Today it is entirely natural to think that every person in the world is endowed with certain rights, ones that transcend foreignness and apply absolutely universally. We call these “human rights,” and we take them entirely for granted: We believe earnestly that everyone is indiscriminately entitled to them at birth, that we must safeguard them at almost all costs, and that anyone who violates them must be put to justice. Such a line of thinking is so dominant—perhaps even culturally hegemonic, though in a good way, if that is possible—that we may even tend to assume that this has always been true, that is, everyone has always had such rights, that these rights always have and always will transcend time and space. Perhaps we must remind ourselves that this isn’t exactly true. These rights are still very new—and we must therefore take extra caution to care for them and safeguard them while they are still growing and developing.
In her provocative and seminal text Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt argues that human rights had to be, well, invented. The crux of Hunt’s argument about the origins of human rights is that they “could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in fundamental fashion.” In other words, humans haven’t always thought of each other as equals, and they had to learn to do so at a specific point in history. We like to think of the most horrifying parts of human history, things like slavery or colonialism, as people doing ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ things—which they unquestionably were—but we tend to whitewash the fact that notions of natural inequality and even slavery are embedded in Western tradition all the way back to Aristotle, who famously claimed that some people were just innately suited to be slaves. It isn’t inherently part of human nature, Hunt implies, to imagine other beings as the same or equal.
If all this is true (and, granted, it might not be, but that’s for each of us to decide on her own), how did we learn to start thinking of each other as equals with innate human rights? Hunt argues that this only occurred in the 18th century as the consequence of a “sentimental revolution” in Europe. She looks specifically at novels, saying that the development and proliferation of a specific genre of books that centred on the psychology of an (often female) protagonist led people to read and empathize with others, even strangers, in ways they could not have before. This led to a bevy of changes in popular European society. Historical records show that individual, regular people became more polite and less violent, or in a word, what we would call more “civilized.” As these changes occurred, the human body itself came to be imagined in a new way, as something sacred and as something that should be protected from harm. All these cultural changes were necessary, Hunt claims, for a new conception of equality and human rights to emerge with the French Revolution. As we all now, it then took a long time for ideas of equality and fraternity to expand beyond its racist origins and envelop all people regardless of the color of their skin.
That all this may be debatable is a point worth reiteration. Scholars disagree with Hunt on her claims: Drawing causation between reading novels and inventing human rights is a long shot, some may argue, and the chronology that Hunt lays out for the origins may be incorrect, others may insist. (I happen also to disagree with much of what Hunt says, but that is a separate discussion.)
What seems beyond dispute in Hunt’s argument, however, is that human rights aren’t something that have simply always been. Believing that other people are equal to us, that they have an identical human essence that entitles them to equal rights, is something people had to work on. The development of human rights necessarily had to be concomitant with the erosion of notions of foreignness. And all this, according to Hunt, occurred very recently. People haven’t always been thinking in terms of universal human rights. It’s a strictly modern phenomenon.
That makes sense, I think. We may have been able to imagine our neighbors as our equals in the past, but in order to conceive of an idea of human rights that is truly universal, or in order to think of something that transcends boundaries and is true regardless of any ostensible ‘foreignness,’ we needed to have a way to imagine or think about universality in the first place. We can only imagine this universality as a result of modern things like the telephone or the newspaper or now the Internet, which remind us all on a daily basis that we live not simply in a small town or city but in a large world with billions of people.
The ultimate moral of this for abolishing foreignness is that we must continually bear in mind how new and how precious the project of universal human rights and its concomitant abolition of foreignness is. This is a new, innovative project in human history, and if we want it to succeed, we need treat it like the young baby that it is. It is bound to stumble and fall as it works toward maturity, but when it stumbles and falls, we need to give it the resources and opportunities it needs to get back on its feet. And we should treat it with care and love and hope, excited to have the opportunity to know it in these, its earliest years.