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Anti-stigmatization and Rebuilding the Human Rights Culture
October 12,2020   By:CSHRS
Anti-stigmatization and Rebuilding the Human Rights Culture

QI yanping * & CAo Shengmin **

Abstract: History has proved and will continue to prove that stigmatization is often the harbinger of tribal vendettas, religious persecution, wars of aggression, and even all disasters and unjust actions in the world. The majority of devastating disasters experienced by mankind originate from stigmas. While the CoVID-19 pandemic rages across the globe, stigmatizing speeches based on ignorance and political agenda have created hatred and torn the anti-epidemic community apart. Those speeches trample on dignity, values, conscience, and justice of human beings, and challenge international justice and the universal Declaration of Human rights. The human rights culture serves as a critical force for mankind to overcome diseases, wars, terrorism, and disasters. To achieve peace and security in the post-epidemic world, people need to constantly reflect on human dignity and values, and to rebuild and promote human rights culture based on these reflections.

Keywords: stigmatization  · shared future  · human rights culture

Today’s human rights culture is the fruit of modern industrial civilization. It is humanity’s treasure since World War II, an outcome of world peace, progress, and prosperity, as well as the foundation for human beings to move forward. But in recent years, racism, populism, and xenophobia have re-surfaced and inflicted immense harm on the human rights culture. As the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic rampaging across the globe, people in a global community of shared future are exerting their full strength to support each other throughout difficult times. Professionals are casting life and death out of their minds and waging a war against the virus. Countless ordinary people, out of the needs of epidemic control or their livelihood, are providing back-up support amid the dangerous situations. These deeds have touched people deeply. Nevertheless, of extreme discordance with these deeds is the fact that some politicians disregard the dignity of human beings, trample upon the human conscience at will, make stigmatized remarks now and then out of their political interests, and tear apart the anti-epidemic community. Some even maliciously link the COVID-19 with specific ethnic groups or regions, spread rumors and create hatred. These behaviors are not only a denial of human value, but also a violation of human dignity and defilement of human rights culture. This proves once again that the worst enemy of mankind is themselves and that the political virus is more infectious and harmful than the COVID-19. To win this anti-epidemic war, it requires disputants to temporarily set aside their prejudice, confronters to allay their anger, opponents to suspend their fighting. But more importantly, they need to respect life and the community with a shared future. People need to constantly reflect on human values and dignity so as to the rebuild the human rights culture and achieve peace and security in the post-pandemic era.

I. Stigmatization Defiles Human Rights Culture

History has proved and will continue to prove that stigmatization is often the harbinger of tribal vendettas, religious persecution, wars of aggression, and unjust actions. Many devastating disasters experienced by humanity  originate from stigmatization. Those with a sense of superiority label, stigmatize and degrade other ethnic groups, races, countries or various sub-cultural groups. Such discrimination and hatred is prohibited by the International Bill of Human Rights. The stigmatization is premeditated, planned and implemented by political groups with the aim of creating an atmosphere full of unjust public opinions, and so lay a foundation for despicable actions of bully-ing, aggression, colonization, even genocide. We need not go back too far to find the darkest and most tragic period of human history. In the first half of the 20 th century, the world was, in most of its parts, colonized and enslaved, and was subject to two world wars in less than 30 years. The Nazis implemented the coldblooded genocide of Jews and others, Japanese militarism carried out the Nanjing Massacre, and Australia’s dark plan of “Transforming Aboriginal Children” was not abolished until the 1970s. Even today, tribal killings still occur from time to time in Africa. The ugliness of human history is unexpectedly close to us, and these ugly and evil deeds begin with stigmatization. The Nazis concocted an Aryan-superiority theory to exterminate the Jews. Western countries fabricated the Yellow Peril theory to exclude China and divide the East. Invaders and slave traders cooked up the theory of black inferiority for the sake of colonization and the slave trade. These were not isolated cases of stigmatization.

It is alarming that such ignorant, barbaric and bloody stigmatization has not been completely uprooted, instead it has become more covert with latent rampancy, given the opportunity. The stigmatized remarks and deeds amid the COVID-19 pandemic are not only shameful and immoral, but also mock, despise and satirize the achieve- ments of post-war civilization and are extremely harmful to the human community living together for common prosperity. The hidden costs of this stigmatization will gradually emerge as the pandemic is brought under control. Unemployment, business failure and economic decline will occur, raising the cost of social stability. 1 In human history, the bizarre phenomenon of stigmatization induced by infectious diseases has occurred one after another. In the Iliad, oedipus King, and the Decameron, the plague is regarded as a tool of God to condemn the mortal world. In the 1830s, cholera was associated with personality and mentality. In the United Kingdom it was a curse and retribution for the fallen, indulgent, and filthy. Likewise, leprosy was viewed as being a sign of moral corruption and degeneration, and AIDS has been branded with a sense of guilt and shame, representing physical and moral impurity. These should make us realize the urgency of overcoming the virus of stigmatization before it brews a more agonizing human tragedy.

Stigmatization is a denial of the dignity and values of others. It subjects others to exclusion and discrimination through labeling. “As a symbol of derogatory status, stigma is created and applied according to different values, and it turns a certain member or class of the society into objects of exclusion and repression in a specific society.” 2 Based on different standards, stigmatization can be divided into several categories. From the perspective of the stigma initiators, stigma can be classified as stigmatization against others, self-stigmatization, and media stigmatization. Among them, stigmatization against others refers to the stigmatization of an initiator upon others. Self-stigmatization refers to the stigmatization internalized by the people themselves. Media stigmatization refers to the use of social media to stigmatize others. These types of stigmatization are not independent or separated from each other, but rather closely related. Stigmatization against others tends to play its role through media stigmatization, both of which may serve as the inducement or source of self-stigmatization. We can even say that self-stigmatization largely results from internalizing the stigmatization received from others and on social media. For instance, the self-stigmatization of migrant workers and patients with depression is to a great extent caused by the negative appraisal of urban residents and healthy people. It can be said that the stigmatization of others and social media stigmatization can produce deeper negative effects, and that to address self-stigmatization requires a fundamental elimination of the other two types of stigmatization. In terms of the scope of subjects, stigmatization includes stigmatization among countries, among regions within a country, among ethnic groups, among individuals or organizations, etc. All stigmatizations will shape and aggravate the inequality of the relationship between subjects, and reinforce the power of discourse of the stigmatization initiators, notwithstanding differences in the types of relationships targeted by different stigmatization. Stigmatization among countries involves international relations, Stigmatization among regions within a country or regional relations. Stigmatization among ethnic groups relates to racial relations. Stigmatization among individuals or organizations involves social relations. Among them, stigmatization among countries is nothing more than “a ‘stigmatized’ discourse representation of a country as an ‘individual’ on a global scale, which is shaped by the strong discourse of other countries.” 3 For example, in the absence of scientific evidence, the US government has deliberately sought to politicize the COVID-19 pandemic and accused China of concealing information and misleading the public. This falls under the category of stigmatization among countries, which has a wide and more profound impact than other types of stigmatization. And stigmatization of individuals was demonstrated by some companies refusing to let people from Hubei province resume their jobs. When expanded to common practice, it will turn into stigmatization among domestic regions with aggravated harm. Besides, from the mode of manifestation, stigmatization can also be divided into explicit stigmatization and implicit stigmatization, which can transform into each other. And either of them can bring hazardous and destructive effects, which deserves the high vigilance of people.

Stigmatization is capable of spreading rapidly and multiplying destruction. By grading people, stigmatization shatters the ideological and cultural foundation of civilization, inflicting subversive damage on basic concepts such as fairness and justice, as well as the ethics and norms of social behavior, and the political and legal structure by which a society lives. Once stigmatization is established as social cognition, the law of conformity will take effect, forcing people to join the initiators of the stigmatizing to reinforce this cognition. Immersed in the self-identified dominant group, they will gradually lose their moral sensitivity and sense of guilt, and eventually assimilate themselves into complete endorsers, advocates, and promoters of the stigmatization. Many sociological studies of the genocide of European Jews have proved how this dreadful phenomenon of collective unconsciousness of moral guilt came into being. Once the stigmatization process is initiated in a society, the stigmatized people will gradually lose their rational thinking because of the law of the conformity. As the cognition is being constantly reinforced, the memory and cognition structure of the stigmatized will also be fundamentally subverted and remolded. This theory has been proved by the collective memories of the enslaved, oppressed, and stigmatized, which have constantly appeared in history. In particular, when stigmatization is promoted as social action by the people in power through the state machine, the phenomenon of willing to be stigmatized will spread rapidly among the stigmatized group, and the minority who refuse to be stigmatized will be regarded as dissidents and outliers of the group, subject to suppression and exclusion. The initiators of the stigmatization and those stigmatized reinforce each other, unremittingly multiplying the depth, strength, and intensity of the stigmatization.

With the support of modern and advanced technologies in transportation and communication, stigmatization can spread in a rapid yet unusual manner, doing even greater harm than before. “It must be acknowledged that the complexity of stigma itself is the root cause of the current dilemma of stigma theory and practices. Stigma can be used against multiple aspects such as body, mentality, emotion, cognition, value, and system. Correspondingly, stigma research and practices also require the integration of multiple perspectives of individuals, society, and culture as well as interdisciplinary cooperation.” 4 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the stigmatizing of specific countries, regions and groups in cyberspace has demonstrated a far greater and horrifying ability to reproduce, spread and explode than the virus, even though cases of hatred, discrimination and violence induced by this stigmatism are just sporadic. At the explicit level, the direct and violent harm caused by this stigma may not appear great, but the potential and long-term effects are incalculable. Stigmatization deserves reflection as the long-term effects will not only increase the discrimination, hatred and violence faced by the stigmatized, but also risk and damage the morality and credit of the seemingly powerful stigma initiators.

II. Human Rights Culture is the Ultimate Force to Resist Disasters

The international human rights culture is an essential force for mankind to jointly overcome diseases, wars, terrorism and other disasters. Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, public health governance has been severely challenged. How to best protect people’s rights to life, safety, and health, etc. is the key to human rights protection. This concern for human well-being has long transcended national boundaries, and been manifested in strong and joint efforts of the international community to cope with challenges. Human rights culture plays an irreplaceable and leading role in this process. Safeguarding basic human rights is the key to successful epidemic prevention and control. This is because human rights culture, based on the idea of common good, has been tested for its legitimacy from the beginning and harbors profound connotations related to morality and ethics. The instrumental value of human rights means that epidemic control requires the support of human rights culture. The purposeful value of human rights determines that epidemic control is a process of safeguarding human rights. For epidemic control, human rights culture is both the starting point and the foothold. It always retains a distinct attitude toward good and evil and adheres to its correct values.

From the historical perspective of human development, the establishment of human rights values is progressive yet meandering. The Renaissance raised the status of man to that of subject. The Enlightenment hoisted human freedom and rights to the height of purpose. The two world wars in the last century made human rights the cornerstones of modern civilization. In the long history of mankind’s pursuit of peace, war has always served as the main way and means of resolving conflicts, and history has been hammered out on the anvil of war. The two world wars and fascist atrocities defiled human conscience, making people realize that it is impossible to seek self-preservation through war, and that ignoring and slandering human values, dignity and rights is the source of barbaric atrocities. Therefore, it is necessary to establish new ethical rules among countries, ethnic groups, and people, that is, to lay the foundation of world freedom, justice and peace on the inherent dignity and unflinching rights of people to build a peaceful world free from fear and prejudice.

People around the world firmly believe in the principles that define civilization: all people are born free and equal in their dignity and rights; everyone is endowed with reason and conscience and should treat each other in the spirit of brotherhood; basic human rights, dignity and values should be respected; people should not be judged by factors such as race, color, language and nationality but be treated equally and free from all forms of discrimination. To live in a fear-free world, we need to constantly recall, reinforce, and promote the above-mentioned principles, otherwise the silent majority will fall prey to the stigmatization of those in power. “The reason why this world is meaningful to human beings is that everyone craves to realize their values and strives for the rights of being human (i.e. human rights). Value-based human rights provide all with the content of survival and development. Right-based human values (i.e. human rights value) point out to everyone the direction to practice their values. Without realizing human rights values, we cannot comprehend the world of human beings.” 5 People of kindness always believe that justice will overcome evil, but evil is often easily disguised as justice. A paradox of this world is that people on the moral high ground are often the destroyers of morality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established and led by Western countries. But these Western countries are often the main saboteurs, violators, and abusers of the human rights of people in other countries. The root cause lies in the dual nature of Western human rights standards, which in turn are deep-seated in the lingering racism and the national and cultural superiority theory. Therefore, we must always remain vigilant against stigmatization and labeling based on racism, national and cultural superiority.

The international community has long been faced with security threats including war, crimes, and diseases. Threats lead to fear, and fear restrains the realization of freedom. Only with peace and security can individuals be endowed with greater rights and freedom. It is both the shared ideal of people all over the world and the realistic goal of human rights protection to eliminate fear and maintain peace and security. The harms war does to human civilization have been proved by history. In the absence of a peaceful and secure international environment, not only can development not be advanced, but former achievements will also be reversed and human rights will inevitably be trampled over and violated. Peace and security are strongly correlated to human rights culture. Without attaching importance to shaping common values and caring for human dignity by human rights culture, there will be no peace and security. For more than half a century, driven by the universal Declaration of Human rights and the joint endeavors of the international community, nearly 100 countries broke free of the colonial shackles and gained independence. The colonial system that ruled the world for centuries has collapsed, opening broad prospects for safeguarding the rights of the people around the world. The profound lessons and of the two world wars and the tragedy of the Holocaust have issued warnings to people that without the guidance of a modern civilization-based human rights culture, there will be no lasting peace, security and stability, let alone common prosperity.

Recent years have witnessed the growing trend of multi-polarization and economic globalization, but traditional security issues such as regional turbulence and armed conflicts still exist while non-traditional security challenges including terrorism, environmental pollution, infectious diseases, and illegal immigration have become increas-ingly prominent. In particular, during the current public health crisis, if we are to defeat the virus, a common enemy of all, we must cooperate to overcome the difficulties and safeguard global public health security, instead of trying every means to discredit, attack and suppress other countries and engage in stigmatization activities using discriminatory expressions such as the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan flu”. “If discrimination in law can be eliminated immediately through reformulation of the legal system, the elimination of discrimination which in fact originates from the inherent prejudice among social groups and the uneven distribution of material wealth will require education and socio-economic development.” 6 Discrimination originates from not only individual behavior and attitudes but also from the social structure. In this regard, obviously “it is widely accepted that the recognition and protection of human rights has played a positive role in safeguarding world peace. With deepening internationalization, human rights have also become a worldwide right not limited to in-country issues.” 7 Human rights are universal rights, and human rights culture is a global culture with a widely acknowledged role in promoting world peace. To put it another way, ignoring human rights culture is the root of actions undermining peace and security. The slander and contempt of human rights culture will eventually lead to barbarous atrocities, which not only defiles conscience but creates fear. The current challenges concerning peace and security in the international community can be classified as human rights issues, usually accompanied by brutal violations of basic rights and implying misinterpretation of human rights culture at its source. Hence, to safeguard world peace and security, we should first respect and guarantee human rights, start to promote and advocate human rights culture, prevent and resolve conflicts and disputes using human rights protection, and create a peaceful and secure international environment.

Moreover, human rights culture also points the way for a post-COVID-19 recovery. We should sum up the experience and lessons learned from this pandemic, preparing for the post-COVID-19 recovery. Challenges brought by epidemic prevention and control upon human rights protection are undoubtedly hard to address. We should improve the coordination mechanism for human rights protection, prioritize people’s right to life and health, ensure that the restraint on other people’s rights are within reasonable limits, and take an integrated approach toward human rights and public interests to prevent secondary disasters caused by public dissatisfaction. In the post-epidemic era, human rights protection needs to be adjusted in time. While safeguarding the right to subsistence, health, and safety, we should also pay attention to labor rights, the right to education, and freedom. The reason for doing so is that the realization order of various rights varies with time and space, which cannot be divorced from the proper guidance of human rights culture.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, previous derogation of human rights will gradually conclude, and the protection of labor rights, the right to education and freedom will be return to the norm. The shift of values reflected in the post-epidemic recovery guided by human rights culture is subject to the established social conditions. Human rights protection should not be taken for granted. Rather it should be objective and have practical requirements, because human rights culture is always rooted in specific and practical social contexts. As far as the post-epidemic recovery is concerned, economic recovery is extremely urgent, but cultural recovery and the restoring of confidence are similarly essential, in which human rights culture can play a key role. For people, the greatest human right is to live a better life. “The right to a better life is a general governing concept, while the rights to security, environment and digitalization constitute main attributes of the human rights system in the new era.” 8 In any event, this requires that human rights culture retains respect and awe for life, reflects the unremitting pursuit of equality and justice, and demonstrates the integrated arrangement of livelihood projects. After the ordeal of this pandemic, human rights culture will be inspected and continuously optimized, leading people out of predicament through a post-epidemic recovery and showing greater vigor and vitality in the future.

III. Cultivate Human Rights Culture to Remove the Ground for Stigmatization

Looking back through history, whenever human society encounters war, turmoil or disease, there are always people who resort to discrimination and hate speech or incite racism, hatred, and xenophobia for their own political purposes. This pandemic is no exception. The rampant spread of the novel coronavirus has already subjected people to perilous circumstances, so we cannot afford to allow stigmatization to gain a hold on public sentiment. Human rights culture advocates the protection of basic rights including human dignity, freedom and equality, life, and health, and opposes stigmatism of any form. From these aspects, efforts should be made to maintain and cultivate human rights culture.

The protection of human dignity runs through systems constructed by human rights discourses. Therefore, maintaining and cultivating human rights culture should start from reaffirming the protection of human dignity. The protection of human dignity sits at the core of the modern concept of rule of law, but it has only existed for a century since written into legal norms and institutional documents. The history of human rights development shows that human dignity itself has already broken away from the shackles of theology, and focuses on strengthening the subjective consciousness and free rationality of people. “Human dignity highlights the subjectivity and universality of dignity.” 9 Therefore, all kinds of reflections on or criticism of human dignity cannot shift its inviolable supreme position. Human rights culture and human dignity are inseparable. The protection of human dignity originates from human rights culture and serves as its essence. Human dignity protection constitutes the deterministic cause of human rights culture, while human rights culture provides ideological support for protection of human dignity. Human dignity cannot be absent at any stage of human rights culture. Furthermore, human dignity is the headstream for other basic human rights which are the detailed specifications of human dignity. We can even say that the whole evolution of human rights culture has unfolded around the theme of human dignity, and human rights are at their core universal rights that everyone in a modern society enjoys based on human dignity.

In practice, concerns for human dignity serve as the value orientation and action guide in the protection of the rights to life, health, and safety, which in essence is a positive acknowledgment of the human dignity that individuals are born with. Human dignity relates to the legitimate argument of human rights protection and guides its evolution. To repeatedly affirm the significance of human dignity protection is conducive to consolidating previous protection achievements. According to the attitude and approach of protecting human dignity, we can distinguish human rights culture from different historical traditions and geographies. It should be clarified here that human rights protection is never to simply put abstract human rights culture into practice, but firmly based on human dignity protection. Otherwise, human rights will be reduced to a fictional utopia of human civilization, and human rights culture will also be neglected. Human rights break the shackles of religious theology, advocating human dignity as the main objective. The evidential influence of human dignity on human rights protection is from inside out and shapes the institutional virtue of human rights protection. Without presupposing other value premises, individuals liberated by it can better participate in public life. Hence, the violation of human dignity not only jeopardizes people’s value, but also denies human rights culture. Moral considerations implied by human dignity protection are key to shaping human rights culture.

Distorted human rights culture is bound to lead social development astray. To remove the ground for stigmatization through human rights culture, the prerequisite is to first understand the meanings of human rights values. The diversity of countries and cultures makes the world a spectacular place. The world is diverse not only because of competition, but also because of compassion. Although the world today has turned into a community with a shared future through advanced transportation and internet interconnection, sovereign countries are still the basic unit of behavior, and political, economic, technological, and military competition among countries is inevitable. Yet competition must abide by the basic human conscience, and respect the bottom line of international law. One need not look far for a lesson but recent history has proved that both intentional and unwitting stigmatization, hate, and discrimination may ignite hostility, instantly disabling the global “safety valve” system including international law, and reverting human civilization back to barbarism. To sustainably and securely develop peacefully, we need to constantly look back at human values, dignity and rights, cultivate the wisdom of human rights, promote our knowledge, advocate its culture, and pursue human values, human dignity, and rights based on “common values” rather than “double standards.” Only in this way can human beings maintain the development of conscience, rationality and intelligence and tide over difficult times. When confronted with common threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, mankind can dispel inner evil with compassion. Confucius once said, do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you. Those who are stigmatized are widely hated, but this should not be the legitimate reason for the stigmatized to do the same to others. Huang Zongxi also said that people should not lose their compassion for others just because they are having a hard time. China, moving forward from its difficult times, has an indepth understanding of the shared future for human beings, and that real and lasting peace and prosperity needs to be manifested through cultural virtues.

Human rights culture cannot be separated from the cultivation of values, so it is imperative to understand the meanings of human rights values. 10 However, the most direct approach to address stigmatization thoroughly is to protect human rights systems. Yet, neither the international human rights conventions nor the universal Declaration of Human rights has specific legal provisions against stigmatization. As a regional treaty on international human rights, the european Convention on Human rights was used by the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights to deal with stigmatization for once. That being the case, anti-stigmatization relies on vigorous official promotion, especially considering that “the globalized development of human rights after World War II is largely reflected in its standardized existence.” 11 To conclude, we suggest the United Nations promote the adoption of an Anti-stigmatization Declaration to eradicate unreasonable stereotypes, preconceptions and prejudices to provide equal opportunities of national dignity and development for all States parties, groups, organizations and individuals under their jurisdiction.

IV. Conclusion

In the response to this once-in-a-century disaster, we have realized that the world today is different from the one before the outbreak, the post-COVID-19 world will also be different from the present one, and people around the world may face extremely difficult times ahead. Still, we believe in the brilliance and strength of human nature. Against the background of the global COVID-19 pandemic, stigmatizing speeches based on ignorance and a political agenda have created hatred and torn apart the anti-epidemic community. Those speeches have trampled on human dignity and human values as well as conscience and justice, and also posed a major challenge to international justice and international human rights charter. However, we still believe in the power of human rights. Human rights culture can lead all fields of modern social life. “The modern order based on human rights culture is just one historical choice made by mankind. The reason why this choice has generated universal influence in modern countries is that it is based on the minimum moral consensus. Basic norms or core principles of human rights can be explained by this moral consensus.” 12 Human rights culture can be the ultimate force for humankind to jointly overcome diseases, wars, terrorism and other disasters. To secure the early victory against the COVID 19 and achieve peace and security in the post-epidemic world, people need to constantly reflect on human dignity and values to rebuild and cultivate human rights culture.
(Translated by Lu mimi)

* QI Yanping ( 齐延平 ), Director of Science and Technology and Human Rights Research Center and Professor of Law School, Beijing Institute of Technology.
** CAO Shengmin ( 曹晟旻 ), Lecturer and Postdoctoral Researcher in Law of the School of Marxism, Ocean University of China.
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