The title of my address may sound trite, but it actually of the greatest consequence. As a professor of human rights, I read continually about the dark underside of human behavior. Human rights inevitably causes those concerned with their protection to acquaint oneself with the human capacity for cruelty. Genocide, torture, massive rape, and other forms of mass atrocity leave it difficult to retain a sunny view of human nature. My work as a human rights activist has placed me in face to face conversation victims of the most brutal torture.
Often such cruelty is carried out against people who are different from the perpetrator by virtue of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or more broadly, culture. Xenophobia is too often a component of the most vicious abuses.
But before a person can brutalize or annihilate another human being, he must first convince himself that his victim is not human, or at most, a human being of a lesser order. To kill it is first necessary to dehumanize.
Indeed, given human history such oppressions as slavery or the disenfranchisement of women as full citizens was justified by tconcluding that such persons were not complete human beings. Often the capacity for abstract reasoning was the criterion employed to legitimate one’s complete humanity. Those in power, namely white males possessed it, minorities and women, not enough. Hence the institutions of slavery and patriarchy, as well as various forms of brutality were justified.
The question of what makes for a human being who is thereby in possession of fundamental rights ensuring her or his dignity, protection from violation, and equal participation in society is an issue of great consequence. It is an issue I will explore in my address.
Dr. Joe Chuman recently retired as the Leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, a community he served beginning in 1974. Since 2008, he has been a part-time Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. As an activist, Dr. Chuman has worked on behalf of human rights and civil liberties and in opposition to the death penalty, as well as on many other progressive causes. He founded the Northern New Jersey group of Amnesty International in 1974, and currently serves as president of the Bergen County Sanctuary for Asylum Seekers, founded by the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. This coalition of religious and human rights organizations provides services for asylum seekers released from federal detention.
Sunday Platform is our most important and long-standing community event. These gatherings educate, stimulate personal growth, inspire reflection and action, and strengthen our community. Sunday meetings usually begin with music, followed by greetings and a talk given by a Society Leader, member, or guest. Platforms cover a variety of topics that reflect current events, pressing social issues, and Ethical Culture philosophy. A collection basket is passed and money is shared between the Society and a charity selected for that day. While contributions are always appreciated, Sunday meetings are free and open to the public. Each Sunday meeting is followed by a luncheon and social hour.
To view previous Sunday Platform addresses and interviews, visit the Ethical NYC YouTube channel.