Illustration of Rex Murphy, of Postmedia.

Rex Murphy on human rights

Rex Murphy wasn’t the first white pundit to misunderstand rights, and human rights. But he is paradigmatic. Rex Murphy has a thing for human rights and mentions them often.

And how he refers to them is very telling.

1. Human rights and government overeach

Murphy generally uses the opportunity to talk about human rights to also talk about government overreach:

By some crude osmosis, or just from the luxuriant carelessness of our pampered lives, we have overturned one of the great concepts of all human law. The concept of human rights, as experience and history inform us, is protection from the state’s power, not oversight, interference and punishment by the state’s power.

The core concept of human rights is the protection of the irreducible safety and dignity of the individual from the massive and arbitrary power of the state. Not, the state wandering in, with its apparatus and procedures, its boards and tribunals into the doings, or speech, of the individual. This is what the Guy Earle case, in its triviality — it’s about heckling, remember — upends. It perverts the name of “human rights,” earned in blood and suffering in circumstances of utter consequence and unspeakable misery.
– Rex Murphy1

But the whole truth is that governments are one of the main vehicles by which our human rights are observed. Businesses, security agencies, guards for hire, and non governmental organizations are all equally capable of trampling on human rights. Contra Rex Murphy, we don’t just need protection from the power of the state. We also need protection from other people. And this protection often comes in the form of state protection.

One of Murphy’s tactics, and one used by other talking heads, is to attack human rights commissions. He does so by cherry picking cases that he thinks the public will find as outrageous as he does. His focus on these examples is unfair to human rights commissions, and unfair to the legal and moral framework of human rights. But that is Murphy’s intention.

2. Rex Murphy favours the right to expression over other rights

For I really don’t want the courts — or their illegitimate human rights commission cousins — to get any further into the business of telling us what’s offensive and what is not, and fining people for speaking their minds.
– Rex Murphy2

Like many privileged white pundits, Murphy thinks the freedom to express yourself trumps all other human rights. It does not.

3. Rex Murphy only mentions First Nations communities, in the context of human rights, to deride them

There is a long list of current and historical human rights problems with the treatment of First Nations communities in Canada. But Rex Murphy hasn’t made a habit of talking or writing about them. Instead, he uses the context of human rights to defend white people and castigate Indigenous communities.

Meantime, real cases of human rights violation, individuals genuinely stranded and deprived of their rights as citizens, such as the couple in Caledonia, Ont., who’ve lived through a multi-year siege by local First Nations gangs, unaided by the Ontario government or the police — noiselessly pass by.
– Rex Murphy3

My wish is that Rex Murphy would use his soapbox to mention the human rights debacle witnessed by Canadian prisons, which have a disproportionate number of Indigenous people in them. I wish that Murphy would mention the call for human rights for Indigenous women, who face decades of racist and sexist stereotypes, and who are more likely to die from violence or, indeed, go missing without an investigation.

For Murphy, like so many other white pundits, human rights are something that is needed for people elsewhere or in another time completely. The examples of human rights horrors that he gives examples for, are generally perpetrated by brown people.

A man standing alone in front of a tank in Tiannamen Square — there’s a human rights moment. The multitudinous horror of ethnic cleansing, raging warfare in the Congo, the nightmare of North Korea, the acid-tossing at schoolgirls by the Taliban — there are people all over this world trembling at the might of the state, seeing their lives foreshortened or ruined, subject to unspeakable horrors at the hands of warlords and tyrants and revengeful dictatorships — these are the fields of real human-rights violations.
– Rex Murphy4

Equally important though is that Murphy never mentions human rights when discussing Canada’s relationship to Indigenous people. In an article entitled “Natives need to tone down the anger,” Murphy argues that Indigenous people need to be more respectful:

…Going all radical, hitting the racial/racist buttons and constant invocations of empty pseudo-academic framings of “colonialist, settler, imperialist” mentalities do nothing but burn time, waste energy and alienate a large section of the public.
– Rex Murphy5

Here’s a hypothesis I would love to see tested: Rex Murphy never mentioned the horror of residential schools prior to the Canadian federal apology.

4. Rex Murphy thinks that human rights and the UN have been corrupted

When Murphy carefully selects the human rights cases that he wants to deride, he pretends like the answer is simple. His coverage of these cases is, of course, partial. The result is that it might seem, to undiscerning readers, or readers who also hate the modern application of human rights, like a simple issue.

Take, for example, the human right to water. Rex Murphy probably doesn’t know there’s a human right to water. Someone should tell him. He’ll probably be angry. But the application of this right is not simple. It’s obviously not simple in a practical way. But neither is it simple in terms of the moral implications. This right competes with other human rights, like the right to work, the right to form trade unions, the right to religious beliefs, and the right to property.

This complexity requires experts. Understanding of this complexity is not aided by pundits who claim that the fact that the UN has a Human Rights council is “unbounded irony,”6 or that the UN’s “so-called Human Rights Council is a byword for farce.”7

But it’s not just human rights. It’s the entire U.N. that Rex Murphy is attacking.

After so many instances of the UN’s impotence, corruption and waste, why does the body still retain any residue of prestige.
– Rex Murphy8

In summary

Some have called Murphy a lazy columnist whose time has passed. I don’t disagree. But the problem isn’t just Rex Murphy.

The problem is a host of privileged white authors who favour the status quo and who actively work to undermine the UN, and the important and sometimes complicated framework of human rights. It’s fair to say that these authors, certainly Rex Murphy in particular, are pandering to Conservatives and the political right.


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