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.

In fact, Reconstructing Human Rights is something of a paean to human rights, but of a kind likely to be unfamiliar to some. It offers no clear definition of human rights, no single philosophical justification for their moral or political force, no foundational principles or fixed rules to tell us what ought to be done in the face of the egregious treatment of human beings. Instead, it offers a subtle and nuanced critique of some of the most influential theoretical arguments about human rights and finds there a deep, and deeply troubling, desire for ethical certainty. This desire, and the philosophical and political quests it engenders, Hoover argues, are actually at odds with democratic practices and human flourishing that human rights are meant to enable. Certainty turns out to be both “unattainable and undesirable” (72). So undesirable, Hoover contends, that it must be replaced by a way of thinking about human rights far more attuned to the realities of value pluralism, incommensurability, and political contingency. We must, he urges us, replace our desire for certainty with a pragmatic, situationist, agonistic ethos. Only then can we bring the promise of rights to fruition and create a world in which “every human being has value and…this value [is] recognized in political life” (102).

Hoover is, of course, not the first to notice or criticize the tendency of theorists to search for stable foundations that disavow plurality and undermine participatory politics. Nor the first to do so in the context of human rights theory. But by capturing this tendency in the language of desire, Hoover invites us to examine the persistence of this approach from a refreshingly new perspective. His work encourages us to think seriously about why political theorists – liberals and cosmopolitans, champions and critics alike – continue to search for ethical certainty despite the apparent futility and costs of such a project. And his argument raises questions about what is involved in shifting the object of our desire while offering us suggestions for what we might desire in its place.

As astute as Hoover’s insights into “what” we desire are, his work only gestures towards the “whys” and so it is to this latter concern, and to Lauren Berlant’s work on “cruel optimism,” that I turn my attention here. Understanding why we desire certainty may allow us to grasp more fully what is at stake in “reconstructing” human rights, and understanding that desire as a form of cruel optimism forces us to grapple with just how challenging it may be to adopt the tremendously valuable ethos Hoover develops and encourages. To Hoover’s call to recognize and take responsibility for the costs associated with ethical decision-making in a world of plural values and contingent political outcomes, I would add that we need an ethos that acknowledges the difficult work involved not only in achieving our desires, but also in the practice of desiring itself.

A Bad Romance

To desire an object, Lauren Berlant argues in Cruel Optimism (CO), is to attach ourselves to a “cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (CO, 23). Unfortunately, we often desire objects that are actually harmful to our ability to live the good life they promise. We participate in a phenomenon she calls “cruel optimism” when the object of our desire “actively impedes the aim that brought [us] to it initially” (CO, 1).


The desire for certainty that Hoover finds in much of contemporary rights theorizing seems to fit that description perfectly. We come to rights theory seeking a response to injustice in the world, a way to rectify the horrific conditions that undermine human flourishing. We seek a world without the kind of pain and suffering that abounds. Contemporary rights theory, in turn, promises us universally applicable, overwhelmingly persuasive, and irrefutable justifications for demanding the institution and protection of human rights. This certainty promises to be so compelling that only the irrational (or evil) could deny or dispute it. It promises to provide a perspective that will direct institutions like the state to enact laws, set policies, and adjudicate conflicts in ways that guarantee human rights protections and make human flourishing possible. It thus promises not only to end human rights conflict but also to provide a respite from political struggle and political responsibility. Once we are armed with our ethical certainty, that is, we can be freed from the responsibility to engage in difficult decision-making and to accept and address the often tragic and inevitable consequences of those decisions. This is a promise of intellectual, political, and psychic peace.

A lovely promise for sure, but a fantastical and dangerous one, according to Hoover. As he deftly reveals, ethical certainty requires that we obscure, ignore, displace, and discredit that which does not fit a particular perspective. Moreover, it justifies or obscures the fact that this is an act of coercive power by hiding behind the mantle of universal truth. In the end, the desire for certainty – or the policies and practices that result from the discovery of supposed certainty – constrains human lives and undermines resiliency and creativity. When we allow “antecedent ideals” to structure what we can see about and do in response to the world in which we live, we abdicate our power and responsibility to make judgments. The desire and quest for certainty, Hoover writes, “feeds our fear of unconstrained pluralism, unending contestation, and the loss of certainty in our conventional social orders” (72).

So why hold so tight? Not simply because the fantasy is so good, but also because it does important work; it has a “life-organizing status” (CO, 227). Ethical certainty, our object of desire in this case, gives shape to who we are as individuals and as a community. It delimits our responsibilities as citizens and distinguishes them from those of the state. It tells us what to expect of others, what to expect of ourselves, and what to expect of life itself. And it tells us that we are good people, caring individuals who can know and do the right thing.

Detaching ourselves from an object like ethical certainty in the context of human rights conflicts requires, then, that we fundamentally alter our sense of self, our relationship to others, and our understanding of our place in the world. This will be radically destabilizing and likely demoralizing. It will require us to rethink our identities, reconstitute our communities, reimagine who does what and when in the world, and reconceive “the good life.” And this will entail risk and loss while requiring significant amounts of imagination and patience, courage and energy. Changing our object of desire, as Berlant’s work reminds us, is so difficult and fraught a task that many are dissuaded from ever undertaking it, choosing the harm done by the existing object of desire rather than going through the wrenching pain of recreation. It is not surprising, then, that the desire for ethical certainty remains so strong.

A Good Romance

But we do not have to stay in a relationship with cruel objects. In language that bears a striking resemblance to Hoover’s, Berlant encourages us to reject objects of desire that “banish self-reflexive, cultivated opinion and judgment from their central public-sphere function” (CO, 225). She suggests that this need not require “gestures of heroic action” (CO, 259) or clear counters to “hegemonic ideologies” (CO, 260). We simply need to “interfere with the feedback loop” (CO, 249) by fostering the skills necessary for “adjudicating incommensurate visions of the better good life” for these are the very skills that make possible and help maintain solidarity (CO, 228).


In turning to the situationist ethics of Dewey and the agonism of Connolly and Honig, Hoover attempts to disrupt the “feedback loop” of human rights theory. He is not calling for a revolutionary overthrow of a system in which rights makes sense. He is, instead, calling for an honest recognition of what rights can do in the face of uncertainty and instability. A situated, pragmatic, agonistic ethos, he tells us, acknowledges that there is no overarching value or definitive hierarchy of rights to ensure that we are responding in the correct manner or being the good people we hope to be. Instead, it teaches us that values are human creations, “part acts of will” that inevitably leave out and devalue other values and perspectives (111-112). And it demands that we judge and act nonetheless, taking responsibility for the costs that may result. This will involve us in practices of self-reflection. The fact that we can never be certain that ours is the best or correct value requires us to engage in an “ongoing cycle of ethical inquiry.” The housing rights activists from whom Hoover draws inspiration are already doing this. It is the philosophical community that needs to catch up. Philosophers and theorists must shift their efforts from providing “final principles” to cultivating “our ability to exercise judgment in the face of uncertainty, to make choices, affirm or revise our commitments, and to act without final assurances that we are doing so rightly and without risk” (104).

Here Hoover does the difficult work of identifying our new object of desire and of offering some sense of what it would mean to attach ourselves to it. In exhorting us to cultivate a particular sensibility with respect to rights that allows us to recognize the facts of diversity and value pluralism, he hopes to help us cope with the very contingencies of life in ways that acknowledge others’ humanity and promotes democratic equality. But I think such goals also require us to be very clear about the difficulties involved in shifting our desires and the hard work involved in making good on the cluster of promises such a desire encompasses. This insight may be implicit in Hoover’s reconstruction and obvious to anyone who is involved in political activism or does scholarly work on social movements, but it is not explicit in theories of agonistic democracy. I want to make it very explicit. We need to know not only that we are going to be engaged in decision-making that has remainders and is never acceptable to all, but also that this is going to involve us in ongoing, at times tedious, often coalitional, usually multi-pronged efforts to achieve political change. And we need to be prepared that the struggle here is not just with others or taking place in the public realm alone. The struggle is also an internal, deeply personal one that occurs at the level of our psyche, our subjectivity.

My point (and it is one in an early stage of development) is that we need to cultivate a new work ethic, or rather an ethos of rights theory and practice as ongoing work. I don’t mean work in the sense of wage labor. I mean work in something of a Weberian sense of the “slow boring of hard boards” coupled with work in the Foucauldian sense of a permanent provocation that involves continually thinking, being, and doing anew on a public and a personal level. I agree, then, with Hoover, that human rights theory has much to gain from the rich ethnographies of human rights practice that our sociology and anthropology colleagues offer. Rather than abstracting from the real world to articulate overarching principles, their research makes visible the fact that human rights campaigns involve decades of commitment and engagement, concerted efforts materializing in a variety of coalitional forms and arenas, and compromises, contradictions, and disappointments, all of which contribute, in ways often unforeseen or unexpected, to human rights victories as well as defeats. To these detailed accounts of the hard work done by activists, theorists can contribute an understanding of how change occurs. In my own work on rights, I draw on insights from theories of performativity to underscore the fact that human rights “successes” require and result from repetition. The intelligibility of the new – whether a policy, law, social norm, or identity category – is the effect of actions and utterances repeated over time in multiple locations by a host of different political actors. Marriage equality and the attendant transformations in the meanings of nationhood, community, and spousedom, for example, are the result of more than five decades of efforts occurring in local religious communities, the legal arena, legislatures, daily life, and other arenas. No doubt that cruel optimism on the part of others as well as ourselves contributes to the difficulties of making change and the need for long-term engagement.

The Journey

Hoover’s book begins with a confession of desire and a profession of love. It was motivated, he tells us, by a desire to make sense of his ambivalence about human rights, to understand how he could square his faith in the transformative and democratic potential of human rights with his recognition of their implication in and obfuscation of some of the worst forms of imperialism and neoliberalism. Atthe heart of this desire is an expression of love of and for “our common humanity” which allows us to rise above social, political, religious and other differences (vii). Hoover finds this impulse, one of “the best…we human beings have,” expressed in and enacted by the committed human rights activists with whom he has worked and hopes that his pragmatic, agonistic approach to ethical decision-making helps to cultivate this impulse.


While my faith in humanity and my embrace of the language of love is not nearly as strong as Hoover’s, I share his desire to make sense of the paradoxes of rights and am deeply invested in the project of shifting our cultural object of desire. Even here, though, I worry that this is simply a project of replacing one form of cruel optimism with another, of risking, in Berlant’s words, “merely recast(ing) the neoliberal orchestration of political emotion’s intimate viscera” (CO, 262). This is, as Hoover’s work suggests, a normal and fundamental part of the process of self-inquiry demanded by the very ethos he encourages. And, as with any good relationship, desire is only one part of the equation. We still have to put in the work.

Epilogue: The Art of Seduction

Reconstructing Human Rights is a seductive title, but is it accurate? I’m not so sure. In his efforts to develop a new political ethos, Hoover repeatedly refers to human rights as, among other things, “tools.” This suggests that human rights are something quite distinct from who we are as individuals, something that we can pick up, use, and then put back on the shelf without fundamentally altering either it or ourselves. But on his own account, our engagement with human rights is more complicated than this. Indeed, there are places in the text where Hoover describes human rights as something of a cultural practice and suggests that engagement in this practice transforms our subjectivity. It is in these moments that I think Hoover gets closer to re-conceptualizing human rights themselves. Perhaps part of the problem lies with the language of reconstruction and its concern with the repair and reorganization of the thing itself. Or perhaps the real issue is that the “thing” of most interest to Hoover is our ethical orientation to politics and human rights just happens to be the kind of politics in which the fraught nature of that relationship becomes exceedingly clear. I am not suggesting Hoover is uninterested or unengaged in rethinking human rights themselves; there are intimations of this throughout the book. I think, however, that the subtitle, “A Pragmatic Inquiry into Global Ethics,” better captures the spirit of the book. .




5 thoughts on “Human Rights: A Love Story?

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