Next time you face your students you have a choice. Will you ask them what they think about the words of President Donald Trump denigrating people from the African continent, from Haiti and from El Salvador, or will you go about your work as if those words had not been spoken? In the choice you make, lies the future of a world in which we recognize the fundamental equality of all people, or not.
Last Thursday, the President of the United States, in a meeting discussing immigration reform with Congressional leaders, said that some people were excrement. He did not use such terse language, but used instead a vulgar term used to describe a place where human excrement is deposited to characterize the countries some people come from. The logical conclusion of the metaphor he used, is that he thinks of those people as poop. The president used his metaphor to refer to particular nations: nations in the African continent, Haiti and El Salvador. He contrasted those nations to Norway, indicating that he would prefer to have immigrants from Norway to immigrants from the countries he had characterized as toilets. This argument transparently conveys the idea that some people, by virtue of the country in which they are born, or of their race, are superior to others. This superiority gives them superior rights, in this case a superior right to be welcomed as immigrants to the United States.
The idea that some people have superior rights to others is dangerously consequential for the future of humanity. It is an old idea, one that was foundational to how many societies organized themselves. It was the idea around which nobles organized fiefdoms during the Middle Ages, justifying the submission of most people to lives of servitude. It was the idea that justified slavery, which allowed many white Europeans to forcefully take control of the lives of indigenous people in the Americas when the Europeans arrived, and forcefully remove people from Africa from their homelands, and bring them to the Americas as forced laborers to enrich those who had enslaved them. It is the idea on which Adolf Hitler tried to organize the social order of the Third Reich, which justified forcibly taking first the property, and then the lives, of six million Jews.
The idea that some people have superior rights to others, expressed by President Trump last week, has been challenged over time. It was first challenged five centuries ago by Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar who some years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus to what is now the Dominican Republic asked during a Sunday sermon in mass to the Spanish colonizers who were enslaving the indigenous people: ‘why do you treat your brothers and sisters that way? Have they no soul?’ His challenge was not well taken by his audience who lobbied the local religious authorities so that Father Montesinos would retract his words. He wouldn’t, and spent the rest of his life, as did his pupil Bartolome de las Casas, advocating for the rights of indigenous people in a continent ravaged by the brutality of colonization.
The idea that some had superior rights was also challenged by John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who proposed the revolutionary contrarian idea that all humans were fundamentally equal, and capable of ruling themselves. This idea challenged the existing political order in Europe and in the Americas, and gave rise to the nascent democratic republics and to movements of independence from colonization.
Challenges to idea of the superior rights of some people over others were also the foundation of the movements of independence of many nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America who had been forcefully submitted by colonial powers over the centuries.
A powerful counter-narrative to the idea of superiority of some groups over others, one that advocated that all people had the same rights, was formulated in the wake of World War II, and codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is that narrative that undergirds the creation of an entire set of global institutions, such as the United Nations, or the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization, which have worked with governments and civil society organizations over the last seven decades to advance an order that recognizes the fundamental equality of all people.
It is that idea, that all people are fundamentally equal, and that order that are been challenged when the President of the United States equates people from some nations and races to human excrement. Helping students understand those consequences is critically important for it is not just the aggressions of the few to the idea that all people are equal that threaten a just world, it is in the silences of the many that the struggle for human rights is lost.
This is the notion expressed in the poem by Lutheran Pastor Friedrich Gustav Niemoller, initially a conservative supporter of Adolf Hitler, who was eventually imprisoned in concentration camps because of his opposition to the idea of the superiority of the Aryan race:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It is for this reason that I believe the most important event surrounding the disgraceful remarks of President Trump is not what he did, but what the rest of us do in response. For those of us who teach, what we can do is remarkably simple: ask our students what they think about the President’s statement, and what they think are the implications of such ideas. Engage them in a conversation that helps them think and feel deeply about what a world based on the idea of superiority of some people over others would mean to them and to others. It will be a very small step from that conversation to engaging students in deep conversations about what are Human Rights and why they matter.
If you want suggestions for how to organize a short 50 minute lesson on human rights, my graduate students and I have prepared two lessons for you, which are available in the book: ‘Teaching Two Lessons about UNESCO: And Other Lessons on Human Rights’,
The book is also downloadable here:
Under the leadership of Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, the organization has launched a year long campaign to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As part of that campaign, the organization, and other Human Rights organizations, will prepare and disseminate many resources to teach about Human Rights.
Next time you see your students you will be making a choice. Whatever choice you end up making, rest assured your students will be learning from it. And what they learn will matter to the ongoing efforts to build a world based on the simple proposition that all people are equal. I invite you to stand up for Human Rights!