Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Universality or Transculturality of Human Rights?

There is much talk in Western countries about the need for human rights in China, particularly in relation to the situation in Tibet. Clearly there is no denying that certain abuses of power have occurred and are still occurring in China. But this does not mean that Western notions of value and ethical meaning (practically-speaking this applies to the defense and application of Human Rights in a “non-lieu d’accueil,” in a place where these rights have yet to be welcomed or integrated) should be applied upon others.

We are clearly witnessing a worldwide phenomenon of ethnocentrism in which their world and their social logic are said to be lacking in a concept we clearly have. What they are lacking is liberty. What they need is human rights. These are powerful notions that have already traversed most of the world. They are said to be universals, said to belong to everyone everywhere. These are notions that changed the world. But perhaps these aren’t the only notions in the world worth sharing. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our oh so universal notions of liberty and egality.

Universality or Transculturality? Towards Intercultural Dialogue

Francois Jullien has a thought-provoking piece in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled « Universels, les droits de l’homme ? » (in French) on the universality of Western human rights. Jullien is critical of the defense, argumentation and justification for human rights, which presupposes autonomy and isolation from human relations. The idea goes that we are as (transcendental!) individuals endowed with certain inalienable rights that no group or community (even our family!) can surpass or trample upon. As individuals we are protected from our communities. Often the defense of human rights presents such rights as a simply a “given” (sometimes evoking a transcendental God or Supreme Being) or as an “absolute.”

As Jullien argues, it is through isolation (from family, community and genuine human relations), abstraction (from our biological and animal nature; as a purely distinct individual), and absolutism (in relation to an absolute God or even the absolute individual “person”) that the person is inferred to be a (universal!) possessor of human rights. Even our liberal language speaks about the need for independence as well as emancipation, specifically against French and British hierarchy and dependence from. This idea is clear in liberal drive towards the emancipation from slavery, from all slaveries.

On the other side, there is an opposing logic, that of integration (in the realm of membership through family, through our bodies as corporative or incorporating, ethnic and cosmic). This idea meets well with the communitarian critique of liberalism, which attempts to show how through a dialogical and communal “self” or identity that we are always, already engaged in numerous participative communities.

China and especially India represent a “social logic” centered on integration in our world, while the US and the West largely represent a social logic based around our personal and individual emancipation and liberation from others. Accepting human rights does not necessarily meaning accepting this Western notion of isolation, because against the Western notion of liberty, these “other” social logics search a meaningful life through other notions, particularly that of harmony. This is clearly true of India:

En Inde – on le sait, même de loin, comme un fait massif devant lequel l’intelligence européenne est saisie d’un vacillement irrépressible –, il n’y a pas isolation de l’« homme ». Ni vis-à-vis des animaux : la coupure des êtres humains avec eux n’est qu’insuffisamment pertinente dès lors qu’on admet des renaissances des uns dans les autres et que l’animal possède également le pouvoir de comprendre et de connaître. Ni vis-à-vis du monde : l’adhérence au monde est telle qu’il n’est pas conçu d’ordre naturel dont l’homme se détacherait. Ni vis-à-vis du groupe, enfin : celui-ci, déterminé hiérarchiquement par sa fonction religieuse, est la réalité première, où l’individu ne trouve lui-même qu’un statut minimal – celui, irréductible, qui est cantonné au psycho-physiologique de ce qui souffre ou qui jouit.****

If you don’t understand French, Jullien remarks that in India there is an integrating social logic in which the continual process of karmic resurrection essentially “unites” all living things including animals and humans into a single, unified universe.

Death does not mark the same sort of end as it does in the West. For us, death is the end of our earthly lives. For atheists, this life is all there is. For the religious, our material death often means that the spiritual soul moves towards a different realm, either heaven or hell. In the Indian social logic, death results in a return to another bodily form as animal, human, etc. This essentially means that humans are neither isolated from animals nor from the world.

For Westerners, one of the most central notions of our social logic is that of “liberty.” In contrast to this backdrop of liberty and liberation, one the most central notions of Oriental cultures and their social logic is that of “harmony.”

Clearly, there is a tension between these two social logics, between emancipation and integration. The question we must ask is whether these notions reconcilable?

This question I will leave open for the moment (if you want the details of what Jullien thinks, read his article).

What we should be looking for is not apply our notions upon others, but understanding others and other ways of looking at the world through dialogue. A dialogue can and should be opened, should always be left open, such that the human condition in its entire dignity is defended.

The human condition is both a life of individual happening through our personality and individual histories as well as that of communal or shared being through community and shared his-stories. The tension remains though between these opposing logics of integration and emancipation. In talking about China and the “East,” we cannot simply apply our notions in defense of the dignity of our “liberalizing” human condition but we must engage in dialogue in order to fully embrace the human condition as it is expressed transculturally and transanimality. Universality does not translate out as universally there but as transculturally talked about and integrated in a particular way.

We are both individualistic and communalistic, desperately tied to others and forever seeking our singular pursuit. These are our avoidable tensions to our way of being in the world. These are tensions we mustn’t forget in talking about others, others’ needs—whether materially or conceptually. We mustn’t forget to talk with others and not simply about others.