The humanities, human rights, and the: Comparative imagination

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Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: a Danish newspaper publishes satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, setting off protests, riots, and heated debates about the tensions between "freedom of expression" and respect for cultural difference (see "Muhammad Cartoon Row"). Those who defend the cartoons claim that they were meant to spark debate and reflection. What is wrong in that, they ask? Those who criticize them argue, in contrast, that the cartoons were degrading depictions of a community that already feels embattled both in Europe and globally and that the cartoons demonstrate profound disrespect for Islamic law that prohibits images of the Prophet. It is obvious, they assert, that these cartoons were not meant to spark debate, but rather that they were meant to rekindle stereotypes and possibly even provoke the type of violence that ensued, thereby sanctioning views that depict a fundamental divide between Islam and "the West." Critics draw parallels between these cartoons and anti-Semitic ones published in publications such as Der Stürmer prior to the rise of Hitler. Defenders of the cartoons describe the Danish journalists as champions of free thought. Days later, a second round of photographs of the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib is released, sparking further violence (see "The Abu Ghraib Files"). This time, however, it is generally agreed that the photos are atrocious. What is not agreed upon, however, is who is responsible for the images and for the acts they portray. Some suggest that the photos are representative of a profound disdain for fellow human beings, that the photos are indicative of the need for universal protections on human rights. Others suggest that the photos are simply the product of a few "bad eggs" in the US military and they deny that there has been a systematic dehumanization of Iraqi prisoners. A few weeks later David Irving, a famous Holocaust denier who has published several books on the matter, is sent to jail in Austria (see "David Irving"). His defenders rail that his imprisonment is a blow to free speech and to Irving's right to be skeptical of official history. Those pleased by the verdict claim that his imprisonment demonstrates that the need to remember the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust outweighs the need for freedom of expression. Many intellectuals, including the scholar who Irving sued for libel, express dismay at the outcome of the trial. They fear that it will simply give Irving more attention and they argue that the means to challenging offensive ideas should not be imprisonment, but rather reasoned debate. One central thread runs throughout these events: the idea that cultural representation- books, cartoons, photos, and so on-is a battleground through which communities define themselves and their relationship to others. Cultural representations are equally the means by which we depict common humanity and the means by which we divide ourselves. Peace and war, compassion and hate, solidarity and factionalism all depend on cultural products. And it is via our relationship to these cultural forms, to their representative media and their institutions of communication, to their embedded political assumptions and their deceptive distractions, to their visions of apocalypse and their promises of hope, that we measure our ability to critically engage with the world in which we live. When we fail to see the connections between the events described above, we lose our ability to take seriously the power that cultural forms have in shaping the narrative structures and the ideological maps that influence public and private views of global politics and social relations. Failing to link these events, then, heralds a failure to think of cultural representations as a process, as the beginning of a dialogue, and as an opportunity to encourage critical knowledge and ethical engagement. In each of the cases described above, social responses to cultural representation led to violent material consequences. This means that it is necessary to not only recognize the ways that these events are linked, but also to imagine how to translate our critical responses to them into social actions that reject the logic of violence, radical othering, and war. What if an international taskforce were created to examine the intersections between these events? What if the goal of the taskforce were to promote a global initiative dedicated to fostering a human rights platform on the relationship between cultural representation and world peace? Who would be on the taskforce? There would need to be participation by experts in cultural policy and human rights activism together with writers and artists. Perhaps members would come from the United Nations or Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Maybe there would be an ex-US president or an Irish musician or a Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize winner. But the crucial question I ask you to consider is whether such a taskforce would logically include you-a scholar of the humanities skilled in cultural studies. And, I wonder, if you were invited, would you go, or would you dismiss the whole project as stemming from an oppressive Enlightenment notion of common humanity? Would you balk at the idea of spending time sitting in a room with policy wonks, diplomats, and politicians whose understanding of culture was woefully unsophisticated? And, would they listen to theories of interpellated subjects, fragmented identities, and performativity? Or would they simply shake their heads at the "fuzzy thinking" of the humanities and tune you out? The seeming absurdity or implausibility at the mere suggestion of such collaboration indicates the extent to which these worlds have become drastically divided. What does it mean if we can not even imagine taking part in such a project? Despite repeated calls in recent humanities scholarship for public intellectuals there has been relatively little progress made in taking our research out of the academy. Certainly there are notable exceptions to this divide, evidenced, in particular, by the voices of some of the present volume's contributors such as Ariel Dorfman, Henry A. Giroux, Alicia Partnoy, and Howard Zinn (see McClennen and Morello). The fact is, however, that these voices are the exception that proves the rule. The question remains: How did we get to this impasse and how can we move through it? It is ironic that so much humanities research is dedicated to understanding the intersections between voice and silence, knowledge and power, narration and identity, and yet so little work has been done to find ways to build lines of communication between the humanities and the human rights community of activists, lawyers, politicians, and policy specialists. Anne Cubilié notes that "the gap between critical theorists and practitioners and grassroots political organizers . . . seems as wide as ever, if not wider" (xi). Research on trauma, on the ties between state violence and cultural representation, on language and oppression, on torture and truth, on diaspora and identity forms a major, if not central, core of humanist work, but those insights seem to rarely inform public debates on human rights policy. Domna Stanton explains that the separation of human rights discourse and the humanities, despite their overlapping interests and shared intellectual traditions, has led academic work on human rights to be dominated by departments of international relations, public policy, political science, and the law. In a call for heightened collaboration between the humanities and human rights she writes: "Humanists can meaningfully bring our modes of analysis and interpretation to bear on human rights discourse and in turn our teaching and research can become richer, more nuanced and more relevant by engaging with the ethical and philosophical imperatives of human rights" (Newsletter 3). As the examples I describe in opening this essay show, however, the consequences of this divide go beyond a loss of sophistication in humanist analysis and in human rights discourse. There is much more at stake. I argue that understanding the intersections between cultural forms, social politics, and human rights depends on humanist perspectives attentive to the relationship between storytelling and identity, mass culture and ideology, text and audience, critical thinking and engaged citizenship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRepresenting Humanity in an Age of Terror
PublisherPurdue University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781557535689
StatePublished - 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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