On Statues (II)

This is the second in an unplanned series of  write-as-stuff-happens posts on the politics of statues. You can read the first post here.

In June 2016, the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled a statue of Gandhi on the Legon campus of the University of Ghana in Accra. Almost immediately, angry blog posts and articles in the local press denounced the installation of the statue, demanding its removal. On twitter, activists proclaimed #GandhiMustFall and #GandhiForComeDown. An online petition voicing these demands has attracted over 1700 signatures at the time of this writing. The argument of the protesters is simple: Gandhi was a racist. As an activist in South Africa, he worked primarily in the interests of the Indian community, seeking a renegotiation of its position in the existing racial hierarchy of the settler colony without ever attacking the underlying premises of racial ordering. The protesters evidence this claim with Gandhi’s own words drawn from writings across a significant period (1894-1908), in which he refers to black South Africans by what would today be considered the offensive racial slur ‘kaffir’. More than the word, the connotations of which may well have worsened since the time Gandhi employed it, the protesters are angered by the shallowness and rank supremacism of his vision of liberation:

Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness (1896).

The protesters link Gandhi’s remarkably accommodationist views on race with his beliefs about caste, the institution of which he would notoriously justify in later arguments with Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar. Unsurprisingly, the protest against the Gandhi statue draws inspiration from contemporaneous struggles against symbols of colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy all over the world, among which #RhodesMustFall in South Africa is preeminent. The connection is more than incidental: once again, the politics of a settler in turn-of-the-century South Africa has come under scrutiny in a protest against a statue in a distant country.



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So much to say, so much to say… A Reply

I want to begin by thanking Karen, Anthony, Kirsten and Elke for their comments on the book–and a special thanks to Elke for organising. It is a rare treat to have so much attention paid to one’s work, especially by such thoughtful and insightful colleagues. My profound thanks to you all. I also need to offer some explanations for my much delayed post – first I was starting a new job and time ran out, then I was ill, and then my iCloud account somehow ate my draft. So, I’ve had to start from scratch, which has forced me to be direct and straightforward to save time. Any curtness of tone is a reflection of circumstances rather than my appreciation of my critics.

I learned a great deal from all the posts—about the gaps, limitations and possibilities of my book. Therefore, in my response I want to reflect upon what I have learned through this forum. What I have to say here is only a brief continuation of the collective intellectual journey taken through this forum. You have all given me much to think about it the future. Continue reading

Translating Radical Plurality in Pragmatism: A Paradox?

This is the fourth and final commentary in our symposium on Reconstructing Human Rights.The symposium will close with a  rejoinder post by Joe tomorrow. You can catch up on the opening post, the first, second and third commentaries.

As I was reading Reconstructing Human Rights, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout most of the book. This did not come as a surprise; the work Hoover does in his book is close to my own work, and to my heart. giphy-1.gifDisrupting ethical theories that are rooted in abstractions and assumptions of universal moral principles is, I believe, urgently required if we are to better understand the moral responsibility we have toward our fellow human beings, particularly in environments of conflict and violence. And so for me, what resonates most strongly in Reconstructing Human Rights is the ethical project contained within the book. Like Hoover, I am not at all convinced that universalising accounts of morality can adequately address ethical problems in political contexts. And like Hoover, I am concerned with how the quest for certainty and universality shapes how we understand, see, and treat one another in social and political life. What is at stake here, in my view, is nothing less than the capacity for ethical action itself, which is at risk of being entirely subsumed by the pursuit of absolutes, leaving little room for contingency, alterity, uncertainty, or indeed anything unknown that might arise out of the specificity of any one ethical moment.

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Jaw-jaw, War and Law

ainley_kirsten_118Our third comment on Reconstructing Human Rights is authored by Kirsten Ainley. Kirsten is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics. Her research is in the field of global ethics and is concerned very broadly with relationships between politics, law and ethics in world politics. She has published widely on international criminal law, transitional justice, the International Criminal Court and the notion of evil in international relations. Read Joe’s opening post here, Karen’s comment here, and Anthony’s contribution to the symposium here.

Reconstructing Human Rights is a remarkable book. It sets out, in a most compelling way, grounds to support human rights as an ethos – a way to approach politics that has the potential to be genuinely emancipatory. The book does so not from the widely (and rightly) disparaged universalist wing of political theory, but from a critical perspective. This is where the argument is most original and most impressive. There are plenty of us who are critical of many human rights practices, but supportive of the use of human rights language and law in some instances – or at least despairing of an alternative. Hoover provides, in a beautifully staged argument, a reconstruction of rights that weaves together strands from the work of theorists such as Dewey, Connolly and Honig (as well as drawing on Benhabib, Walzer, Habermas and others). Like many theorists, Hoover has a razor-sharp ability to recognise and expose flaws in arguments. More unusually, he treats the work he is responding to with humility and respect, and is thus able to draw his critiques into a constructive treatise. Engaging with the book was as rewarding as it was intellectually demanding, and the humanity with which Hoover thinks through his subject is testament to the potential of his approach.

So, I agree. He’s right. There is virtually nothing of substance in the book that I would take issue with. This realisation left me in something of a bind when it came to writing this post. But it also, after some time reflecting on the implications of the book, left me with a familiar discomfort about the relationship between philosophy and action. Rather than discussing the book’s argument, therefore, I want instead to think about the tensions that become apparent in campaigning for political change using the tool of human rights, in one form or another, if approached from Hoover’s position. Continue reading

Upsetting the Theory: Rights for Housing and Queers

The second post on our forum on Joe Hoover’s Reconstructing Human Rights, from DoT’s Anthony Langlois. You can read Joe’s opening post here and Karen Zivi’s commentary here.

 As I was reading Joseph Hoover’s fabulous new book, a critical debate was going on at the peak human rights institution of the global political system. The Human Rights Council, an institution to which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggests “all victims of human rights abuse should be able to look…as a forum and springboard for action”, was debating a resolution to establish a UN Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. On June 30, 2016, after extensive debate, in which much opposition was expressed, the Human Rights Council voted in favour of this UN Special Procedure, establishing the office of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).

It is a harsh reality that in many countries around the world, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans* and others of queer and diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (LGBTQ) are not able to look to human rights institutions for support and protection, or, those institutions find themselves constrained and unable to offer such support and protection openly, or at all. The creation of the SOGI expert by the UN is in part a recognition of this, and it is seen by many as a critical further step in the UN’s recent activism on this routinely neglected area of human rights concern.


But as well as allegedly being “progress” in the human rights agenda of freedom and emancipation, it should cause us to pause and think. What does it mean that Human Rights have only come lately to queer communities, if at all?

Hoover does not directly consider this question. But the debate about gay rights, human rights for queers more broadly, and their place in IR, plays a role like that which Hoover shows the right to housing to play. Hoover uses the right to housing to destabilise, challenge, pluralize, democratize and reconfigure our received ideas of human rights. I would suggest that this is also precisely what happens, or, at least, what can happen, when human rights meets sexual orientation and gender identity expression, as well. Continue reading

Human Rights: A Love Story?

zivi-headshots-gray-backgroundThis is the first comment, following Joe’s opening post, penned by Karen Zivi. Karen is Associate Professor of Political Science at Grand Valley State University where she teaches courses on rights, democracy, and gender and politics. She is the author of Making Rights Claims: A Practice of Democratic Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2012) and her work on topics such as LGBT rights, citizenship, and motherhood has appeared in the Journal of Human Rights, American Journal of Political Science, Politics & Gender, and Feminist Studies.

A Longing

As I write this post, I am preparing for the first day of my ‘Introduction to Human Rights’ class. I’ll begin by asking my students to identify a human rights issue of interest to them. I won’t be surprised if they mention the Syrian refugee crisis or police brutality in the United States, religious liberty or reproductive justice, Wikileaks and freedom of the press or Flint and access to clean water (I teach in Michigan after all). I’ll ask them what should be done to address these issues and I won’t be surprised if they advocate for providing humanitarian aid or making new laws that limit or enhance state power. And when I ask them why we should respond one way or another, I won’t be surprised if they make reference to ideas about a common humanity, the meaning of justice, or doing the right thing.


Not wanting to crush their spirit on the first day, I’ll tell them they are in good company in the way they are thinking about human rights. But over the course of the semester, I’ll tell and show them that political solutions and philosophical justifications disappoint again and again for reasons that go beyond the sheer callousness, greed, or stupidity of human beings. Even when victories are won, as Joe Hoover’s new book makes so astonishingly clear, collateral damage is often unavoidable. My students thus have the difficult task of confronting the reality of human rights’ limitations. I have the task keeping their promise alive, balancing rights realism with rights optimism in ways that motivate my students to engage in making change and yet staves off the kinds of skepticism, despair, and apathy that do nobody any good. I still believe in the power and promise of human rights. And, fortunately, so too does Joe Hoover.

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Reconstructing Human Rights

The first in a forum on Joe’s recently released Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming days.

hoover-reconstructing-human-rights-cover1Earlier this year I visited Sylvia’s Corner, the home of the Focus E15 campaign, to give a talk about the human right to housing. As I shared my research, based on work I had done with housing campaigns in Chicago and Washington DC, I was struck by how this specific moment illustrated what I most hope Reconstructing Human Rights might accomplish—namely, helping to reconstruct human rights as a more democratic idea, and practice.

In London, Focus E15 has been fighting for the human rights of those struggling to secure a decent home for themselves and their families, often struggling against the very public agencies who should be assisting them. Their work not only draws on an ethical and political language of human rights, but it also remakes that language, renders it suitable to their needs and responsive to their experiences. I have witnessed this same process with other campaigns, such as the  Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and with community organising groups like ONE DC in Washington DC. It was revealing to act, even briefly, as a conduit through which the experiences of these distant groups could be relayed. Human rights are constantly being remade, repurposed—reconstructed—to serve the ends of those suffering from injustice. It is this reality that motivates my book, which is at its core an attempt to understand how human rights can be both an instrument of the privileged and powerful, and also a weapon for the oppressed and disempowered. I wrote this book because I wanted to know, what should we make of human rights?

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