Inventing Human Rights

            Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt, is an important and excellent book. Professor Hunt, a former president of the American Historical Association, ponders the obvious inconsistency of a century of human rights, including abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of black males, coexisting with denial of civil rights to women.

            Professor Hunt’s history is designed to illuminate the forces that led to the creation of human rights.  In the process, she comes to a deep understanding and disturbing conclusion.

            “The two questions, then, are: what can motivate us to act on our feelings for those far away, and what makes fellow feeling break down so much that we can torture, maim or even kill those closest to us? Distance and closeness, positive feelings and negative ones, all have to enter into the equation.

            “From the middle of the eighteenth century onward, and precisely because of the emergence of a notion of human rights, these tensions became ever more deadly.  Late eighteenth century campaigners against slavery, legal torture, and cruel punishment all highlighted cruelty in their emotionally wrenching narratives.  They intended to provoke revulsion, but the arousal of sensations through reading and viewing explicit engravings of suffering could not always be carefully channeled.  Similarly, the novel that drew intense attention to the travails of ordinary girls took on other, more sinister forms by the end of the eighteenth century.  The Gothic novel, exemplified by Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), featured scenes of incest, rape, torture, and murder, and those sensationalist scenes increasingly seemed to be the point of the exercise rather than the study of interior feelings or moral outcomes.  The marquis de Sade took the Gothic novel a step further into an explicit pornography of pain, deliberately reducing to their sexual core the long, drawn-out seduction scenes of earlier novels like Richardson’s Clarissa.  Sade aimed to reveal the hidden meanings of previous novels: sex, domination, pain and power rather than love, empathy, and benevolence. ‘Natural right’ for him meant only the right to grab as much power as you could and enjoy wielding it over others.  It is no accident that Sade wrote almost all his novels in the 1790’s during the French Revolution.

            “The notion of human rights thus brought in its train a whole succession of evil twins.  The call for universal, equal, and natural rights stimulated the growth of new and sometimes fanatical ideologies of difference.  New modes for gaining empathetic understanding opened the way to a sensationalism of violence.  The effort to dislodge cruelty from its legal, judicial and religious moorings made it more accessible as an everyday tool of domination and dehumanization. The utterly dehumanizing crimes of the twentieth century only became conceivable once everyone could claim to be an equal member of the human family.  Recognition of these dualities is essential for the future of human rights. Empathy has not been exhausted, as some have claimed. It has become a more powerful force for good than every before.  But the countervailing effect of violence, pain, and domination is also greater than ever before.

            “Human rights are our only commonly shared bulwark against those evils.  We must still continually improve on the eighteenth-century version of human rights, ensuring that the ‘Human’ in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights leaves none of the ambiguities of ‘man’ in the ‘rights of man.’ The cascade of rights continues, though always with great conflict about how it should flow: the right of a woman to choose versus the right of a fetus to live, the right to die with dignity versus the absolute right to life, the rights of the disabled, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of children, the rights of animals – the arguments have not and will not end.  The eighteenth-century campaigners for the rights of man could condemn their opponents as unfeeling traditionalists, interested only in maintaining a social order predicated on inequality, particularity, and historical custom rather  than equality, universality, and natural rights.  But we no longer have the luxury of simple rejection of an older view. At the other end of the struggle for human rights, when belief in them has become more widespread, we have to face the world that has been wrought by that endeavor. We have to figure out what to do with the torturers and the murderers, how to prevent their emergence in the future, all the while recognizing that they are us.  We can neither tolerate nor dehumanize them.”

                                    Inventing Human Rights, pages 211 – 213

            This is an important book and essential reading for anyone interested in democratic politics and government.

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