Because I was having some technical blogging difficulties last week, I just posted briefly on the Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day. In that post, I urged readers to visit the Tear It Down project website, which is the home of an initiative to tear down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and to call attention to the practice of illegal detentions and (extraordinary) renditions. Many of my fellow bloggers posted about other worthy human rights issues, but new blogger Dr. Trott very interestingly opted instead to ask the "meta-question" in her excellent post entitled "Human Rights Even When They're Wrong?". Dr. Trott's post bemoans the dilemma of intellectuals who want to say "yes" to human rights without saying "yes" to the humanism that philosophically grounds human rights. She speculates that I, on the other hand, want to say yes to both human rights and humanism. She's probably right about that, and she did a fair job of constituting the basis upon which someone (like me) would legitimate his or her "yes, yes." But since I've been called out now by Dr. Trott as someone who holds an ultimately outdated and unsustainable position, let me try to explain how I ended up on this thin ice...
One of the things that I like about the 20th C. philosophical critiques of (largely "Enlightenment") humanism is that they are, as a group, fairly straightforward and they are easily supported by numerous and easily accessible historical facts. The dominant form of Enlightenment humanism was based upon a cadre of "essential" human characteristics and capacities-- freedom, rationality, autonomy, good will, the possession of a language and a culture conducive to deliberation, etc.-- that made possible our collective exit from the "state of nature" and set us apart as unique and special creatures with rights and dignities that not only could be demanded, but also should be protected. As we know, however, the "dark" side of this history is that restrictive interpretations of what counts as essentially "human" allowed for the exclusion of large groups of the world's population from the custody of humanist/humanitarian protections. Throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th C., more and more poeple began to call attention to these aporias of humanisn, where the legitimation of human worth seemed more and more dependent upon the denial of that worth to "suspect" humans (racial and sexual minorites, the mad, the disabled, the abnormal, the criminal, the atavistic, etc.). Inasmuch as putative human beings could be shown to lack certain prerequisite capacities like rationality or autonomy, they were disowned by humanists, resigned to the ranks of animals or infants, colonized and exploited... and, eventually, exterminated.
One response to this history, which seems to evidence a link between humanism and exploitation/opression, is to deduce that the theoretical basis of humanism is rotten to the core and it ought to be rejected outright. This response is really at the heart of Dr. Trott's post, and it can be supported by some of the work of the eminent philosophers (Agamben, Foucault, Derrida) that she references. But, of course, we know that there was and is another response to the historically "bad" practice of humanism-- that is, to try to "correct" or "perfect" the idea. This (second) response is what we see not only in the various civil rights movements of the mid-to-late twentieth century, but also in the post-Holocaust rise of the discourse surrounding "crimes against humanity" and "human rights." If the problem with old, Enlightenment humanism was that its claims to universality were dubious, the discourse of human rights aimed to correct that blindness by extending and reinforcing the idea of a universal humanity. Now, we have the benefit of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has the force of international law and is the most widely translated document ever.
Before I wax historical for too long here, let me return to Dr. Trott's question. She asks, implicitly, "how can we support human rights without supporting the humanism that grounds them?" My short answer is that I don't think you can-- that is, I suspect you need some idea of "the human" in order to justify the battery of protections and privileges that we want to secure for humans. So, I am quite invested, as I have said many times before, in finding some way to resusciatate the idea of humanism, to extract from it (as much as possible) the ideological apparatuses that cause it to tend-toward-violence, to see what can be reconstituted in the idea that might still serve as a basis for the fundamental requirements of decent life that are articulated in the UDHR.
I agree with Agamben, Foucault, Derrida-- and Trott-- that this can be only partially and poorly done by attempting to redefine the human in terms of some "essence." As Agamben claims in The Coming Community and Derrida has argued numerous places, no ethical experience would be possible if human beings had to be some essence or substance. But I think that many people overlook the second part of that claim by Agamben, in which he states:
"This does not mean, however, that humans are not, and do not have to be, something... There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one's own existence as possibility or potentiality..."
As flimsy and insubstantial as it may seem to think of the human in terms of possibility or potentiality, it gives us a way forward, I think, towards determining some other sort of ground upon which we might (tentatively) stand in opposition to violence and exploitation. I would supplement Agamben and Derrida with some of Judith Butler's recent work from Precarious Life as well, in order to draw out the other fundamental (though not "essential") characteristic that humans share in common and which bind us together as a putative community--
Namely, our weakness.
Enlightenment humanism was built on an essentialist idea of the human that aggregated all of our presumed strengths (rationality, autonomy, etc.) and thus made possible the exclusion by the strong of those who did not appear to possess these attributes. If we are interested in legitimating claims for human rights, which I am, we need (in the parlance of Judith Butler) a "concrete and expansive conception of the human" that can serve as an alternative to the old Enlightenment ideal. What we need is a "weak humanism," one that refocuses our attention on a different set of universally shared human attributes/experiences-- like our finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect or pervert our collective endeavors. Those are the weaknesses that constitute our shared humanity (s'il en y a) and those are the weaknesses with which we may be able to leverage a different kind of force.