The Risks of Losing a Common Moral Language

“The torturers’ words do not limit me anymore.” -- David, former CVT client

I’ve been thinking about David’s story and the power of language as the administration’s new refugee ban meets with blocks by federal courts for its discriminatory intent. As a law student in a country in Africa, David was imprisoned and tortured for speaking out against the regime in power. At CVT’s Healing Center in St. Paul, he was able to open up about his traumatic experiences. Having his story heard there proved to be “the medicine of the heart” for him. The words of his torturers broke David no more.

His story is a good reminder: we cannot let abusive language limit our potential for compassion, our imperative to empower each other, nor our ability to make progress toward a tomorrow that does not feel as dark as today.

For decades, the human rights movement has been gaining traction, making progress. The progress wasn’t always perfect, it wasn’t always consistent. Did we lose our way sometimes? Yes. Was there hypocrisy at turns within the progress? Yes. Were some communities helped while others languished? Yes. But we were moving forward in the right direction. We were heading toward a realization of the goals of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Across the world, a common moral language was rising.

The ideals of dignity and respect for all that anchor this common moral language –ideals that can be found in the basic principles upon which the United States was founded – are being betrayed by the Trump Administration. To name the latest: the now-blocked second executive order banning refugees and nationals from six prominently Muslim countries that was supposed to go into effect today. Other executive orders have threatened to defund sanctuary cities, mandated the establishment of a database designed to stoke fear of “the other” by publishing weekly reports on crimes committed by immigrants, limited access to asylum for people fleeing persecution, called for the expansion of immigration detention, and promised to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Since January, we have a president who speaks approvingly of torture and who shows little appreciation, if not disdain for the international system of human rights protection, so painstakingly built since WWII. In its place, we hear appalling rhetoric, blatant falsehoods and language that eschews a shared moral commonality, replaced by a short-sighted notion that to put “America First,” the country must isolate itself and demonize others.

The country’s standing in the world risks being diminished like never before in our lifetimes. The dignity and equality the U.S. has long aspired to is at risk of being dismantled by the political leadership. Even as our country faltered in its human rights commitments, there was often a commitment to this common moral language at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The image of America as a beacon of hope for people who fled their homes after their lives were ripped apart by torture, rape, famine and warfare is being questioned. For the first time in my life, our country is becoming a place refugees flee from. Hundreds of refugees have fled the U.S. to Canada. We see it happening in Minnesota. A Somali man – not so different from David - who escaped the violence of his home country to find refuge in America decided since the election to risk life and limb to seek asylum in Canada. The fear many of our clients felt in the lead up to the election has grown.

Just as David found a place and healing beyond the reach of his abusers, I believe the human rights community will find itself stronger once we’ve gone beyond these days of set-backs and destructive language. What can be gleaned from this moment in history? As articulated in Article 1 of the UDHR, it is imperative to continue to act with “reason, conscience and brotherhood towards one another.” And if enough of us can continue to affirm the common moral language of the human rights declaration, I believe we will confront the risks of our current era and emerge stronger in the next.

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