Last week I looked at the use of the phrase “human rights” and I observed how it compared to the UN declaration of human rights. But something bothered me about that. After the signing of the declaration the use of the phrase “human rights” more or less remained steady for a couple of decades. Then it inexplicably exploded on the scene in the early 1970s and suddenly everybody was obsessing over it.
Why did a full two decades go by with little change in use, and what prompted the sudden explosion in use? Well, I think I may have an answer.
First things first, if you don’t know what Google’s ngram viewer is, or why it can teach us some very interesting truths about ourselves, please read this post I wrote at the beginning of this series.
To try and solve the mystery of why “human rights” suddenly showed up, we need to search for correlations between the phrase “human rights” and other words or phrases that we suspect might point to possible causes.
Racial / religion issues
Human rights are often associated with issues surrounding race and religion; could it be that there was a sudden increase in racial and religious concerns around the same time, and those concerns led to the increased use of the phrase “human rights?” Not according to the following chart.
Whether one is investigating the Jews in particular, race relations in general, minority groups or even religious freedom, these topics increased and decreased in use during the same period of history, but there are no trends that meaningfully track with the use of the phrase “human rights.” “Minority groups” has a slight bump around the time when “human rights” took off, but it quickly settled back to previous levels of usage while “human rights” continued climbing.
These don’t seem to be the issues that inspired the sudden and massive skyrocketing of interest in the subject of human rights around the 1970s.
Sexuality and gender identity
A significantly stronger correlation exists between human rights, sexuality and gender identity as shown in the following chart.
Society massively ramped up its interest in sexuality in the late 1960s, and a few years later – in the early 1970s – society’s interest in “human rights” similarly skyrocketed. In fact, the correlation almost appears as though it had been choreographed. Within a couple of years they both ramp up, they ramp up along almost exactly the same slope, and they both keep on ramping up over roughly the same time period of time.
In fact, it is surprising that a two-word combination (“human rights”) would be used as often as a single word (“sexuality). Let me explain. Going back to my example in the original ngram article, in any given set of books the word “airplane” will come up with a certain frequency, but the phrase “fighter airplane” will come up less frequently because when we talk about airplanes we are not always talking about that particular kind of airplane. And the phrase, “German fighter airplane” will occur even less frequently than the phrase “fighter airplane” will.”
Typically the more words there are in the phrase the less frequently that phrase will come up, so it is sometimes necessary to scale a phrase by a certain factor just to compare it to other phrases and words. This is apparent in the above chart by comparing “human rights” to “gender identity.” The phrase “gender identity” is used roughly 1/20th as often as the phrase “human rights” which is why I had to scale it up by a factor of 20. But when we scale it up we see that it, too, emerged on the scene at roughly the same point in history, grew at roughly the same rate (proportionally speaking) and continued on in parallel with “human rights” and “sexuality.” Given the present political climate it should come as no surprise that sexuality and gender identity so closely mirror each other.
But what is truly remarkable, as I alluded earlier, is that the multi-word phrase “human rights” is so popular that it receives almost the same absolute usage as the single word “sexuality” all by its lonesome self. This truly does attest to the significance that we place on human rights.
This correlation should hardly surprise anybody, though, given just how strongly human sexuality has become tied to human rights. We have been told, time and again – in popular media, by government, from activist groups and elsewhere – that sexual orientation, gender identity and a host of other sexual issues are, at root, about human rights.
The thing I find a little disturbing about all this, though, is a comparison between the initial motivation for the UN declaration of human rights and the motivations driving those who raise the banner of human rights today. The UN declaration was drafted in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. People had their property forcibly confiscated on the basis of their race. Many were imprisoned without just cause or due process. Many millions were tortured and executed. Genocide on a massive scale. That history formed the backdrop of the original declaration; that was the motivating factor for the initial interest.
What about today? When human rights became increasingly popular in the 1970s was that because people’s property was being removed? Were people experiencing imprisonment, torture and execution in large numbers? Not in the English speaking world at any rate. The obsession over human rights in the English language does not appear to be connected with race relations (which are still strained in many part of the USA) or with religious freedom and it did not appear to arise out of any kind of atrocity comparable to the Holocaust.
Rather, it would seem society was suddenly hopped up on its own sexuality and then, very shortly thereafter, sexuality became inexorably tied to human rights. Is it not somewhat disturbing that we seem to be more passionate about discussing human rights today when our sex drive is the issue at stake, than we were half a century ago when the issue at stake was ethnic cleansing? Do we really want to go down in history as the generation that cared more about their orgasms than the previous generation cared about life and civilization itself?