Posts Tagged ‘Rousseau’

The right to kvetch

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Going through the rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one may not immediately find the right to kvetch.

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild, 2001

It is there, though not maybe quite in those terms: but one can definitely identify it as an expansion of freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. As I was discussing my previous post on the right to privacy (Article 12 of the UDHR) with a friend, we joked about the right to kvetch.

Well, granted kvetching’s definition (complaining persistently and whiningly) may fall a bit short of the concept of freedom of expression, but the right to freely express one’s opinion is one of the civil and political rights recognized by Article 19 of the UDHR.

Expressing one’s opinion is actually a fundamental right, and one that was exercised quite early on. Its recognition has maybe taken some more time, but people have persistently fought to ensure that this right be recognized.

If one ignores the whiningly part of the definition of kvetching, it could be argued that complaining persistently when one’s condition is unfair is a true exercise of freedom of expression.

Historically, a number of human rights activists, before human rights were even known, have defended their right to expressing the opinion that their condition was unfair. Repeatedly, brave slaves have stood up, and at the risk of losing their lives, protested their loss of freedom. Spartacus is famous for having led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, which the 1960 Stanley Kubrik movie has immortalized with the I am Spartacus affirmation repeated one by one by all of the slaves, in an act of disobedience and freedom of expression.

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Lesser known is Zumbi dos Palmares, who spoke up and led a slave rebellion against the Portuguese in Brazil. Born a free man but captured at the age of six, at 15, he escaped to the Quilombo dos Palmares, a fugitive slave settlement. When the Portuguese offered freedom to the Palmares leader, Zumbi argued to not accept freedom when others remained slaves and became Palmares’ new leader. After 15 years, the Portuguese used artillery to attack the Quilombo, and Palmares fell. Zumbi escaped again but was eventually betrayed and captured in 1695, and beheaded there and then.

At the end of the 18th century, freed slave Toussaint Louverture led Haiti to independence from France, making it the second nation in the Americas to become a Republic. His fight started when he traveled from plantation to plantation and addressed slaves, advocating that freedom could be achieved.

It is through impassioned speeches that these leaders were able to rally their fellow slaves and convince them to act, but the circulation of revolutionary ideas was also advanced through the writings of various thinkers.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century accelerated the dissemination of the work of theologians and philosophers. Fairly quickly, governments reacted and established controls over printers throughout Europe. Punishment for propagating heretic ideas was severe: French scholar and printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546, charged as an atheist.

In England, John Milton argued for the right to freedom of expression, publishing in 1644 Areopagitica, a protest against the re-introduction by the British Parliament of government licensing of printers.

With the Pennsylvania Gazette, started in 1729, Benjamin Franklin established a reputation for using his right to freedom of expression and openly speaking his mind. The Gazette was followed in 1733 by the Poor Richard’s Almanach. Proud of the impact his ideas were beginning to have, Franklin took to signing his written production as B. Franklin, Printer, even as he became one of the leaders of American Independence.

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

In France, Voltaire is famous for having been victim of his free speech: to avoid being sent to the Bastille, several times he had to chose exile, first to England, and later to Geneva and Ferney. Many other French philosophers suffered similar treatment, and the Bastille has come down in history as having been home to a number of free thinkers.

Then, if it was not the Bastille, it was another prison. The Vincennes fortress hosted Diderot for a few months, where he had been sent after having published his Lettre sur les aveugles, just as he was about to embark on what was to become his life’s project: l’Encyclopedie. An example of freedom of expression, more than twenty years in the making, the various instalments of the Encyclopedia were met with censorship and numerous police raids.

Rousseau, who visited Diderot daily when he was imprisoned in Vincennes, contributed a number of articles to the Encyclopedia. But it was for Emile, his essay on education in which he gave his views on religion, that Rousseau was banned and his books were banned and burned. Rousseau escaped to Neuchatel, and then to England. The protectors who helped him flee also ensured that his banned books would continue being circulated under cover.

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

La faute à Voltaire, la faute à Rousseau: the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and the Encyclopedists have been credited for having helped spark the French Revolution. They certainly contributed to raising awareness about social justice and paved the way to the revendication of human rights.

In the midst of a deep financial crisis accompanied by a famine, protest movements started all over France in the late 1780’s. In early 1789, the people of France were invited to draft their lists of grievances in the Cahiers de Doléances, an open invitation to kvetch as much as the French would care to. And kvetch they did in the more than 50,000 Cahiers that were presented to King Louis XVI during meetings of the Etats Generaux. The Cahiers authors complained repeatedly about the unfairness of the tax system, which was hitting more heavily the underprivileged in the nation. Most impopular among all of the taxes was probably the infamous gabelle, the iniquitous tax on salt that made it mandatory to purchase a given amount of salt which was sold as a State monopoly at a fixed price.

The end of the 18th Century saw the beginning of a number of rights being granted in the United States and in France. Finally, in spite of censorship, police raids, imprisonments or losing their lives, the kvetchers prevailed and the right to freedom of expresssion is now a recognized right.