The History and Practice of Human Rights

The History and Practice of Human Rights (audio feed, video feed, website) is an intriguing new course from UC Berkeley, taught by historian Thomas Laqueur.

This course, which is the product of several years of work by seminar participants, including graduate and undergraduate students, will explore how people came to care for other people suffering in faraway disasters (e.g. the Haitian earthquake) or from oppressive regimes (e.g. Sudan), and how the language and laws of human rights developed.

Laqueur is an engaging lecturer, who speaks with self-deprecating humor and is attentive to student questions. Although one listener at the Podcast Parlor dislikes his style, saying that he is hard to listen to because he speaks with a stammer, I have to say that the stammer doesn’t bother me — I even like it because it makes him sound like he is conversing rather than lecturing.

Still, he does sometimes lapse into academic-speak, using words like “discourse” and “constituative,” but he is usually careful to translate the thoughts into plain English as well.

To give you the flavor of the course, here are some of the main points in lecture 2, entitled Why care: the history of the humanitarian narrative.

  1. Laqueur devotes a lot of time to “The Sentimentalist Thesis” proposed by philosopher Richard Rorty, which argues that we have come to care for strangers, because we are conditioned to do so by sad sentimental stories that we encounter in novels and in paintings of suffering people.
  2. These sentimental stories contributed to an emerging “humanitarian narrative” which influenced the first human rights movement, the antislavery movement in Britain in the 19th century. This narrative rejects the idea that suffering is an inevitable fact of nature, and insists that ordinary citizens can help distant suffering people, by doing things like boycotting sugar which would make slavery in the Carribean less profitable.
  3. Laqueur then goes on to critique this thesis, questioning whether human beings have made real moral progress since the 19th century, given the terrible atrocities of the 20 century.

In my own mind, the thesis is also troubling in that it attributes great influence to narratives and works of art in changing fundamental aspects of the culture, without mentioning other influential factors such as industrialization, religious movements, and so forth. Furthermore, how do we know that the causal chain isn’t the reverse, namely that social change gives rise to new art forms?

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