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Respect for the Rights of Others (2011 Fall Commencement Address, morning)

  • Date: 12/10/2011
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Let me start by reciting something in Spanish that some of you may recognize: “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.”[i] “Respect for the rights of others is peace.”

    It comes from a speech by Benito Juarez, the first president of Mexico, that was given in 1867. A great reformer and patriot, Juarez often is compared to his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln. In fact, although they never met in person, these two towering figures in North American history actively supported each other in their quest to preserve and advance freedom in their respective countries.[ii]

    Having been born in Mexico, ‘El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” is as indelibly written into my memory, as the immortal words that “all men are created equal” and that they have “the unalienable rights…of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are written into yours and, now, even mine.

    Of course, we could easily spend many hours discussing what Juarez meant when he said, “Respect for the rights of others is peace,” as it certainly remains applicable to many aspects of modern life. And surely, all of us would welcome a world where individuals, as well as nations, truly respect each other’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That certainly would be real progress in civilization, something that humanity has been slow to achieve.

    And perhaps there is reason to hope that we may be on our way toward that noble goal.

    In his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker provides considerable evidence to support his remarkable argument that, contrary to perceptions created by the entertainment industry and news media, our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.[iii] He supplies substantial statistical and anecdotal evidence that you and I are far more secure from the threat of violence than our counterparts of 100,000, 500 or even 100 years ago.[iv]

    Pinker explores why this is so, and among the major reasons he cites is a trend that he calls, “the rights revolution.” Increasingly, societies throughout much of the world have expanded the rights of ethnic minorities, women, children and others, while also losing their tolerance for those who disrespect them.[v] So it would appear that ‘Respect for the rights of others’ is on the ascent and may be why we are somewhat more at peace than may be apparent.

    But this morning I want to explore yet another aspect of Juarez’ famous quote, and that is its economic impact…because in addition to peace, respect for the rights of others also brings freedom and prosperity.

    In fact, this point was explained quite well by the Peruvian-Spanish writer and political activist Mario Vargas Llosa. Last year, Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and just last month he received the Alexis de Tocqueville Award from the Independent Institute. For that occasion, he wrote an essay on literature and liberty, and his words are worth quoting.[vi]

    Llosa wrote that “The search for liberty is simply part of the greater search for a world where respect for the rule of law and human rights is universal—a world free of dictators, terrorists, warmongers and fanatics, where men and women of all nationalities, races, traditions and creeds can coexist in the culture of freedom, where borders give way to bridges that people cross to reach their goals limited only by free will and respect for one another's rights.”[vii]

    In addition to his literary career, Llosa has been involved in politics in his native Peru for most of his life. He began as a leftist, but gradually moved toward what we in this country would call the center-right.[viii] As a moderate conservative, Llosa’s unyielding commitment to economic liberty sets him at odds against extremists in both camps. He wrote:

    “Many who describe their politics as ‘liberal’ emphatically favor measures which desire to push aside free enterprise. Some who call themselves liberal show even greater hostility toward business, loudly protesting the very idea of economic freedom.[ix]

    “(On the other hand,) there are those who, in the name of the free market, have supported Latin American dictatorships whose iron hand of repression was said to be necessary to allow business to function, betraying the very principles of human rights that free economies rest upon.[x]

    “Then there are those who have coldly reduced all questions of humanity to a matter of economics and see the market as a panacea. In doing so, they ignore the role of ideas and culture, the true foundation of civilization.[xi]

    “What is lost on the collectivists… is the prime importance of individual freedom for societies to flourish and economies to thrive. Political and economic liberties cannot be bifurcated.”[xii]

    Llosa concluded his essay by citing the works of great thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. He said of them, “They have described the path out of darkness and toward a brighter future of freedom and universal appreciation for the values of human dignity.”[xiii]

    What might this “bright future of freedom” look like?

    In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley, an award-winning columnist who lives in England, writes of the “magic that exchange and specialization have wrought for the human species,” and he provides this example:

    “As I write this, it is nine o’clock in the morning. In the two hours since I got out of bed, I have showered in water heated by North Sea gas, shaved using an American razor running on electricity made from British coal, eaten a slice of bread made from French wheat, spread with New Zealand butter and Spanish marmalade, then brewed a cup of tea using leaves grown in Sri Lanka. I dressed myself in clothes of Indian cotton and Australian wool, with shoes of Chinese leather and Malaysian rubber, and read a newspaper made from Finnish wood pulp and Chinese ink.”[xiv]

    Indeed, you can well imagine that pharaohs, queens and emperors would today gnash their teeth in envy of the ordinary pleasures we overlook each day. And if we do our part, the children of the 22 century will take for granted wonders we have yet to invent and commercialize.

    Several years ago, as I reflected on these ideas, I was struck by the fact that our country has been shaped in large part by those who came to this country seeking the opportunity of freedom, only to find the freedom of opportunity. You see, “Freedom creates individual possibilities. It creates freedom of opportunity, which is enhanced by education – because educational achievement expands alternatives and possibilities. Ultimately, freedom is about choice – the freedom of opportunity. And choice is about capturing individual potential, as informed by experience and gained through hard work.”[xv]

    And that, my friends, flourishes only in the sunlight of peace…

    …and peace is possible…only when we respect the rights of others.

    “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz!”

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere – I salute you, the fall 2011 graduates, together with your families and friends who have helped make this success possible.


    [ii] Tuck, Jim, “Mexico’s Lincoln: The ecstasy and agony of Benito Juarez,” Mexconnect.com http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/274-mexico-s-lincoln-the-ecstasy-and-agony-of-benito-juarez

    [iii] Singer, Peter, “Is Violence History?” Book Reviews, New York Times, Oct. 6, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-book-review.html?pagewanted=all

    [iv] Singer, Ibid

    [v] Singer, Ibid

    [vi] Llosa, Mario Vargas, “Literature and the Search for Liberty, Wall Street Journal,” Opinion page, November 3, 2011,http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203687504577005983807718496.html?KEYWORDS=Literature+and+the+Search+for+Liberty

    [vii] Llosa, Ibid

    [ix] Llosa, Ibid

    [x] Llosa, Ibid

    [xi] Llosa, Ibid

    [xii] Llosa, Ibid

    [xiii] Llosa, Ibid

    [xiv] Ridley, Matt, The Rational Optimist, Harper Perennial Edition, New York, 2011 p. 35

    [xv] Luis M. Proenza, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation 2002 Annual Report, p.9

  • Topic Category: Mutual respect, peace and prosperity
  • Tags: Benito Juarez, peace, freedom, Mario Vargas Llosa, prosperity, opportunity,
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