Forget Minority Rights

Forget Minority Rights

It will probably appear counter-intuitive but I feel that we are making a serious error with the idea of minority rights. I know it sounds as if these could only be for the good, something to be protected and promoted, but I fear that we have got wrong of the wrong end of the stick.

The concerns about the rights of minorities started around the Congress of Vienna in 1814 in response to concerns about the situation of Jewish and Polish minorities following partition. Over the subsequent years further declarations have been made to protect minorities and the most recently the United Nations and the European Union have codified some minority rights and brought them into international law.

What could be wrong with minority rights, surely we all want to protect endangered minority groups ? Yes, of course we do but minority rights are not what do this. The rights which protect minorities are the same universal rights that every individual has. If you are a Christian in an Islamic State, or vice versa a Muslim in a Christian State (or any other permutation of religions) it is not your right as a Christian or Muslim which protects you but your individual right to freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of association which protect you.

Universal human rights protect individuals and this is the smallest minority – the minority of one. All societies have a mix of peoples and some groups will be in the majority and others the minority and over time these groups will change in nature and composition. We can never predict who the next minority will be (I’d wager 100 years ago that no-one anticipated needing rights for people who changed their gender from male to female or vice versa) therefore it is important that we have rights that are so basic and clear that they protect all of us no matter what sized minority we inhabit.

In essence universal human rights are minority rights. If we give special rights then they are not universal and it is doubtful if we could consider these rights. If these minority rights compel others to act in a special way these are not so much rights as legal duties on others. If these are legal constructs rather than rights then they are much more fragile. If we select one minority for special legal treatment we can later change and select some other group. These ‘rights’ are not unalienable because they are given and consequently can be taken away.

The risk to all minorities is the Tyranny of the Majority. The safeguard against this is that every individual has the same rights and freedoms; the smallest minority is the minority of one. We are all in this minority, and it is because we are protected as an individual that we are protected as a member of a minority group no matter how many, or few, individuals are in that particular group.

I am not advocating that we do not consider special treatment for groups we might consider vulnerable. We may as a society feel we need to create legislation to protect them. However, we should be aware that these are special laws with special legal benefits or responsibilities. Creating law this way means that issues be properly discussed and designed and adapted over time. Laws operate under the framework of rights and play second-fiddle to them. Laws must conform to our rights, our rights can never be made to conform with our laws.

The safeguard for everyone in a democracy is the liberty of the individual, and no minority right can usurp the right of any other individual who may be in the majority or in some other minority. So lets forget about minority rights and instead respect, promote and safeguard the rights of the individual : they are the rights we all share.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi or Two Black Crows good luck for me was the idiom in the diary this morning. I lead me to think about the diversity of bird imagery in folklore and also how it differs in different national cultures. This latter aspect has become important for me as I now live, rather hesitantly, bilingually and the symbolic significance of birds, or other animals, in one language may be very different in the other. Birds have quite different connotations in English and Welsh.

Crows, with their association with carrion, are often related to death and bad omens in English cultures. Early cultures would have soon learnt that where there is death there are crows. This is also seen in Norse mythology where these birds are seen as a bad omen of death and doom. Although Odin’s ravens were also messengers of information. In Scotland the “Corbie” (the Scots word for the crow derived from the latin corvus) was associated with the hag Cailleach who feasted on dead mens’ bodies. In Irish folklore Morrighan the goddess of war was often present on the battlefield in this bird’s form. The collective nouns, in English also reveal this negative set, being ‘an unkindness of ravens‘ and ‘a murder of crows’.

However, as the motto above suggests, in Welsh the crow and raven have had much better publicists. The early king, Brân the Blessed, was associated with his namesake the crow (Crow is Brân in Welsh) . When he died he ordered that his head be cut off, and kept, so he could continue his gift of prophesy and protect Britain. His head is said it is buried under the Tower ot London and is the reason the ravens are there. The prophesy states, if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London then Brân‘s protection will be lost, and for this reason the ravens wings are clipped – just to be sure.

This complex mythology about the crow is shared with another bird of this genus – the magpie. In both cases to see one is unlucky while seeing a pair is lucky. The ‘rule’ for crows is

Two crows mean good luck ,
Three means health,
Four means wealth,
Five is sickness,
Six mean death.

and this is reminiscent of the old tale for magpies where the earliest version was :-

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

The owl likewise if very different. In most English speaking cultures the owl receives a good press. Its wisdom and sagacity are stressed and it is usually a positive figure in any folk tale. Most people think that seeing an owl is associated with good luck. However, in Wales, and in older English stories, the owl has a much darker meaning and an owl passing the window of a sick person was held to presage imminent death.

The owl plays an important part in Welsh mythology particularly in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogi. In the last book of the Mabinogi the hero, Lleu Llaw Gyffes , was under a spell so that he could never have a human wife. To get around this problem his magicians created a wife for him :-

from..” the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they baptized her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuwedd. “

Unfortunately, despite her beauty, Blodeuwedd behaves very badly cheating on her husband and conspiring to kill him. As punishment she is turned into an owl, the bird that is hated by all other birds :-

‘You will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day ever again, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name – that will always be “Bloddeuwedd”‘

adding

‘Blodeuwedd” means “owl” in the language of today. And it is because of that there is hostility between birds and owls, and the owl is still known as Blodeuwedd.” ‘

You may not consider these mythological differences important but sometimes they can make a difference. Just as the French may compliment their partner by calling her their ‘petit chou it is unlikely that I will garner the same success by calling my partner a ‘small cabbage’ no matter how fond of cabbage I may be. So while you might feel on safe ground choosing a bird loved the world over, for example the dove, it is not as simple as this. In Welsh an old dove (Hen glomen) is the term for someone who may dress finely outside but keeps a dirty house at home ( Gwraig sy’n ymwisgo’n wych, ond yn slwt yn ei thŷ). It may also be better that I don’t even translate another old bird as it is too rude for WordPress. If I were to venture that somebody was an ‘old pigeon’ I could just have well used the word for a female dog as my description – best avoided.

If you live between two languages it is best not to imagine that you can simply translate your affections from one tongue to the other. This may mean a little more learning but does mean you will have more words of affection (and abuse) at your disposal.