Tipping the Scales
To counter Bush’s human rights violations, we must rethink how we defend human rights.
When searching for the origins of modern human rights, one usually looks toward documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or perhaps the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Yet, Lynn Hunt argues, to discover where those came from, we should read eighteenth-century novels and head to the nearest art museum. In her new book, Inventing Human Rights–a learned account of a vexing and often ill-defined topic–Hunt takes readers on a journey through literature, architecture, and historical events. This tour is guided by her methodological claim that culture and, in particular, the arts can shed light on, and even explain, some of the turns of human consciousness underlying the emergence of human rights as a body of values in Western thought. So, for example, she argues that the rise of the epistolary novel, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, created a path for readers to feel greater empathy and that this empathy in turn opened readers to the sort of sensibilities necessary to recognize human rights.
The breadth of Hunt’s learning–she is a past president of the American Historical Association and one of the country’s leading scholars on modern European history–makes the book a thoroughly enjoyable read, even for people who aren’t enthralled by the topic of human rights per se. In a work that will inevitably raise comparisons to Michel Foucault’s landmark history of the prison, Discipline and Punish, Hunt casts the modern aversion to torture against a wide variety of cultural rather than explicitly political influences, such as the change in home architecture in France, the rise of circuit-walk gardens in England, and the boom in portraits of ordinary subjects, all of which altered the way people saw their bodies and those of others. In the same way that Foucault brought numerous cultural influences to bear in his understanding of punishment, Hunt’s narrative is sprinkled with fascinating tidbits about Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. She then reads these developments against key moments in human rights history–such as the torture and execution of French Protestant Jean Calas in 1762–claiming that the changes in conception of the body and mind rendered by changes in culture ultimately altered the way people understood the value of the human body, and thus the venality of torture.
While Hunt’s method is enjoyable to read, it is occasionally frustrating to contemplate. Her catholic approach to source material often leads her to make some rather unusual and undefended substantive claims. For example, one argument she repeatedly makes is that historical events can be seen as the product of a “biological” change in people’s psyches. “My argument,” she writes, “depends on the notion that reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels had physical effects that translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life.” There is a lot that is problematic here. For one thing, there is just no way to know whether reading literature like Julie, or the New Heloise actually produced biological changes in people, as opposed to temporary changes in their consciousness. (Modern work in social norms also suggests that belief structures trickle down, so that readers may influence the attitudes of non-readers, who in turn influence a new set of non-readers.) For another, the bulk of her argument does not even depend on whether biological changes were produced or not. While Hunt is clearly enamored of this concept and salts her book with all sorts of biological claims (e.g., empathy is “rooted in the biology of the brain”), her central contentions center around the gestalt of the period, not upon a biological rootedness of belief.
Hunt is at her best when painting a picture of Europe during this time period, and her book is highly original. Unfortunately, the last section of Inventing Human Rights is a rush-job on the twentieth century and contemporary conceptions of human rights. It has the feel of something tacked on at the end, perhaps prompted by an editor’s suggestion to try to make the book more “relevant” for today’s reader. This last part fails, revealing an insecurity about the book’s relevance to the modern condition–and it’s an insecurity that is somewhat well-founded. Hunt’s reading of human rights works as a historical exercise but fails to account for many modern problems–most significantly, the deep tension between liberty- and equality-based human rights claims. Particularly today, when the transportation revolution and modern weapons of destruction have created new technological capabilities for massive threats to our security, purely liberty-based arguments are unlikely to resonate. For those interested in crystallizing, defending, and extending human rights guarantees, it is the language of equality, not liberty, that offers the most promise.
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