Education for Human Rights
Coping with the Effects of Racism, Nationalism, and Cultural Chauvinism
Gregor Paul, Karlsruhe University


Thirty years ago, in the 1970s, German mass media rarely touched on issues of environmental protection, and most Germans did not regard environmental problems worthwhile to be mentioned. Today, many, if not most Germans are firmly convinced that one must not litter, that one must separate different kinds of garbish, that rain forests must not be cut down, and that man must fight global warming. All German political parties agree that natural environment must be protected.

How could such a change take place?

First of all, the political party called "Die Grünen," "The Greens," responding to observations and analyses such as those presented by the Club of Rome, made environmental protection the main goal of its party politics. "Die Grünen" raised the issue of environmental protection whenever possible, and they pursued this aim with an almost religious zeal. Dying German woods, polluted waters and polluted air indicated that The Greens had indeed good reasons for their politics. Also, the argument that in the long run mankind would not be able to survive if man continued to destroy or waste environment and environmental resources, was, and is, valid and convincing. It did not take long, and environmental protection became a frequent topic in the mass media. Finally, it became an important topic even of elementary school education. I may say that my daughter who is now 14, because of her education, regards environmental protection as a most important moral issue.

In my opinion, the present awareness shared by most Germans, particularly young people, that natural environment must be protected is the result of a joint effort of science, politics, mass media, and school education. One may even say, that this effort both in scope and intensity equaled indoctrination (with the important difference of course that it was also based on and carried through by sound argument). National effort was further strengthened by the fact that the question of environmental protection was never a topic of such intensive and sharp international politico-cultural strife as the human rights issue. On the contrary, despite some disagreement there exists fundamental consensus, and even representatives of highly developed countries know and admit that the level of environmental protection is, among other things, a function of economic development. From its very beginning, the international organization Greenpeace has met with much sympathy.

Now, speaking of human rights education in Germany, it has never been as comprehensive and intensive – or, so to say, total – as education for environmental protection. This may well be one reason for the fact that grave human rights violations, though rare, still occur. Most of these violations are outbursts of racism, nationalism and cultural chauvinism. Perhaps there are also religiously motivated violations but this is difficult to tell. For instance, recently a young Muslim woman, inspite of her proven capability, was not permitted to teach at German elementary school because she insisted on wearing a shador in class. Also, if Muslim pupils would decorate a German class room with icons of their belief they would certainly encounter opposition. On the other hand, it is regarded as legitimate that Christian teachers wear the symbols of their faith, say a crucifix, during their lessons. Further, especially in Bavaria, most class rooms are decorated with a crucifix.

As I said, in contemporary Germany, grave human rights violations are usually outbursts of racism, nationalism and cultural chauvinism. It even occurs that East German youths chase Vietnamese and black people and kill them. How can such a behavior be explained? Is it due to deficient human rights education? And if so, how should human rights education be designed and carried through in order to prevent such crimes?

In my opinion, the single most important reason is man's misled, or misguided, basic desire to justify his individual existence, or, in other words, man's misled, or misguided, desire to prove that his indiviudual life constitutes a value that makes his existence meaningful. This desire often takes the form of a desire for so-called individual identity. We want to be unique, distinctively different from other human beings, for such uniqueness seems to imply that our individual existence is of “incomparable” worth and importance. This is also clear from the fact that one finds it difficult to believe, or accept, that one does not significantly differ from one’s fellow beings but is actually more or less exchangeable, or even useless. The desire to conceive of one’s life as an “incomparable” and hence meaningful existence is best fulfilled by individual love. Many people, however, find themselves in situations in which identification with a group is more promising, if not the only possibility. Such circumstances facilitate the growth and power of, e.g., nationalism or religious fanaticism, and are exploited accordingly. To give importance to his existence, a person identifies with a group, and conviction, which he conceives of as distinctively different and (hence) of distinctive worth. This mechanism amounts to a vicious circle, and has tragicomic aspects: though the person himself attributes value to his existence, he deceives himself with the idea that this value is an intrinsic, and objective, quality recognized and esteemed by others.

In other words, human beings need that they are esteemed by others. It must be others who regard us as important individuals if we are to believe that this is true. Individual love ends when the vicious circle on which admiration and self-admiration are based becomes obvious and obstrusive. Usually, identification with a group is more stable than with a single person. This is because a group comprises more people, and because the group’s unifying values are rather stable and not easily questioned.

As I indicated, perhaps the desire for identifying oneself with others, and with certain values, must be satisfied to live a meaningful life. Hence it is important to offer respective morally acceptable possibilities. Otherwise only alternatives such as, e.g., nationalism, may remain. A person may just distance himself from “foreigners.” Especially persons who have nothing particular to be proud of may base their self-esteem, and their orientation, on ideas like being male (and not female), white (and not black), or belonging to the only true religion. If there existed no different sexes, no “superior race,” and no “true religion,” such a person – unsuccessful in love and work and without any other morally acceptable possibility to conceive of his existence as meaningful – would have nothing to identify with. In this context, another “psychological law” must be noted: the more valuable, and important, the group and the ideas a person identifies with, the more valuable and important his own existence appears to him. Hence, the more radical and definite a doctrine which maintains the existence of incomparable cultural values, the more attractive it is for a man who has no other possibilities of identifying himself with something that makes his life meaningful.

Since identification with fundamentalist convictions is of particularly great existential relevance, fundamentalist reactions against critique and ridicule are often severe and violent: even if unconsciously, criticism is regarded as an attempt to attack the very base of one’s existence. Whether Serb or Croatian – the differences which are regarded as important may be utterly trivial – what is decisive is that they are actually conceived of as existentially relevant. Since every identification implies demarcation, and since identification is beyond question, one must differentiate oneself from “the other.” Ultimately, it does not matter what differences one names. Because of logical reasons, one will always be able to find some. The fundamentalist will then advance pseudo-arguments to show that the claimed difference is really relevant. To leave no doubt: such procedure is another sign of an all-overruling desire for giving meaning to one’s life by attributing to it a unique, or distinctive, value.

There are of course also other psychological reasons which make us inclined to preserve our so-called cultural identity. They may enforce fundamentalism too, but are more important in determinating, or influencing, everyday life, especially our interest to stick to our familiar way of life.

It is simply inconvenient, and often difficult, to change into a world of different customs and conventions. Take for example a man who has lived in a city like Hamburg for 50 years and then must move to a small Bavarian village. Or think of somebody who spent all of his life in such a village and is then, incidently, invited to the state banquette of the Republic’s president. He will have difficulties to behave “properly,” and probably feel uncomfortable. By the way, such examples also show that certain differences that exist within a culture, e.g., so-called German culture, can, at least in some respect, be more important than differences that exist between “East” and “West.” The second example also indicates that cultural differences can be a function of social standing and class distinction.

We like what we are familiar with. To follow the customs and conventions we know, enables us to lead a comparatively easy life whereas to try the unknown and new (though it may be fascinating) is not without risks. If we have to move to a foreign country we may even develop, or feel, idiosyncrasies. A European who sees Indians eating with their fingers may feel disgust. Also, he may not be able to stand the sight and noise of Japanese slurping noodles. Taught from early childhood, one often internalizes table manners in such a radical way that they become a kind of second nature. Then, though one is very well aware of the conventional character of table manners, and though one knows that foreign manners (such as slurping noodles) are by no means inferior to one’s own customs, one cannot bring oneself to adopting the “alien way.”

Our preference for what we are acquainted with is not limited to conventions. Some people who grew up in the mountains never feel at home in a big city. Roughly put, the feeling of homeliness can enforce the desire to remain in one’s familiar world. This, perhaps, can also develop into an idiosyncrasy.

To sum up, considering the components that help establish and enforce normative ideas of cultural identity, one easily understands that people are inclined to stick to their familiar beliefs, remain members of their old club, behave according to their traditional conventions, spend their life at places where they feel at home, and that they tend to “defend” their familiar lifestyle. But it should also be clear that such realizations of cultural identity are much too specific and too reasonable to constitute unbridgeable or even dangerous differences. One of the reasons because of which such realizations of cultural identity ought be honored is precisely that they are not incompatible with human rights. Inspite of all his idiosyncrasy, and contrary to a believer who regards a certain manner of eating as an unforgivable deviation from a holy orthopractice, a European may ultimately even succeed in standing the noise of slurping.

However, though it can be shown that, contrary to a widespread opinion, the claim to cultural identity is no human right, or that cultural identity per se is no value worth of protection, cultural identity, because of its relevance for constructing normative notions of personal identity, has remained a frequent topic in international human rights discourse.

There are further circumstances which make it difficult to get through with the argument that the idea of cultural identity cannot constitute a fundamental ethical norm, and that it is particularly inept to establish, and justify, a concept of human rights. Conventional pressure intensifies one’s inclination to “identify” with one’s culture. And more important, the idea of cultural identity is widely abused for the sake of power. This ideological exploitation of our desire to give meaning to our life by identifying ourselves with a culture has proven very efficient, and is probably one of the main causes, and catalysts, of cultural fundamentalism. Ideological exploitation of the idea of cultural identity succeeds so easily because (i) it satisfies a basic desire, and because (ii) it is ultimately arbitrary and irrational, i.e., immune against counter arguments. The convinced Roman Catholic’s belief in the existence of a holy trinity, or even in an all-mighty and all-benevolent god, remains firm inspite of its evident logical inconsistency. Orthopractice, and the ideological abuse of orthopractice, is perhaps even more powerful than “theoretical” religious dogmas. First, they too imply a theory. Second, as practice they are more efficient than a doctrine. One need only remember the history of eating-conventions in Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, and the gruesome acts committed in defense of them.

This notwithstanding, religious belief, and particularly belief in a God, remains the best example for both (i) man’s desire to give meaning to his life by identifying himself with cultural values, and (ii) the easiness by which such identification can be abused successfully because it is arbitrary and immune against logical and empirical argument. To illustrate this: for the traditionalist (at least in a certain sense fundamentalist) Roman Catholic, it is not important that a Muslim is also a monotheist. For him, the crucial question is whether the god believed in is Jesus Christ. From his point of view, Allah does not, and cannot, exist. The traditionalist Roman Catholic must regard the Muslim notion of Allah as a merely logically possible concept without any reference to something real. His trust to be ultimately saved depends on intricate details of Roman Catholicism.

Within the context of so-called intercultural discourse still another circumstance comes into play. Censure of the history of Christian mission, and of European colonialism and imperialism, often results in wholesale, unqualified, damnation of any transcultural criticism. One fails to distinguish between cultural particularities which deserve protection and preservation, and such which do not. Europeans are often afraid that every criticism they direct against another culture must inevitably be “Eurocentric.” But this is a mistaken view. When criticizing certain features of a foreign culture, one need only (i) also criticize similar features of one’s own culture, and (ii) quote, or relate, similar criticism advanced by members of the respective foreign culture. Because of the richness, and complexity, of cultures one can trust that there exists such inner-cultural criticism. Often, these attacks are harsher than one’s own criticism. Also, (iii) if every “European” criticism of a non-European culture were per se untenable and unacceptable, this would apply to every kind of trans-cultural criticism. In particular, Asian scholars and politicians who regard every “Western” criticism as per se culturally biased and hence wrong, must, by their own argument, regard themselves as mistaken, for according to their view their judgement about the character of the “Western” position is biased by their “Asian” perspective.

Coming back to the question of why East German youths go as far as chasing and killing Vietnamese and black people, the answer should be quite clear: most of these youths have no friends, no jobs, and perhaps even no parents who care for them. In other words, they have nobody and nothing to identify with except for their race, nationality, and culture. This, of course, forces them to sharply distinguish themselves from other races and nationalities. The process is supported and enforced by racist and nationalist German movements which, though of only marginal overall importance, do meet with some response. Further, the awareness that e.g. the Vietnamese might compete for what racist German youths regard as German jobs and German money and wellfare norishes envy and hate.

The German youths I am speaking of never received any human rights education. Since they grew up in the former German Democratic republic, they did not receive any religious education either. Also, to repeat, state and society do not offer them sufficient possibilities for constructing an acceptable notion of individual identity.

Contemporary human rights violations in Germany is only one example to prove that human rights education is a must. How should it be designed and carried through? In the first place, it must be clear that religious education per se is no adequate means. Religious education may be favorable to human rights protection but can also be a hindrance. Moral education, as it has been established at German schools as an obligatory course for pupils who do not want to undergo religious education, is a better means for transmitting the idea of human rights, but it is only a necessary means, far from being sufficient. As in the case of environmental protection, human rights education must start in elementary school, if not even in kindergarden. It must be a continuous and comprehensive effort of all mass media and all political parties. Further, social politics must do everything to offer young people attractive possibilities that prevent them from developing racist, nationalist and culturalist leanings. This implies that German school must be as open as possible for pupils of different colors and nations. Children who grow up among schoolmates who belong to other ethnic, national or cultural groups are liable to regard this experience as something normal.

As to contents, the problems and traps of normative notions such as ethnocentrism (e.g. Eurocentrism), and individual and cultural identity, especially that such notions can, and are, continuously abused by political and ideological powers, must be pointed out again and again.

One big problem remains, however. As long as a state, or a state government, argues that loyalty to the state is a more important value than acknowledgment of universal human rights, or that human rights are a function of cultural identity per se, the door to nationalism and cultural chauvinism remains open. Hence, for the time being, in the international and intercultural context, human rights education will remain a difficult and sensitive process.