A Humanist contribution to a Celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, at the Unitarian Meeting House, Ipswich, 10th December 2008, organised by the local UN Association.
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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.
Sometimes, when talking to young people about ethical or political issues, I’ve invited them to consider them from a different point of view – that of an interested, intelligent being from another part of the universe. Suppose there were alien anthropologists, or the equivalent, since they wouldn’t restrict themselves to studying one species – ours. What if they came and simply observed human behaviour. What if they came from a planet where there were no wars, where they’d restricted their population and the damage it might do, where they’d established some sort of harmonious relationship with their environment, where everyone regarded him or herself as part of one society, based on their planet, rather than having national or ethnic boundaries. I think they’d probably regard us as a primitive species.
Of course, there are plenty of imaginary aliens in fiction. Creative people – authors, story-tellers, film-makers – have begun by asking themselves, “What if?” One of the most well-known was a Humanist, the American creator of Star Trek, a highly successful television series that began in 1966, Gene Roddenberry. Most people have heard of Star Trek. Many people will have watched it, and the later sequels.
Before Star Trek, science fiction B movies tended to feature hostile aliens who were invariably intent on invading our planet and destroying us, so there was a lot of hysterical screaming and blasting with nasty weapons. Heroic earthlings usually managed to defeat these monsters with a mixture of cunning and imaginative use of their limited fire-power.
Star Trek was different. The Captain and crew of the spaceship Enterprise boldly went where no one had gone before, to do just what I suggested my imaginary alien would do; to observe other races and to learn, without aggression. In the stories, by the 22nd century, the people of Earth were influenced by the Vulcans, a superior race, to reject the pursuit of wealth and power in favour of the pursuit of knowledge and harmonious living. All the stories were morality tales, though the studio bosses at the time didn’t seem to appreciate this. Roddenberry said that by creating “… a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.”
The shaky sets and polystyrene rocks of the original series, together with catchphrases like, “Beam me up Scottie”, might make Star Trek seem like a joke to some, but the ideas behind it were, and are, very serious. Here we are, at the beginning of the 21st century – will we last until the 22nd?
It’s sixty years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, as people all over the world reflected on the horrors of war and said, “Never again.” Gene Roddenberry was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in the Pacific during World War Two; it was one of the things that inspired his fictional brave new world. If you think about it, the way that the crew of the Enterprise regard each other and the alien races they meet is “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.”
What does that matter, you might think; it’s fiction. This is true, but it’s inspirational fiction. If Star Trek encourages people to think about how the characters relate to one another, and about how we do things in real life, they might, just might, begin to use their imagination to resolve some of the problems we face as a race; the human race.
Gene Roddenberry died in 1991. He’s reported to have said, “I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We’re still just a child creature; we’re still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We’re growing up, we’re moving into adolescence now. When we grow up – man, we’re going to be something!” I hope he’s right.
The event was led by Umesh Patel from the Ipswich Hindu Samaj. The other contributors were Revd Cliff Reed (Unitarian Christian), Shirley Smith (Christian Scientist), Vinaya Kulkarni (Hindu), Dr. Atul K. Shah (Jain), Bishop Paulo A. Pereira (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Robin Herne (Pagan), Eric Walker (Quaker), Martin Spettigue (Sri Chinmoy), Charles Croydon (United Nations Association), and Anil Khoste (Hindu).