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?
October is always a good time to catch up on one’s correspondence from July. “FYI,” noted a friend though FB’s messaging system, linking to this:
The video’s title, “Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations,” sums it up. The other videos from the same debate event are worth watching, too, but Tharoor’s is quite simply a must-see for anyone interested in the British Empire. Indeed, you have probably seen it already. With 3 million views, 6000+ comments plus what seem to be hundreds of reactions by all kinds of people in all kinds of media of communication, this one 15-minute video alone can legitimate Oxford Union Society claim’s that it aims “to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.”
Why is it that Oxford Union struck social media gold with this debate but not with some others (“socialism does (not) work,” anyone)? Even if it is safe to assume that “many” people would be familiar the reparations argument in general and even that “some” would be familiar with Britain’s reparations to the Maori, the fact is that “no one” had given a fig about the case for Indian reparations . My scare quotes are meant to signal that these quantifications are relative. It was a century ago that Dadabhai Naoroji, known to some as the Grand Old Man of India, argued that “immediate” self-government, a.k.a. swaraj, would constitute Britain’s “reparation”. But this is precisely the point: reparations-talk becomes itself only when subjected to a sufficient degree of metropolization or mainstreaming . White academics like Boris Bittker started paying attention to the legal argument for “black reparations” only in 1969, after James Forman famously stood up in a New York City church to argue that white churches owed a lot of money to a lot of people.
This is the second post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam Fotou’s original post can be accessed here, Elke’s is here, and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.
Humanity is special. This sounds like a very conventional claim. We are used to hearing appeals to our common humanity. The appeal works on the presumption that there is something in human beings that we not only share as humans but which also calls us to respond in particular ways when we encounter each other. We are said to have human rights that exceed any of our particular belongings to states, faiths or ethnicities. We intervene to protect human beings beset by violence and catastrophe, disregarding the norms of sovereignty that prevent outside interference. We appeal to our common humanity to solicit resources for distant strangers, often depicted in their suffering as vulnerable human bodies to shake us from our everyday disregard. Humanity is appealed to as a matter of routine, but what does our humanity consist in?
Reflection on the meaning of humanity is less common than our appeals to it, yet this deeper rumination also comes with practiced ease. Knowing what our humanity is has long been a matter of divining what is distinctive about human beings and then moving to grant our distinctively human capacities an exalted status, claiming it as our essential nature. Humanity, as something to which we appeal, is conventionally a judgment on what is prized in human nature, marking out what is elevated amongst all the contradictions of our all too human nature.
Humanity then works not only as an appeal – “for the love of humanity!” – but also as a standard to which we should be held. Knowing what is properly human provides a guide to our interactions. What do we owe each other? To be treated in accordance with our essential nature. In a typically modern and Western formulation: to be treated as rational beings, to have our individual freedom respected. These sorts of claims have long echoes and many sources. They also have dissonant reverberations because the standard of humanity not only marks off the human from the animal or the divine, but also differences between those human beings recognised as fully and properly human and those denied recognition, and in their denial degraded as sub-human, primitive and savage. This exclusion from full humanity of the non-human negates the appeal and standard of humanity, opening up the non-human to forms of violence, degradation and abuse. Women, savages, barbarians, Jews, Muslims, Asians, Africans, queers, lunatics, cripples; a brutal list of exceptions to the defining standard, such that even its partial enumeration raises questions about humanity as a standard. Nearly as insidious is the way the self-appointed arbiters of humanity use such distinctions to exculpate themselves. Those who fight for humanity against savagery are always noble in their own eyes. Continue reading
I want to address the use of practice theory in global ethics rather than International Relations or social science broadly. I am neither a social scientist nor a social theorist. My interests are in political and ethical theory, in asking questions about the good in political life. Nonetheless, questions of ethics are an important part of the turn to practice theory because such a reorientation has much to add to how we think about questions of global ethics. I also hope that my reflections on, and uses of, practice theory may be of interest to those who see themselves as social scientists.
In global ethics there is a constant concern with the issue of justification, with determining how we know what is right or good – and especially how we know that what we know is really right or good. What is surprising is how little time is spent considering the details of what is right or good in specific situations. This question it seems is already known, either because we can deduce it through some rational rule or distill it from some social tradition. This is a crude map, but hopefully adequate to place ourselves.
Even among more dissident scholars the focus is on how justifications fail, or how our justifications reproduce undesirable social consequences – the exclusion of the other, the marginalization of women – and these are absolutely vital insights. However, what remains under-examined is what we take to be right or wrong, good or bad, the substantive and at times contradictory content of our ethics. Along with this there is a lack of concern with how we think when we are being ethical, with what social role ethical claims have and with how social institutions and traditions depend upon ethical claims.
Imagination is the chief instrument of the good. It is more or less a commonplace to say that a person’s ideas and treatment of his fellows are dependent upon his power to put himself imaginatively in their place. But the primacy of the imagination extends far beyond the scope of direct personal relationships. Except where “ideal” is used in conventional deference or as a name for a sentimental reverie, the ideal factors in every moral outlook and human loyalty are imaginative. The historic alliance of religion and art has its roots in this common quality. Hence it is that art is more moral than moralities. For the latter either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the established order. The moral prophets of humanity have always been poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable. Uniformly, however, their vision of possibilities has soon been converted into a proclamation of facts that already exist and hardened into semi-political institutions. Their imaginative presentation of ideals that should command thought and desire have been treated as rules of policy. Art has been the means of keeping alive the sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habit.
-John Dewey, Art as Experience
You got a song you wanna sing for me?
Sing a song, singing man.
Sing another song, singing man.
Sing a song for me.
One for the pressing, two for the cross,
Three for the blessing, four for the loss.
Kid holdin’ a weapon, walk like a corpse
In the face of transgression, military issue Kalash
Nikova or machete or a pitchfork.
He killing ’cause he feel he got nothin’ to live for
In a war taking heads for men like Charles Taylor
And never seen the undisclosed foreign arms dealer.
Thirteen-year-old killer, he look thirty-five,
He changed his name to Little No-Man-Survive.
When he smoke that leaf shorty believe he can fly.
He loot and terrorize and shoot between the eyes.
Who to blame? Its a shame the youth was demonized.
Wishing he could rearrange the truth to see the lies
And he wouldn’t have to raise his barrel to target you,
His heart can’t get through the years of scar tissue.
-“Singing Man“, The Roots
60 million people and counting have now heard about Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012“. Criticism of the group has been substantial and judicious. The group has defended themselves. Humorous memes are proliferating. Over-exposure has already begun to create awareness fatigue. Yet there is a serious issue largely unaddressed: the most troubling elements of the “Kony 2012” phenomenon are not unique to Invisible Children, but reflect serious moral and political problems with the pursuit of international criminal justice, and in particular the mission and politics of the International Criminal Court and their controversial prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
To put it bluntly: while Jason Russell addresses his audience in the same way he addresses his five-year-old son Gavin, which is clearly inappropriate given the complexity of the issues he’s asking us to consider, Russell’s framing of the evil of Joseph Kony and “our” responsibility to stop him is importantly similar to the narrative of international criminal law, and Ocampo in particular. We should not be too quick to denounce the moral idiocy of Russell as a personal failing – his sentimental and messianic film represents a revealing apotheosis rather than a transgressive break from our sense of international justice. There are unpleasant resonances between Russell and Ocampo – the ICC prosecutor has already praised the group, saying,
“They’re giving a voice to people who before no-one knew about and no-one cared about and I salute them.”
But the commonalities run deeper than a strategic endorsement and should give us pause before we conclude that while Invisible Children may be unscrupulous and ill-informed, some form of outside intervention is needed to save the children of the Great Lakes region of Africa (to say nothing of the adults being killed) – and yes, an arrest warrant and possible trial by the ICC is as much an intervention as a military invasion. Russell’s call to “stop Kony” is disturbing beyond his narcissism and the organisation’s inept policies and campaigns, his messianic moralising, in which he positions himself (and those like him who just need to be roused to action) as the hero for the powerless victim, is a single melody line in the score that guides the choir singing for international justice. His self-regarding indignation, and our discomfort, should inspire introspection into the desires that lead us to demand that Kony stand trial at the ICC or to insist that “we” must do something to stop the evil that besets that part of Africa.