Friday, April 28, 2006

Life, Liberty Property...And Language?

(This is another sort of "recycled" post, comprised of some comments I made in a class concerning language and immigration. The notion was posited that it is the responsibility of governments to "protect" and "promote" linguistic minorities. My comments follow.)

I just wanted to offer a few observations on the topic of government and the protection/promotion of linguistic human rights (LHR).It seems to me that anything that comes down from the UN, especially anything of a cultural nature, is a bit difficult from a sovereignty standpoint.

The difficulty, as far as I see it, comes in the terminology, namely the use of "protect" and/or "promote."Now, when I see the word "protect" used, I assume that this posits a negative rights standpoint as far as the government is concerned. What I mean is that the rights that people have intrinsically should be protected from the incursion/denegration from other actors in the society.

This, naturally, arises from an entire view of the role of government as protector of the natural rights of the citizenry, namely (to use John Locke's words) life, liberty and property. Beyond the protection of these rights, in a minimal state, the government can play no positive role; the actors in the society are left to themselves to perpetuate their culture without aid from the state.

When, on the other hand, I hear the word "promote," this denotes a more utilitarian, activist concept of the function of government in the field of rights. Promotion can mean a lot of things: the facility of institutions, the passage of legal protections and the provision of public funds. In my opinion, government enters dangerous territory (especially when it refers to culture) in taking an extremely activist role in such matters. Why do I think this, you ask?I believe that rights, at least the ones protected by the state, should derive from the rubric of life, liberty and property. These rights denote that the state should not be allowed to kill you, detain you or steal from you.

Can LHR be derived from any of these basic negative rights?Here again, I suppose this descends from one's understanding of "stealing." In the strictest sense (and the one that formed the spirit of much of law in the eighteenth and nineteenth century era of state-building), the only referent here is tangible assets. Is this proper?

As I said before, that comes with one's definition of the proper role of government.I guess the real issue is are LHR on the same level of rights as life, liberty and property? Should rights be categorized as such? And, if so, what responsibility should any state have for protecting them? If they don't protect them, can/should coercive, forceful action be taken against them?

(If you are interested in this topic further, check UNESCO's page on the subject for all of the official UN documents. Also useful is this page maintained by a professor of language and linguistics at the University of Essex.)

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