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The typical student who takes human rights classes at Columbia is perhaps the typical student activist. He or she was most likely involved in Amnesty International in high school and maybe even attended a protest complete with angry signs. This student generally arrives “with the notion that a human rights study will be practical. It’ll be about the reforming and betterment of the world,” says Samuel Moyn, faculty director of the undergraduate program in human rights for Columbia College.
In response to this emotional idealism, Moyn aims to equip students with the “kind of traditional neutrality and skepticism that they’re supposed to bring as academics,” to exchange their tools of advocacy for analysis during their stay at Columbia.
This project is evident in Moyn’s latest book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, published earlier this month. In the book, Moyn deconstructs the myth that “human rights” as we know it today has an impressive history, birthed during the Enlightenment with thinkers like John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Moyn endeavors to prove that the present-day understanding of human rights—as something inherent in individuals that transcends the nation-state—only began around 40 years ago, after the collapse of collectivist ideologies such as socialism and nationalism.
The historical take on human rights allows Moyn to reveal the human-constructed nature of the concept, which is often taken to be “self-evident.” His narrative empowers present-day actors to reshape and recast the language of human rights to fit present realities.
It is a project on which many are clearly already at work. Amnesty International has expanded its campaign from civil and political rights to socioeconomic rights. Politicians have employed human rights to justify military interventions in the name of “freedom” and “democracy promotion.” This past summer, Mark Williams, then Tea Party Express chair, claimed that the “tea party is about human rights.”
As groups race to utilize what is perhaps the moral language of our day to further their cause, the need to take a step back and critically analyze the assumptions of the human rights framework, as Moyn modeled in his book, is becoming more and more pressing. Human rights classes at Columbia aim to carve out a space for students to do just that.
“You begin to realize,” said Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti, a junior in the College who is studying human rights and religion, “that the inalienable rights that people talk about … is a fairly specifically Western Enlightenment thought. The most terrifying of all in a lot of ways is that human rights is kind of an imperialistic thing, because it basically suggests that there is one standard to life, which is, in application, the Western standard of living.”
Furthermore, the language of human rights is narrowly focused on the individual. As a result, the “spectacular suffering” of the individual is privileged over the less visible “structural suffering” of a group. When the problem is a structural one, such as the problem of inequality, and not a state versus individual one, such as state censorship, the shortcomings of the language of human rights are evident. Yet, it is still painfully employed for lack of a better, universal moral language. As a result, almost every moral issue is framed, in a race to compete for the masses’ conscience, as a “human rights issue.”
The danger of this uncritical rush to advocate and lobby was illustrated in an anecdote from an interview with Joseph Slaughter, a professor who teaches a class on comparative literature and human rights. A student had approached him on College Walk and asked if he wanted to buy a chicken for El Salvador. Slaughter asked him what kind of chicken it was.
Slaughter explained, “You know the story of the Haitian pig, don’t you? The U.S. decided it was going to supply pigs to Haiti—it was a particular kind of pig that doesn’t eat garbage and that ate up a lot of vegetation and it … created a dependency in Haiti on the American pork industry. So I want to know if the kind of chicken I’m buying for El Salvador is an El Salvadorian chicken.”
Although human rights arguments have consequences that need to be exposed and examined, it is not enough merely to apply an academic lens to a practical issue. Academic discourse must adapt to reflect the present realities of human rights. As Moyn and Slaughter explain, discussing human rights often requires the perspectives of multiple disciplines, from history to law, and what’s more, it also requires talking about humanitarianism and development. The three categories of human rights, humanitarianism, and development have increasingly converged, for better or for worse, in international affairs. The justifications for the U.S. military presence in Iraq, for instance, were grounded in all three categories.
Toward that end, a new journal, Humanity, headed by Moyn and a small editorial collective including Slaughter, was conceived. With its first issue released tomorrow, Humanity orchestrates dialogue about human rights, humanitarianism, and development from diverse disciplines such as anthropology, law, philosophy, history, and literature, partly in an attempt to bridge the gap between the academic and the practitioner. Its multifaceted approach, which is also evident in the interdisciplinary requirements of the human rights concentration at Columbia, is a model of what academia should be: not perched in a distant ivory tower, but adapted to reflect and critically engage the complicated realities of our age.
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