“Nasty, brutish and short”, are the famous words of Thomas Hobbes to describe life in the state of nature without human civilization. The sacred enterprise of building human civilization is about creating spaces within which the human spirit can achieve its greatness. This is true on a physical, social and moral level. On a physical level, as a society, we create the physical infrastructure to protect and enhance human life through appropriate housing, sanitation, health care and all the other things that are vital to help human beings survive and thrive within our natural environment, which is often hostile to human habitation.
Together with the physical infrastructure the enterprise of human civilization is called upon to create the social and moral infrastructure within which the human spirit can flourish. The social infrastructure is built on a just legal system, which is founded on human rights and is fairly and efficiently applied and enforced. Physical and social infrastructure cannot be provided without real and practical implementation of real plans. Building the moral infrastructure is done through nurturing a culture of moral responsibility for the dignity, welfare and other rights of all human beings. It is done by instilling an appreciation for the notion of service, integrity and accountability. We know how to build the physical and social infrastructure – but how do we build our moral infrastructure?
“I accept the call to responsibility that comes with the many rights and freedoms that I have been privileged to inherit from the sacrifice and suffering of those who came before me.” These are the opening words of the Bill of Responsibilities, a world-first ground-breaking initiative which is a joint project of the Department of Education and the National Religious Leaders’ Forum. It is a complementary document to the Bill of Rights, which is a legal document that forms the bedrock of freedom and democracy in our country. The Bill of Responsibilities is an educational and social document that has the potential to transform and uplift the spirit of our country, by reformulating human rights into the language of responsibility. For example it states:
“The right to human dignity places on me the responsibility to:
treat people with reverence and respect, and
to be kind, compassionate and sensitive to every human being, including greeting them warmly and speaking to them courteously.”
“The right to education places on me the responsibility to:
attend school regularly, to learn, and to work hard,
to cooperate respectfully with teachers and fellow learners and
to adhere to the rules and the Code of Conduct of the school.”
The Bill of Responsibilities has been designed as a poster and is being distributed to all schools across the length and breadth of South Africa. It will be studied in school as part of the Life Orientation curriculum and through a deep engagement with its words and ideas it is hoped that our children, a new generation of South Africans, will emerge with a new spirit – a spirit of responsibility, integrity, duty and accountability; a spirit of sensitivity, compassion and respect.
The most important building blocks for constructing the moral framework for a great society are contained in the Bill of Responsibilities. For example, the sacredness of human life:
“The right to life places on me the responsibility to:
preserve and protect the sacred gift of human life, and
not to endanger the lives of others by carrying dangerous weapons or by acting recklessly or disobeying our rules and laws.
It is also my responsibility to live a healthy life, by exercising, eating correctly, not smoking, abusing alcohol, or taking drugs, or risking diseases like HIV and AIDS.”
Strong and loving families are absolutely vital to creating the social and moral infrastructure to build a great country. The Bill says:
“This right [to family or parental care] expects me to:
honour and respect my parents, and to help them,
to be kind and loyal to my family, to my brothers and sisters, my grandparents and all my relatives.
It also includes the recognition that love means long-term commitment, and the responsibility to establish strong and loving families.”
A great society is made up of people who want to contribute and work hard for the betterment of themselves, their families and society. The Bill encourages productive contributing citizens:
“This right [to work] carries with it the responsibility to:
work hard and do our best in everything we do.
It recognises that living a good and successful life involves hard work, and that anything worthwhile only comes with effort.
This right must never be used to expose children to child labour.”
Sceptics will say that the Bill of Responsibilities can achieve nothing. Words are cheap. Lip-service means nothing. These are the conventional wisdoms, but they are wrong. They presume that the importance of something is measured by its market price. Oxygen is also cheap but we cannot live without it. Words are the oxygen of human identity on every level, whether emotional, intellectual, social, moral or spiritual. We think, speak, pray, conceptualise and communicate with words.
Words create worlds. Human beings are unique in the natural world in that we do not only experience reality but we construct it with our words as we try to understand the world around us. The book of Genesis says that one of the first things that Adam and Eve did was to give names to the animals. In fact, we even construct our day-to-day reality through our own internal conversations and ‘self-talk’. Our human relationships are also constructed through words we communicate; good relationships through kind words, bad relationships through cruel words. The way that we think about other people is also constructed by our ‘self-talk’ and what we say and hear from others. That’s why according to Judaism one of the very worst sins is to speak badly about other people.
The modern world in particular is influenced by words. There is a constant deluge of words coming at us from the news media, print or electronic, the internet is awash with words and we are constantly bombarded with advertising slogans screaming at us from every billboard and from virtually every piece of paper we encounter. All of these words construct reality for us and for our children. Our children are growing up in an evermore complex world where they are being influenced by the words of so many people in our dynamic and ever-changing world. The Bill of Responsibilities is an exciting initiative aiming to provide our children with a set of truly valid and valuable words that can hopefully compete with all the other messages. It is an attempt to help our children construct their reality with the values of human rights, duty, integrity, compassion, giving and concern for others instead of the values of Hollywood.
At the beginning of time before creation the Book of Genesis says that there was “chaos and void, and darkness over the abyss”. The enterprise of building human civilization is about bringing order and light to the “chaos and void”. Words create the moral universe that we occupy. The Talmud points out that G-d created the universe with words. As described in the Book of Genesis, G-d opening words to beginning creation were: “Let there be light”. Words are important. Words create worlds.
This is what the Bill of Responsibilities is about. It is directed at our children who enter the world with open minds. There are so many forces constructing their reality for them. Their world-view on violence, sex and life itself is being constructed all the time by the loud and confident voices of the volatile and aggressive world around them. Into the noise of the bombardment of words from all sides enters the Bill of Responsibilities to give our children new words and a new spirit; the words and spirit of giving and contribution, of accountability and responsibility, of respect and decency, of tolerance and understanding, of integrity and loyalty, of kindness and compassion.
Originally published in the Sunday Times