.... If the state legislates against sexual violence and abuse, as it must, it is because of the recognition that this is an area in which the liberty to make sense of or with one's own body is most often put at risk by predatory behaviour on the part of others.Archibishop Rowan Willams"Religious Faith and Human Rights" lecture.
So: equal liberty is at root inseparable from the equality of being embodied. Rights belong not to the person who can demonstrate capacity or rationality but to any organism that can be recognised as a human body, at any stage of its organic development. If the body cannot be property, it will always be carrying meanings or messages that are inalienably its own. And this opens up the second area in which aspects of Christian theology offer a foundation for a discourse of universal rights. Thus far, the emphasis has been upon the view from within, as it were – the body as carrier of the soul's meaning, the body as 'formed', given intelligible shape, by the continuing self called into being by God. But the process by which the body realises its communicative nature, by which it becomes concretely and actively a locus of meaning is a process in which the body receives and digests communication. The individual communicates meaningfully when s/he is decoding and responding to the meanings that are present to him or her; the full development of the particular body's freedom to communicate is realised in the process of understanding and managing and responding to the communications that are being received.
The human other is thus essential to my own growth as a communicative being, a bearer of meaningful messages that cannot be silenced; my own liberty not to be silenced, not to have my body reduced to someone else's instrument, is nourished by the equal liberty of the other not to be silenced. And, in the framework we have been using, this is identified as the central feature of the community created by the Christian gospel. Slave and owner are not merely bound to a common divine Master, they are bound in a relation of mutuality according to which each becomes the bearer of necessary gifts to the other. The relation of each to the Master is such that each is given some unique contribution to the common life, so that no one member of the community is able fully to realise their calling and their possibilities without every other. Not killing or not abusing the slave is for the slaveowner the necessary implication of recognising that the slave is going to be his or her benefactor in ways that may never be visible or obvious but are nonetheless vital.
The dignity accorded to the human other is not, then, a recognition that they may be better than they seem, but simply a recognition that what they have to say (welcome or unwelcome, intelligible or unintelligible, convergent or divergent) could in certain circumstances be the gift of God. Not every human other is a fellow-member of the Body of Christ in the biblical sense; but the universal command to preach the gospel to all prohibits any conclusion that this or that person is incapable of ever hearing and answering God's invitation, and therefore mandates an attitude of receptivity towards them. Not silencing the other or forcing their communication into your own agenda is part of remaining open to the communication of God – which may come even through the human other who is most repellent or opaque to sympathy. The recognition of a dignity that grounds the right to be heard is the recognition of my own need to receive as fully as I can what is being communicated to me by another being made by God. It compels that stepping back from control or manipulation of the other which we so often seek for our security, so as to hear what we cannot generate for ourselves. And it should be clear, incidentally. . . .
So gang rape, beatings, torture, and smashing or slashing or exploding people to bits is all about silencing their communicative facilities, their liberty to make sense with their bodies, to code and decode, to speak and communicate with others? Am I missing something here? I'm a lawyer and a literature major and a great lover of words of all kinds, but golly, gee, isn't there more to life, not to mention eternity, than Saussure and semiotics?
I honestly do respect the desire and the effort to struggle to find what the Archbishop calls "robust language" for universal human rights, and I do not pretend I could do any better myself, but... It's not just the squirrely language, it's the impression that bodies and people and human suffering are abstractions, not real, bloody, messy, smelly, hurtful and hurting things, that disturbs me.