01 June 2009

Are Rights Human?

Lawrence Rosen wraps up Varieties of Muslim Experience: Encounters with Arab Political and Cultural Life with a discussion of the prospects for the acceptance by Arab cultures of the notion of "universal human rights." He expresses some skepticism toward the universality of any culture's conception of human rights, though he isn't as cynically dismissive toward the idea as some postmodern writers. He also notes that the idea of human rights isn't even "universal," even in the West.

Is it a violation of equal human rights when men have access to religious practices or properties that are denied to women, when male circumcision is not child abuse but female genital cutting is, when only the state religion can be the subject of blasphemy, or when any level of corporal punishment is denied custodial parents? What agreement can there be about universal human rights when a Native American tribe may deny membership to the children of women who marry outsiders while granting it to descendants of men who marry abroad? What consensus is possible when one-third of American states regard first-cousin marriage as incest while two-thirds do not, or when private colleges rationalize gender exclusivity as not inimical to fostering equality? (p.171)

Rosen also notes the obvious critique from non-Western cultures that the prevailing notion of "universal human rights" only reflects the particular values of "Western civilization." He acknowledges a number of evolutionary processes, however, through which cultures may influence one another, preferring the diffusion of ideas through trade relations to the imposition of values by imperial power. Overall, he seems to think it unlikely that a truly universal standard can be established. He prefers setting looser standards that allow different cultures to recognize a rough equivalence of rights that reflects each culture's distinctive values. This will still be a difficult process, he concludes, and unsatisfactory for anyone who thinks that everyone on earth should have the same package of rights..

I can imagine many Americans rejecting Rosen's book as an apologia for cultural relativism. But I can also understand why many Westerners bristle at the notion that universal human rights is just one of "their" beliefs rather than a self-evident truth. Simply put, while outsiders see the idea as a mere expression of Western or American culture, true believers don't see it that way. That's not just because they may be wearing historical or ethnocentrist blinkers, but because their own understanding of history tells them that the Enlightenment, for instance, wasn't some simple indigenous European specimen. Their own narrative tells them that the vanguard of the Enlightenment (or the Renaissance) fought against indigenous traditions throughout Europe every step of the way. They see themselves of heirs of a genuine transnational culture (the "republic of letters," for instance) rooted in reason and philosophy rather than blood and soil. They expect to find counterparts everywhere, and tend to lionize such exemplars as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch freethinker who now consorts with the likes of the Heritage Institute, who in turn end up criticized elsewhere as collaborators with imperialism. Just as the Renaissance and Enlightenment crossed traditional European borders, many moderns consider themselves entitled to offer aid and comfort to like-minded people in more benighted nations, and are no more likely to respect governments' claims that internal affairs are none of their business than their precursors would have accepted some duke or bishop's right to block the spread of learning. On the other hand, no one in Europe waged war for Galileo's sake, so their was a limit back then, just as there must be now. Defining it today is no simple thing, but we still have to try.

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