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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Balancing Mutualism with Legalism

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Editorial, June 2020

THE NOTION OF “Rights” is as close to the essence of politics as one can come in a word.

This is because “Rights”, like “Respect”, are earned, not granted. The loser in a political struggle may maintain the illusion that he is granting rights to the winning side.

He is forced to give way; he was not being generous in giving way.

“Rights” thus stem from agreements between parties forced to the negotiating table, and granted at said table – by violence or threat of violence.

But like Carl von Clausewitz, the German warfare analyst, famously claimed, “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means”. Wars do not have to be between countries, of course. They can happen within a country, either against the state or between parties and communities, and we then call them “civil wars”. But those are the extreme cases.

Nowadays, we have civil unrest of differing degrees instead, proclaimed by the mass media as “demonstrations”, “rallies” or “riots”. When these get more serious, we have “insurgencies” and “uprisings”.

“Civil rights” is a term essentially linked to how certain members of a state or city-state – citizens – struggle against other groups or against the state for equality of treatment in the law and before the law. Citizens are often treated differently depending on class, caste or supposed race, and in fact power is often built on those distinctions, be it in New York, New Delhi or Beijing. Conflict over “rights” is therefore a given fact of political life. It is “war” by other means, if we follow Clausewitz’s reasoning.

Inalienable rights

Though often associated to “human rights”, “civil rights” are not the same thing. The latter is under the jurisdiction of the state while the former is a philosophical endeavour to guard humans against other humans at the most basic level. It draws a line beyond which no human or state should go in how other humans are treated. And in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War in Europe and Asia, such a conceptual barrier appeared extremely necessary.

The “inalienable rights” thought up so potently by the founding fathers of the United States, seen in this context, resulted from a positive, rather than a reactive approach, to the same thing. Unalienable rights are not granted, they are conceptual givens.

“Civil rights” is a term essentially linked to how certain members of a state or city-state – citizens – struggle against other groups or against the state for equality of treatment in the law and before the law.

Be that as it may, this discussion is not a flattering take on human society. Even in the Social Contract ideas propagated by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean- Jacques Rousseau, a legalistic framework is assumed, not an organic one.

If we bring in Charles Darwin’s revelation regarding Natural Selection, competition between species and within species becomes an existential norm we cannot break. But that’s just part of the story. Social Darwinism is but one way of looking at evolutionary processes, and a very rough one at that. On the other side of the equation, we have Peter Kropotkin’s much more sympathetic and hopeful arguments that “mutual aid” is an equally relevant if not more relevant way of understanding Evolution.

While Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” proclaims only impatient win-lose situations, Kropotkin highlights Nature’s – and human’s – capacity to be innovative and to move beyond solutions that are immediately at hand. Win-win situations are possible everywhere, but they require patience, empathy and wisdom to work out.

So, back to humanity’s negotiating table…

Seeing human history as a process that lingers between war and politics paints us an endless tapestry of intrigues, threats and violence. While this makes good television viewing – as depicted in Game of Thrones, for example – the picture is far from complete.

Let’s move to another time and to another corner of the world, to China before the word even existed – to the time of Confucius and the ideas he inherited. Perhaps there, we can find angles not overshadowed by the pessimistic and deterministic bend in Western thought.

The Confucian Approach

As with Clausewitz, Confucius lived in a time of political division and chaos. Thus, working out what among the given natural propensities of humans would bring order – and peace – was a major concern for him.

Confucius’ teachings are understood in many differing ways, but what I find to be central to it all is the idea of “Li” (rituals) and how that generates “Ren” (benevolence). The translations of these words, sadly, have been misguided, and have done damage to the world’s ability to understand the sage’s basic idea. (In fact, we do not really have to work out exactly what was meant in order to be inspired by the discourses of those times, and to gain insights that we can apply today).

I identify the “Li-Ren” dialectic as the generator of culture, and of repetitive social behaviour that nurtures empathy and mutual connection. Social creatures such as humans feel more for each other the more they conduct mutually respectful and beneficial behaviour, and in the process, their goals often seek and combine into win-win situations.

In fact, becoming mutualistic – or empathetic, if you like – is to become human. And the path towards maximising the growth of mutualism – towards win-win situations – is for individuals to behave righteously, wisely, justly and trustworthily.

In a sense, the language of “rights” is about the spoils of politics and wars, while “empathy” is the currency of culture and patience.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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