The Individual in the Eighties

By Kate Bauer

John Peters Humphrey’s speech, “The Individual in the Eighties”, was given seven months before the 1980s began. The central argument of his talk is that the 1980s were going to be a time in global politics where the most tenuous relationship in the domain of human rights – that of rights of the individual and rights of the collectivity/group – would dominate the lives of much of humanity. This speech is significant because it uses contemporary political affairs (for example, humanitarian aid and Bill 101 in Quebec) to highlight how these two types of rights affected the daily lives of Canadians and the world population. It also demonstrated Humphrey’s belief that individual rights were far more sacred than those of the collectivity in many scenarios. Indeed, this speech is about “the Individual in the Eighties,” – had he wanted to argue otherwise, he would have titled it “the Collectivity in the Eighties.”

Near the start of his speech, Humphrey confirms his belief in the individual as the most important figure in human rights: “After God, the individual is my religion and ultimate value.” Thereafter, he clarifies this statement by asserting that humans are also social animals, and are subject to the laws of both nature and the state they live in. The “moral, religious, legal and economic” limitations placed on human rights belong to the realm of collective rights. Both of these types of protections for human rights are laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 29) and therefore are both important to the safety and wellbeing of humanity. Nevertheless, Humphrey cautions his listeners against letting the collective rights overpower the sacredness of individual freedoms. It is this conflict that he uses as the basis for all of his discussions about contemporary events in the body of his speech. Humphrey thus establishes where his biases lie and his own personal understanding of the world of human rights. He does not approach the discussion objectively: his own political and ideological views colour his discussion of government and international organizations throughout the whole speech in which he emphasizes that the individual in the eighties should be cautious of “the size and influence of…the bureaucracy.”

The first example he uses to demonstrate collective rights overpowering individual freedoms is that of UNESCO’s New World Information Order, a program through which the organization’s staff stepped in to regulate press in developing African countries so that information could be tailored towards promoting economic development. In a 1974 pamphlet published by UNESCO in Paris, the organization described its work in Africa as “building up communication media and using them to provide economic and social improvement.” Humphrey argues that the “right of development” in this example has completely overshadowed the (individual) freedom of the press and of expression. This example is significant because Humphrey foresees the impact of the growing trend of wealthy, Western nations stepping in to help the modernizing process of smaller, developing nations that would become so popular in the 1980s (think of the Band Aid song from 1984, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”). In trying to boost collective wellbeing, these initiatives often overstepped many of the individual freedoms associated with self-governance and self-determination.

Humphrey also mentions the impact of language laws in Canada and their effect on individual freedoms. Historian Michael C. MacMillan claims that “Bill 101 reinforce[s] the conclusion that language rights are not collective, but group rights,” and Humphrey is critical of the impact they will have on the daily freedoms of individuals in Quebec. Like UNESCO’s project, Bill 101 was passed in an attempt to protect the right for Quebec to develop according to the ideals of the majority, but ended up infringing on freedom of language for individual Anglophone citizens. He puts it simply: laws that seek to protect or encourage a style of development (whether economic or linguistic) that benefits only the majority of a whole, while denying rights and freedoms to certain individuals are “self-defeating” and “paradoxical.”

Humphrey’s speech was given at a McGill-affiliated conference at the University of Toronto and was likely heard by an audience of academics. While no documentation of this event exists, we know from his speech that he was asked to talk about human rights and the role of the individual in the coming decade. With only his knowledge of recent events (ie. UNESCO New World Information Order in the mid 1970s and Bill 101 in 1977) and his personal convictions about the nature of human rights, the significance of his speech can be summed up as such: according to Humphrey, the 1980s were going to be characterized by ideological conflict and the growth of the population, governments and the economy of the world. Still, Humphrey believed that humanity must not lose sight of the inherent right for the individual to self-determine and continue to fight for the protection of individual rights in a rapidly changing global setting.

Works consulted

…To Reach the Village…: Unesco and rural newspapers in Africa. Unesco in Action. France: La Néogravure, 1974. Pamphlet.

MacMillan, Michael C. The Practice of Language Rights in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Quote from page 101.




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