For anyone interested in the issues of human rights, justice, or peace, and I assume that would include all of us, 2014 was a very bad year. It is hard to know where to start, with Eric Garner, the innocent man choked to death in New York city whose police are supposed to protect citizens not kill them, or Ferguson Missouri where the lack of police restraint in using lethal force on African Americans, burst into public consciousness, with seemingly little effect, as the chilling murder of a young boy wielding a pop gun occurred even in the midst of riots that were national news.
Only days ago, we had the release of the US Senate’s report on torture on terrorists “suspects”, torture performed by or enabled by Americans set into a state of terror and rage in the wake of 9-11. Perhaps the most depressing feature of the report is the defense of these methods by members of the right even though there is no evidence forms of torture ranging from “anal feeding” to threatening prisoners with rape gave us even one piece of usable information that could have been gained without turning American doctors and psychologists into 21st century versions of Dr. Mengele.
Yet the US wasn’t the only source of ill winds for human compassion, social justice, and peace. It was a year when China essentially ignored and rolled up democratic protests in Hong Kong, where Russia effectively partitioned Ukraine, where anti-immigrant right-wing parties made gains across Europe. The Middle East proved especially bad:military secularists and the “deep state” reestablished control over Egypt - killing hundreds and arresting thousands, the living hell that is the Syrian civil war created the horrific movement that called itself the Islamic State, whose calling card seemed to be brutally decapitate, crucify, or stone its victims and post it on Youtube.
I think the best way to get a handle on all this is to zoom out and take a look from 10,000 feet, so to speak. Zooming out allows us to put all this in perspective in terms of space, but even more importantly, in terms of time, of history.
There is a sort of intellectual conceit among a certain subset of thoughtful, but not very politically active or astute, people who believe that, as Kevin Kelly recently said “any twelve year old can tell you that world government is inevitable”. And indeed, given how many problems are now shared across all of the world’s societies, how interdependent we have become, the opinion seems to make a great deal of sense. In addition to these people there are those, such as Steven Pinker, in his fascinating, if far too long, Better Angels, that make the argument that even if world government is not in the cards something like world sameness, convergence around a global shared set of liberal norms, along with continued social progress seems baked into the cake of modernity as long as we can rid ourselves of what they consider atavisms,most especially religion, which they think has allowed societies to be blind to the wonders of modernity and locked in a state of violence.
If we wish to understand current events, we need to grasp why it is these ideas- of greater and greater political integration of humanity and projections regarding the decline of violence seem as far away from us in 2014 as ever.
Maybe the New Atheists, among whom Pinker is a member, are right that the main source of violence in the world is religion. Yet it is quite obvious from looking at the headlines listed above that religion only unequivocally plays a role in two of them – the Syrian civil war and the Islamic state, and the two are so closely related we should probably count them as just one. US torture of Muslims was driven by nationalism- not religion, and police brutality towards African Americans is no doubt a consequence of a racism baked deep into the structure of American society. The Chinese government was not cracking down on religious but civically motivated protesters in Hong Kong, and the two side battling it out in Ukraine are both predominantly Orthodox Christians.
The argument that religion, even when viewed historically, hasn’t been the primary cause of human violence, is one made by Karen Armstrong in her recent book Fields of Blood. Someone who didn’t read the book, and Richard Dawkins is one critic who apparently hasn’t read it, might think it makes the case that religion is only violent as a proxy for conflicts that are at root political, but that really isn’t Armstrong’s point.
What she reminds those of us who live in secular societies is that before the modern era it isn’t possible to speak of religion as some distinct part of society at all. Religion’s purview was so broad it covered everything from the justification of political power, to the explanation of the cosmos to the regulation of marriage to the way society treated its poor.
Religion spread because the moral universalism it eventually developed sat so well with the universal aspirations of empire that the latter sanctioned and helped establish religion as the bedrock of imperial rule. Yet from the start, religion whether Taoism and Confucianism in China to Hinduism and Buddhism in Asia to Islam in North Africa and the Middle East along with Christian Europe, religion was the way in which the exercise of power or the degree of oppression was criticized and countered. It was religion which challenged the brutality of state violence and motivated the care for the impoverished and disabled . Armstrong also reminds us that the majority of the world is still religious in this comprehensive sense, that secularism is less a higher stage of society than a unique method of approaching the world that emerged in Europe for particularistic reasons, and which was sometimes picked up elsewhere as perceived necessity for technological modernization (as in Turkey and China).
Moving away from Armstrong, it was the secularizing West that invented the language of social and human rights that built on the utopian aspirations of religion, but shed their pessimism that a truly just world without poverty, oppression or war, would have to await the end of earthly history and the beginning of a transcendent era. We should build the perfect world in the here and now.
Yet the problem with human rights as they first appeared in the French Revolution was that they were intimately connected to imperialism. The French “Rights of Man” both made strong claims for universal human rights and were a way to undermine the legitimacy of European autocrats, serving the imperial interests of Napoleonic France. The response to the rights imperialism of the French was nationalism that both democratized politics, but tragically based its legitimacy on defending the rights of one group alone.
Over a century after Napoleon’s defeat both the US and the Soviet Union would claim the inheritance of French revolutionary universalism with the Soviets emphasizing their addressing of the problem of poverty and the inequalities of capitalism, and the US claiming the high ground of political freedom- it was here, as a critique of Soviet oppression, that the modern human rights movement as we would now recognize it emerged.
When the USSR fell in the 1990’s it seemed the world was heading towards the victory of the American version of rights universalism. As Francis Fukuyama would predict in his End of History and the Last Man the entire world was moving towards becoming liberal democracies like the US. It was not to be, and the reasons why both inform the present and give us a glimpse into the future of human rights.
The reason why the secular language of human rights has a good claim to be a universal moral language is not because religion is not a good way to pursue moral aims or because religion is focused on some transcendent “never-never-land” whereas secular human rights has its feet squarely placed in the scientifically supported real world. Rather, the secular character of human rights allows it to be universal because being devoid of religious claims it can be used as a bridge across groups adhering to different faiths, and even can include what is new under the sun- persons adhering to no religious tradition at all.
The problem human rights has had up until this moment is just how deeply it has been tied up with US imperial interests, which leads almost inevitably to those at the receiving end of US power crushing the manifestation of the human rights project in their societies- what China has just done in Hong Kong and how Putin’s Russia both understand and has responded to events in Ukraine – both seeing rights based protests there as Western attempts to weaken their countries.
Like the nationalism that grew out of French rights imperialism, Islamic jihadism became such a potent force in the Middle East partially as a response to Western domination, and we in the West have long been in the strange position that the groups within Middle Eastern societies that share many of our values, such as Egypt today, are also the forces of oppression within those societies.
What those who continue to wish that human rights can provide a global moral language can hope for is that, as the proverb goes, “there is no wind so ill that it does not blow some good”. The good here would be, in exposing so clearly US inadequacy in living up to the standards of human rights, the global movement for these rights will at last become detached from American foreign policy. A human rights that was no longer seen as a clever strategy of US and other Western powers might eventually be given more room to breathe in non-western countries and cultures and over the very long hall bring the standards of justice in the entire world closer to the ideals of the now half century old UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The way this can be accomplished might also address the very valid Marxists critique of the human rights movement- that it deflects the idealistic youth on whom the shape of future society always depends away from the structural problems within their own societies, their efforts instead concentrated on the very real cruelties of dictators and fanatics on the other side of the world and on the fate of countries where their efforts would have little effect unless it served the interest of their Western government.
What 2014 reminded us is what Armstrong pointed out, that every major world religion has long known that every society is in some sense underwritten by structural violence and oppression. The efforts of human rights activists thus need to be ever vigilant in addressing the failure to live up to their ideals at home even as they forge bonds of solidarity and hold out a hand of support to those a world away, who, though they might not speak a common language regarding these rights, and often express this language in religious terms, are nevertheless on the same quest towards building a more just world.