Reconstructing Human Rights

This resource complicates the idea of universality in human rights in its discussion of contradictory ideas about humanity, and the notion that human rights are something practiced by Western states and resisted by non-Western states. The author has worked on human rights issues in the United States, showing that Western states also sometimes fail to support the rights of their peoples. Our conceptions of rights are dynamic rather than static. What implications do these ideas have for global justice? What are the roles, rights, and responsibilities of individuals, communities, and states?

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?

The conventional liberal case for human rights is familiar to many of us. It presumes that there is some feature of humanity, shared by each of us, which is particularly valuable and in turn justifies a list of very important protections and privileges. The special feature of humanity is usually related to our capacity for autonomous action, to act based on our own reasoning and to express our freedom (see Dworkin or Gewirth for classic liberal statements, or Habermas and Benhabib for distinctly rationalist accounts), but it can also be attributed more quotidian features, such as our capacity to feel pain or our unavoidable vulnerability to one another (see Shue, for example). Much of the philosophical literature on human rights is concerned with debating what is special about human beings, or determining what particular protections and privileges we are entitled to because of our humanity—ranging from the expansive to the austere (see Phillips recent book for a further elaboration). Yet, this framing of the question has been the subject of considerable critique.

If we assume that there is some single feature of humanity that is uniquely able to ground our human rights—which are those that attach to each of us, everywhere—then we will put into question the humanity of human beings who do not possess that feature, or worse yet, do not value it as we do! In our contemporary world this leads to questions of whether children or people with mental disabilities possess the requisite rationality and autonomy to count as fully human. A worry that is only possible if we assume there’s a clear line between reason/unreason and ability/disability (Nussbaum wrestles with elements of this problem). Historically, this logic of division and privilege justified European colonialism as the victims of colonial violence were seen to be less human by their tormentors (see Mutua for one critical account). It seems all attempts to define humanity authoritatively and finally are complicit in the violence of definition and division—“humanity is essentially X. Therefore, you lot are human, while you lot, without X, are something less than human.”

Some writers try to defend human rights without recourse to claims about the essential nature of humanity or the undeniable force of reason, relying instead on convention or political activism to establish human rights that are universally applicable without being preoccupied with the reasons why we might come to agree (Ignatieff and Rorty are two notorious examples). But even these strategies run into problems. First, what we agree is decided in a world that is highly unequal, in which the powerful are able to dominate the agenda and determine the substance of human rights. Second, how we agree is likewise shaped by existing political dynamics, which in the case of human rights is generally a dynamic in which non-Western people are assumed (and rarely asked) to accept Western human rights—a dynamic that persists despite ample evidence of non-Western histories and innovations of human rights and Western violation of human rights (Bhambra and Shilliam is a vital collection).

And there are further objections still. Even if we were able to come to some acceptable consensus on which human rights we should have, not to speak of an agreement about what is valuable in our humanity, the political arrangements assumed by conventional human rights thinking are questionable (See Žižek). If we think of the state as justified by its capacity to provide for our human rights, we also risk thinking of ourselves as dependent upon the state, as the individualised and disempowered subjects of its power (Wendy Brown’s criticism is seminal). If this is the case, human rights, rather than liberating the individual from state power, actually empower the state as the administrator of depoliticised human bodies to be protected—or to be killed. It is this logic that justifies forms of global governance, such as humanitarian military intervention, where unrepresentative government force is used to protect some lives, while ending others (see Agamben).

In the face of so many profound criticisms, is there anything to be salvaged from human rights? My instinct is that there is something to be celebrated in human rights still. Partly this is based on my unwillingness to allow an intellectual argument against human rights to overwhelm the evaluations of activists who find something valuable in human rights as they fight against injustice. It is also partly based on the expression of equality at the core of human rights, which includes a demand that each of us has a place in, and a contribution to make to, society.

I want to return to my question: what should we make of human rights? The double-meaning in this inquiry is intentional. We need to consider two issues here. First, how do we evaluate human rights as we know them today? Second, what can we do with human rights?

Whether we embrace or reject human rights, what is too rarely appreciated is that our evaluations often presume that human rights are encompassed by one history and one set of practices. Therefore, a key claim that I develop throughout the book is that if we are going to evaluate what human rights do, then we need to recognise that there are many different meanings of human rights at work, reflecting different ideals and using different political practices to uphold human rights. This means accepting that human rights are ambiguous and that we cannot ever know what they are with certainty or finality.

My account of human rights, however, goes further than calling on us to recognise their ambiguity by also focusing on how they are contested. It is not simply that there are a multitude of different ways of doing human rights, but rather than human rights are something we argue about because they touch something deeply important in our political lives. Human rights help us mark out answers to fundamental political questions, namely what makes the authority of government legitimate? And, how do we draw the boundaries of political membership?

In the book, I argue against any account of human rights that suggests the ideal of justice can be articulated completely or finally, in particular focusing on the limits of both nationalist and cosmopolitan accounts of human rights. In doing so, I try to make space for understandings of human rights that are more radical (in that they make demands that directly challenge our conventional understandings of just political order) as well as more meliorist (in that they are aimed at addressing specific injustices rather than calling for the transformation of the political order as such).

From this perspective the political function of human rights (and their presumed moral authority) shifts. If we think of human rights as tools of ethico-political reform, then it is no longer about redeeming the nation-state as a site of politics nor of justifying a transformation to a global cosmopolitan order. Rather, I suggest we should see human rights as a way to contest existing understandings of political legitimacy and communal membership, as they enable us to make our appeals via the formally universal but substantively contested identity of humanity (this argument shares something with Rancière’s understanding of rights). This appeal to humanity, however, is never without danger, as articulating some account of what each of us is owed because of our humanity can also close down other claims and understandings. Human rights, I argue, should be claimed with a sense of their own limitations, with a profound sympathy with those who may be excluded, silenced, and devalued in our rights activism.

This broadly pluralist and agonistic understanding of rights can be supplemented, I think, with a Deweyan understanding of ethics, in which the universal is not given priority but is in fact approached with great caution. The universal is not a general rule to be followed in all circumstances, but rather it is at best a generalisation that may help guide our action in future moments of judgment and action, while at its worst it can become a kind of dead imperative that stunts our intelligence and limits our ability to act creatively and radically.

This, then, begins to give us a different account of how we should understand human rights and their relationship to both the political and the ethical. It does not, however, address the question of which account of human rights I believe we should embrace. Knowing how rights function, we are still left with the question of what we might yet do with human rights. In the later sections of the book, I argue that the best thing we can make of human rights is to imbue them with a democratising ethos, such that they are used to undermine conventional authority or membership in the name of greater equality and more democratic social institutions. This move, I believe, draws out the radical potential of rights and places it at the forefront of our thinking.

By way of very brief example, in my recent work I have considered how the movement for a human right to housing in the US embodies this potential. At the core of this movement is a claim that housing should not be seen or treated as a commodity, instead we should recognise it not only as an individual need, but also the building block of community and a source of political power. This alternative understanding of housing demands a de-commodification of housing and a politicisation of questions of ownership, such that the alternative vision pursued is not of housing provided by the state or a guarantee of individual title, but rather a linking of community control of land and housing to an alternative system for its distribution that would not deny individuals a home because of their inability to pay. In its place are nascent demands for democratic forms of communal control over housing in order to provide a home to everyone. Further, these groups appeal to the language of human rights because they are also seeking a shift in the terms of political membership, both in formal terms, such that a right to housing is not dependent upon one’s status as a citizen, as well as informal terms, such that one’s access to housing is not defined by one’s capacity to abide by societal norms.

There is much more to say about all of these matters; in no small part because the books itself is an opening to further questions and conversations. But more importantly, I do not want to say too much here and now, as I eagerly await the thoughts to come from the other contributors.


Source: The Disorder of Things,
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Last modified: Monday, September 20, 2021, 9:38 AM