Minorities and minority rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not divide people into majorities and minorities. The second article of the declaration tells us that:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Note that it says “without distinction of any kind, such as race, et.c.”. Not “without the distinctions of race, et.c.”. Thus, the divisions listed are merely examples, without any relevance of their own.

So, what is a minority? And why is it relevant?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives us three definitions if minority, of which the last two are relevant in this context.

a : the period before attainment of majority
b : the state of being a legal minor
the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole; specifically : a group having less than the number of votes necessary for control
a : a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment
b : a member of a minority group

Any group of people can be divided into smaller groups. Often, one such group will be more powerful then another. The more powerful group is often the more numerous one, the majority. This is especially true in a democracy, where political power derives from a mandate from the majority. Democracies are generally far better than dictatorships at protecting minority rights. A dictator who want to stay in power will need scapegoats to direct the people’s anger against, and is likely to use “divide and conquer” strategies – encouraging groups in society to turn against each other so they can’t unify against the oppressive regime. Yet, a democracy needs checks and balances to protect its various minorities. Otherwise there will be cases of the proverbial “two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner”.

Who is in minority?
Everyone. Every single human being on the planet belongs to multiple minorities. There is no such thing as a normal person. The division into majority and minority is not about people. Instead, it is about categories of people. Categories based on traits. Every human being has millions of traits. It is reasonable to assume that almost every human being on the planet is normal in the statistical sense as well as the normative sense, for most of his or her traits, but not all traits.

For your trait to be normal in the statistical sense is to belong either to the majority or to a very large minority. Your trait is somewhere near the middle of a bell curve.

For your trait to be normal in the normative sense is to belong to what your social context consider socially acceptable. In most cases, all variations are socially accepted. For example, in most cultures it is quite rare to judge someone by their eye color or by how much they like or dislike orange juice. When people judge others based on a trait, they usually accept the majority and condemn the minority. For example, western culture as well as Japanese culture used to condemn people for being left-handed. To primarily use the right hand was not only the most common, but also seen as the only morally acceptable option.

There are also cases where the majority, or even all humans without exceptions, gets stigmatized and considered abnormal in the normative sense. When certain thoughts or feelings is judged as socially unacceptable, people will keep those thoughts and feelings secret, and they will most likely feel guilty about them. They may overcompensate for this guilt by accusing others of having such thoughts and feelings, or by insisting that they would never think or feel such a thing. Nevertheless, they would actually keep having these thoughts and feelings, wrongly believing themselves to belong to a very small minority of wicked people when the truth is that this is something they share with most people.

A trait may not only be constructed as normal or abnormal, it may also be constructed as something that doesn’t really exist or doesn’t really count. For example, intersexual or transsexual individuals can be made invisible by systems enforcing the assumption that everyone is either male or female. This problem exists with all kinds of categorizations. It is what I call “The Universal Group Paradox”, my hypothesis being that all attempts to include all humans “by dividing them into categories and include these categories” is bound to fail – there will always be people who have traits that doesn’t fit the categorization, people who will thus be excluded. People will be excluded, marginalized and discriminated against, without anyone else even noticing. They are “unknown unknowns”, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

From individual trait to group identity
If certain people shares a trait that is not normal in the statistical sense or not normal in the normative sense, they can be considered a minority. Can be. But should they? To identify them as a minority is to identify them as different, to identify them as outsiders. It may contribute to further stigmatization. On the other hand, group identity can be a very important tool for unifying and standing up against discrimination et.c.

One useful tool for handling this problem can be what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak used to call “strategic essentialism”: To use group identity, but only as a strategic tool, without getting stuck in essentialism.

When working with minorities, one common way to narrow it down is to only consider groups that have their own organizations based on group identity. For example, “Minority Rights Group International” uses the following operative definition:

Minorities of concern to MRG are disadvantaged ethnic, national, religious, linguistic or cultural groups who are smaller in number than the rest of the population and who may wish to maintain and develop their identity. MRG also works with indigenous peoples.
Other groups who may suffer discrimination are of concern to MRG, which condemns discrimination on any ground. However, the specific mission of MRG is to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples around the world and to improve cooperation between communities.

This definition makes use of the problematic concept of collective will. That an ethnic, national, religious, linguistic or cultural group is capable of having opinions or make wishes. An organization or government can be said to have opinions and wishes, based on documents that has been voted into existence or based on the statements of elected leaders. But to what extent can such a leader really be entitled to speak for everybody?

While the concept is problematic, its use is not necessarily problematic. Not as long the usage is limited and restricted. People who wish to develop a group identity should be free to do so, as long as they are not given reign over the individuals they consider included in their group. Every individual should be free to decide for herself not only what groups or categories she wishes to identify with, but also what this identification means. However, an individualism that doesn’t take social structures into account is equally problematic.

We have thus reached the complex issue of minority rights as “the rights of individuals who are in minority” and “the collective rights of minority groups”. An issue to which I will return in the future.

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