Just one little word.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Just one little word changes everything.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson observed, in a speech to his staff on May 3rd, that: “I think the real challenge many of us have as we think about constructing our policies and carrying out our policies is: How do we represent our values? And in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over. We do.”

The word I am hung up about, of course, isn’t Tillerson’s missing adjective before “treatment”, although that does invite speculation. No, it is the possessive “our”. When it comes to human rights – this critically important framework of global peace and hope for the future – the “our” has no national boundaries. There is no “America First” in that “our”. Yet that is not what Secretary Tillerson is saying.

When did human rights, and the foundation of human dignity that such rights rest upon, lose the quality of being universal? Does Secretary Tillerson even notice its absence?

To be fair, Secretary Tillerson did reassure the Foreign Service Officers and other staff gathered before him that the State Department and USAID would continue to advocate for human dignity and freedom, yet he failed to state the reason why. Why ought they to do such advocacy? There is only one reason – because it is the right thing to do. We ought to do it – as a moral imperative – in a political world that has left practically no space open for moral deliberations based on universal ethical principles. In the vacuum left by the failure to deliberate the universal “ought” of foreign (and national) affairs, a very parochial “our” has taken over and left us all in fractured, polarized, hostile, and deeply contested spaces.

Every day, on social media and in political diatribes, in our social circles and even in our faith communities, we are frequently subjected to moralizing (i.e. “my way or the highway”) by the talking heads and tweeting/texting fingers of the extremes of the political and social spectrum. They tell us that their brand – and only their brand – of conservatism, or religion, or liberalism, militarism, progressivism, libertarianism, American socialism, or extreme “America First” jingoistic nationalism, is who we are and what we ought to be about.

Screw everyone else.

That “everyone else” includes some very decent, very vulnerable, very “human” people, but under the prevailing narrative we are supposed to forget about the likes of Amna and Meeno in Saudi Arabia. But more on them later.

Whatever happened to the dream of universalism? What does the abandonment of this dream, this principle, portend for us all? And why aren’t we discussing this?

The answers to these questions are not amenable to being compartmentalized – even by so powerful a figure as a Secretary of State – as an American “our”. By definition, human rights are universal. They apply to all persons everywhere on the basis that being human is something unique and special. There are no gradations, no being “more human” or “less human” than others. There are no human rights that some of us are entitled to and others are not (despite the efforts of some countries to gain international acceptance for policies that limit such freedoms for their own citizens). Universalism is a bright line, a boundary that calls out a threshold: our universal human dignity. Any realistic chance of achieving future peace, harmony, freedom, and more equitable progress in the world demands that we defend that threshold of human dignity with everything we have, and all that we are.

That must include our values. Indeed, it must start with our values.

The threshold of human dignity, and the human rights that have their justification based on human dignity, are “our” values, but they only have any significance to the extent that we as Americans are committed to their importance for every human being everywhere. Lofty notions, indeed. More cynical and “realist” readers will shake their heads and dismiss my protestations as those of a “do-gooder” divorced from the hard political-economy realities of the world around us. ISIS doesn’t care about human rights, so why should we, they might ask. And anyway, human beings are fundamentally self-interested, and presuming that human nature has some innate morality – or dignity – is a fool’s game. Such voices and the associated attitudes and worldview that frames this cynicism are all around us, within the highest positions of government, on the corporate boards, and even in many of our schools and universities. You will be hard-pressed to have a serious conversation about human dignity with such persons.

I live in Washington, in the era of Trump. I am transgender, and am closely linked to transgender and LGBTQI persons around this country and around the world. Whether you accept it or not, I am a woman. In short, I know firsthand what it means to have my human dignity assaulted and disrespected. For more than half of the human race, this is what we have come to know as “normal”, along with the violence and oppression that sustain this inequality and flagrant disrespect.  For those of us in this half of humanity – and I would argue for the sake of all of humanity – the conversation on the universal nature of human dignity must happen. That conversation – deliberation really – must become part of how we live, govern, and relate to each other. Call that naivete if you choose; I call it survival.

I also call it defending the threshold of human dignity.

Instead of gallantly defending such a threshold, our leaders are bought off with ceremonial pomp, even to the point of accepting honors from those who most blatantly reject the universality of human dignity. This indignity is presumably so that we might “advance” our short-term national security and economic interests. We trade off the premise of universalism, and fail to defend the human dignity threshold, for the sake of guns, money, and medals. It is a trade-off that erodes our shared and universal humanity, justifies horrific abuses of dignity, and sows the seeds for growing resentment against “our” values. In accepting the gold King Abdulaziz medal from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, President Trump makes as public a statement of “our” values as one can make. Bowing to receive that heavy gold chain and opulent medal, President Trump (like Presidents Obama and Bush Jr. before him) was selling out the essential premise that human dignity is universal, and that it matters. And hey, there’s no time or space left for asserting human rights while medals are being bestowed, and major arms deals being signed.  We’re too busy “advancing” ourselves away from that inconvenient universal threshold of human dignity.

This isn’t a trifling matter. Saudi Arabia is a country that has a dismal human rights record, characterized by systemic discrimination against women, religious minorities, and sexual minorities. It is a regime given to arbitrary arrests and staged trials directed at dissidents, and dozens of human rights defenders now languish in Saudi jails.  I’ve even been detained there once, in Jeddah. As asserted by the Saudis under the precepts of Wahhabi Islam, LGBT status is rejected as both immoral and indecent. Same-sex relations are punished by law, and transgender people face legal sanction for “cross-dressing”. Typical punishments are extreme, ranging from incarceration and flogging to death.  Technically transgender persons in Saudi Arabia do legally have the right to transition to their authentic gender identity, but very recently Saudi police put two Pakistani transgender women – Amna (35) and Meeno (26) – into sacks and then pummeled these sacks with heavy sticks until both transwomen were dead. Reportedly there are more than 20 other transgender people who remain imprisoned from this recent raid.

President Trump however is not subtle about his disdain or disregard for universal human dignity or rights. The Washington director for Human Rights Watch, Andrea Prasow, may have described it most adroitly when she observed that Trump is in the midst of “inviting the parade of dictators through the White House.” Surrounding himself with the likes of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and soon Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says it all. We know what “our” values consist of for these men, and they have nothing to do with universal human rights.

So…who will answer the call to defend the threshold of universal human dignity in times such as these?


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