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Hugs and human rights violations

In René Spitz’s infamous study on orphaned infants in the 1940s, extreme measures were taken to avoid the spread of germs. Sheets separated the cribs, employees wore masks and gloves, and caregivers rarely held the infants.1 Despite having adequate food and medical care, the infants did not develop properly and were likely to fall prey to illness and death.

While adopting a child from an Eastern European orphanage, Tricia Falk observed the other infants in ordered rows of cribs. Not one of them cried. If they had, no one would have gone to them. They just lay there in dirty diapers staring off into space.

Tricia was filled compassion for these little ones and resolved to return. Instead of vacations, she traveled to Russia and visit crowded orphanages. She would enter the facilities as early as possible each morning and change diapers. Then she walked from crib to crib and held each listless child for a time.

Tricia would talk soothingly to the infants and saw that it did them good. They began to interact with her, smile back, and jabber incoherently. Each time Tricia left again for America, her heart would break for these children. She traveled back to those orphanages again and again throughout the years and took many friends with her.

Research shows that a hug increases happiness while decreasing feelings of loneliness and stress.2 A hug can make the recipient feel safe and accepted. A warm embrace is a more effective means to share compassion than words ever could be.3

The well-known family therapist Virginia Satir said that we need four hugs a day for survival.4 I just watched a video of a man in a blindfold giving out free hugs in front of a hospital. People opened up to the hugger and talked about their depression and illnesses. I found it oddly moving. 

Like the children in the orphanage, the vast majority of us need at least some human contact each day to thrive. On the continuum between extreme hugginess and total isolation, western culture would benefit from a shift toward more affection. So if they are so vital to human flourishing, are hugs a human right? Does everyone deserve the happiness of human connection?

My right to your affection

If I have a right to a hug, then perhaps I could demand one from anyone I want for as long as I want. I could walk up to a stranger on the street, spread my arms, and invite him into my embrace. Regardless of his schedule or disposition, he would have no choice but to comply. I wouldn’t even have to hug him back unless my new acquaintance demanded that I reciprocate.

Some people might be uncomfortable with this arrangement. Not everyone would be though. There are likely some lonely people and natural-born-huggers whose lives would improve with a general hugging directive.

The need for a hug is an example of a positive right, meaning a right that would require someone else’s assistance.5 Positive rights are the goods and services all people in a society are entitled to. If we consider a hug a positive human right, then my right to a hug would come with your responsibility to provide one. I can’t receive a hug without someone else’s willing or unwilling participation.  

Your right to rebuff my affection

I asked my 14-year-old daughter if everyone has a right to hug her. She responded. “Yes. Wait… what if they have fleas… or lice… or they were crushing on me?!” For those who value their autonomy, many would view a hugging free-for-all as a violation of their rights. Everyone should have the ability to say no to unwanted contact.

Where a positive right requires that someone give you something, a negative right claims a zone of non-interference from others – a space where others are prevented from imposing their will on you.6 An example of a negative right is that we each have the right to refuse human contact of any kind. If I do not want a hug from you, then you cannot approach me.

The government’s warm embrace

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we each have an inalienable right to receive hugs and that we also have the right to reject hugs. In order to protect these conflicting rights, government could step in to meet the need. We could create a new institution and call it something like The Department of Human Affection. Every town and school would hire certified huggers who would work day or night shifts.

The department would likely have to develop a website with scheduling software, training materials, and liability forms. For safety and consistency, there would have to be rigorous hugging standards, including required contact points, strength of the embrace, and hug duration. Problem solved right?

Sadly, we would lose something of a hug’s essence with such a program. If a good hug is a genuine expression of acceptance and fondness, then a forced version would be something less – even if the hugging technique were flawless. Although it might be better than nothing, a hug from a government employee would be a hollow approximation. Worse, such a program might disincentivize people from taking the risks necessary to build actual relationships and earn genuine affection.

Embrace my conclusions

In my opinion, hugs are not a human right. Although they are vital to the well-being of the human family, we have the right to decline unwanted contact – even if that contact would do us good. An important function of government is to protect its citizens’ negative right to reject the affection of others. And when governments step in to meet a society’s basic needs, they tend to twist those needs into something impure and unsatisfying.

We each need affection from people we know and trust. The welfare of a community and of a nation comes from tightly connected individuals and communities. It springs from people who are willing to reach out and embrace one another despite their respective flaws. If we cannot agree to take care of our neighbors, powerful institutions will try, and in the long run they will fail. The only lasting solution is genuine human affection and caring.

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