In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:
…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.
For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’, ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).
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.
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
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. Disrupting 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.
This 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.
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.
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.
Earlier 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?