In many of the sci-fi futures that we know and love, racism, sexism, and homophobia are often scrubbed out of existence. Caprica/BSG, Star Trek, Torchwood, Mass Effect, even less thoughtful fare like Starship Troopers, depict residents of the future who are less interested in the permutations of human identity and more interested in the qualities of a person’s mind and spirit. Even Futurama’s “Proposition Infinity,” concerning the fake-contentious “robosexual marriage” controversy, spoofs this tendency.
Yesterday, US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker helped us move the rights needle a little further toward that future. In a heavily disputed decision, Walker overturned the barbarous Proposition 8 on the grounds it was unconstitutional under California law. His ruling was unequivocal and exhaustive: same-sex marriage is and should be equal to opposite-sex marriage. No doubt the case will move to the Supreme Court, where Obama and Congress’ collective feet-dragging on DOMA and DADT will finally be confronted. Until then, same-sex marriage is forbidden in most states in the USA and, regardless of the Supreme Court decision, will remain so in most countries in the world.
What is astounding is that for all the value we place in “human rights,” we are very good at not giving rights to humans. As I mentioned in my “Yes, We Should Clone Neanderthals” post, we regularly restrict human rights in those who are mentally un- or under-developed. Many who argued for the rights of Neanderthals based their arguments on the fact that the Neanderthal is “mostly human” or has very similar DNA and biology to a human being. While I agree the Neanderthal clone should have the same rights as a human being, I agree for a reason entirely other than biology. Rights have nothing to do with being human.
Our species’ history is and remains one largely built around the ever extending circle of those who have “rights” and what “rights” they have. Pick any great expansion in the rights of humanity, from the advent of democracy to the Nineteenth Amendment to yesterday’s decision, and I doubt you will find DNA at the philosophical core of the change. So what is it? When we, the human civilization, recognize the rights of those who have been oppressed or ignored, what is it we are recognizing? Their humanity! you may answer. But what does that mean? Surely a baby and a corpse are as human as an adult Homo sapiens is, but only the adult can vote. Why?
In a word: personhood.