations that I need to be made aware of things I already know.
    You are correct that I don’t know the nomenclature of legalese (sounds good so I wrote it), and I haven’t scientific knowledge either but frankly, I find that your clinical analysis obfuscates and distances. It enables an elite to exist in a bubble and to explain away real human dilemmas. Who cares about analyzing the detail – talk of rights began in the eighties in schools, so now they’ve switched to values, great that pleases me, of course rights and responsibilities go hand in hand in theory but if you’re a snowy haired elder who has been fortunate in life and is able to say that he attended the school his grandchildren now attend then it’s easy to be picky about the meaning of ‘rights’. Also Bryan, if only the priests, nuns and institutional leaders had valued the personhood of those they abused.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      “if only the priests, nuns and institutional leaders had valued the personhood of those they abused”

      Margaret, this is not devaluing ‘personhood’, it is committing a crime, as clearly defined by society. If it was not so defined, then you have a real dilemma.

      • margaret says:

        They treated children as non-persons using their power as adults over children who had no power and therefore no rights. They committed crimes and they got away with them. Perhaps power conveys ‘rights’.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          Self-evident. Societies have power, societies confer ‘rights’. I agree with Don – humans are not born with ‘rights’.

          • margaret says:

            Power conveys rights upon those who wield it, and to those who are favored by them and yes humans are not born with ‘rights’. It is a lottery.

          • margaret says:

            And yet …
            “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Jefferson wrote much of that statement, Margaret, and he possessed slaves. It is moot whether or not he was conscious of the paradox. The Greeks also talked of ‘men’ and their equality. They didn’t mean slaves either, or women.

          • margaret says:

            I know Jefferson wrote that statement Don – I know it was the Declaration of Independence. I also know he had slaves and I have been to Monticello and seen the tunnels built for them to convey the meals unobtrusively to the household. He was a ‘man of his times’ and I guess he knew he was caught in a paradox as he had an affair with Sally Hemmings one of his slaves. I guess also, despite all of the human foibles and societal sanctions, he and the ‘founding fathers’ were attempting to create America as a great country (and ensure that they were top dogs).

  • Don Aitkin says:

    I said that this area is a conceptual bog. My position is straightforward. A ‘right’ is something conferred on a person or a set of people by law. It is defined, and has limitations, especially where the ‘right’ comes into contact with other such ‘rights’. Humans are not born with ‘rights’, whatever official declarations may assert. On the face of it, Australians get along perfectly well without a Bill of Rights on the American model (and Americans do not have an unfettered right to say whatever they like, despite the First Amendment).

    On the Racial Discrimination Act, I would change it to get rid of the notion of ‘offence’. As Anthony Dillon, an Aboriginal academic has pointed out, we decide whether or not we are offended by something. We don’t have to be offended: we may just shrug, or hardly notice whatever it is.

    • Ross says:

      Succinctly argued on all points, Margaret.
      Don has lived his life, warm and cosy within the confines of Canberra.
      Don’t get me wrong. I grew up there, but realised there had to be more to the world and left for a more challenging existence. This may help explain his self confident elitism and assumptions of what we do and don’t already know.. His fear of conceptual bogs is simply another version of “too hard”. But you have to admire his core philosophy; “She’ll be right”. Trust me, It usually is, when you’ve spent your whole life in the ACT.

      • margaret says:

        I appreciate your comment Ross and believe me I know the seduction of life in Canberra as I lived there for thirty five years, from age 26 to 61. Returning from fairly frequent trips to Sydney to visit family we would joke as. We approached Northbourne Avenue – “quick quick – before they close the gates!”. Love/hate. Still miss the relative ease and the bush and ten trees and forty shrubs from the Yarralumla Nursery for new homeowners. Paradise really in a strange way, but we needed to remember that we were not rusted on and that Australia is elsewhere.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Ross, your knowledge of my life amazes me, both in its confidence and its sheer error. I’ve lived in Armidale, Sydney, Newcastle, Oxford, London, Ann Arbor and Paris. Somewhat more of my life has been lived in Canberra than elsewhere, but on four separate occasions.

    Where the elitism comes from baffles me. I’m actually not an elitist in my own judgment, but if you can show me where I have got that wrong I would be obliged.

  • Ross says:

    Ha ha, fair enough Don. I deserved that that.

  • margaret says:

    I for one won’t forget the case of Muhamed Haneef.

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