Which Takes Precedence: Collective Rights or Culture?

In Almed Momeni-Rad, Arian Petoft & Alireza Sayadmansom (eds.), Cultural Rights: an Anthology. Iranian Cultural Services Society. pp. 115-152 (2015)
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This Paper claims that, contrary to the common assumption of Anglo-American jurists, collective rights are secondary to a analytically and experientially prior culture. Culture constitutes the identity and content of a collective right. The thrust of my Paper examines the disjunction between collective rights and the culture constituting a collective right. The clue to the disjuncture is that a collective right is assumed to be a rule or principle signified or represented in a written language. A rule or principle is a concept. A culture, in contrast, is constituted from an experiential knowledge in an unwritten language. I raise two contexts where a collective right cannot be identified without a consideration the analytically prior culture of the social group protected by a collective right: peremptory norms in international law and affirmative discrimination clauses in constitutional law. I then highlight a crucially important factor generating the unwritten language of a culture: namely, the collective memories of a group. Although a personal memory is experienced in a context-specific event, a member of a group absorbs its collective memory. The collective memory of the group exists before one is a member. Such a memory may defer to some event centuries earlier. The event may possess a mythic or even false character which cannot be verified except as a myth or historical falsity. One cannot be accepted as a member of a group without the group’s collective memory. Shared assumptions and expectations characterise a collective memory generating a culture. Such assumptions and expectations constitute meant objects. Meant objects are not posted by some source 2 external to the individual members. Meant objects are experienced. A jurist cannot analyze the signified collective rights without examining the social culture said to be represented by the boundary of the collective rights. One may be able to rationally justify a collective right in terms of its source, such as a basic constitutional text, the regularity of behaviour of lawyers and judges or some ultimate concept such as dignity. Such a rational justification, however, does not address why an individual is obligated to defer to the collective rights of an in-group in a state. One has to examine the social-cultural assumptions and expectations presupposed in the content of such collective rights in order to understand why the rights are obligatory. Such an examination dissolves the traditional boundary of legal knowledge which has excluded cultural phenomena generating the collective rights.



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William Conklin
University of Windsor

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