Re: human rights etc. . . bibnotes

Eve Pinsker (U56728@UICVM.BITNET)
Sat, 31 Dec 1994 10:54:34 CST

Fry that he needed to look more critically at his own assumptions about
what an individual is, what the relationship between an individual or person &
a collective is or should be, and place those assumptions in the context of
assumptions and logicial arguments that other humans have made about these
things in other times and places, before going on to the political arguments
about how we should or can organize ourselves as human collectivities, at the
international level or levels below that. Fry did not show much understanding
of what was asked of him, nor much awareness that there is a large body of
literature(s) written by other people who have attempted to grapple with such
questions, going back thousands of years not only in European/Mediterranean
philosophical writings but those of other literate cultural traditions as well
(e.g., India, China). Not that anyone attempting to grapple with issues of
individual vs. collective rights and the assumptions underlying discussions
thereof should or can read everything, but reading at least some recent work
by contemporary authors who are cognizant of the historical record of human
thinking about this, and place their own contributions in that larger
historical and multicultural context, would help. I am thinking of Louis
Dumont's work on hierarchical vs. individualist ideologies, for instance, cf.
his _Homo Hierarchicus_, _From Mandeville to Marx_, and especially his
_Essays on Individualism_.
But I would particularly recommend to all of you (it's relevant to the
gender discussion as well as to the earlier part of the thread) Charles
Taylor's essay "Multiculturalism and 'the Politics of Recognition'", published
as a small book with commentaries by others, Princeton University Press 1992.
Charles Taylor is a political theorist by discipline, but he thinks like a
good cultural anthropologist. In this essay, he discusses the "discourse of
recognition and identity" (relevant to the U.S. and Canada as well as
transnational politics; Taylor's Canadian & discusses Meech Lake and Quebec in
part of the essay) that's entered into contemporary political discussions:
"The thesis is, that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its
absence, often by the _mis_recognition of others, and so a person or group of p
eople can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around
them mirror back to them a conflicting or demeaning or contemptible picture of
themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form
of oppression. . . .(p.25)" Taylor does NOT take this thesis as a given, he
takes it as a statement of assumptions underlying current discourse, and notes
that this way of looking at things is recent in our own society: "For it was
not always so, and our ancestors of more than a couple of centuries ago would
have stared at us uncomprehendingly if we had used these terms in their current
sense. How did we get started on this?" (p.26) He answers his own question
by going back to the transition from the medieval notion of "honor" as tied to
inequalities to the modern notion of "dignity" and individual equality, and
looks at differing conceptions of the relationships between equality,
freedom, and common purpose or collective homogeneity he finds epitomized by
the differences between Rousseau and Kant. In contemporary discourse, Taylor
finds differing versions of a "liberalism of equal rights," one relatively
inhospitable to cultural difference and suspicious of collective goals, but on
the other hand there are other models of liberal society that call for the
"invariant defense of _certain_ rights. .but. . . they are willing to weigh the
importance of certain forms of uniform treatment against the importance of
cultural survival, and opt sometimes in favor of the latter. . ."(p. 61). The
beauty of Taylor's essay is not in his advocation of the latter as opposed to
the former, but in the way that he uncovers the assumptions behind what
Bourdieu would call the "field" of political rights and actions in regard to
them -- the connection to ideas about "identity," "authenticity," etc. and why
our conceptions of the individual and the collective lead us to see these
things as relevant. I can't do justice to his argument here, you should read t
he essay. A plus for cultural anthropologists is that his political and
epistemological analysis gives us a defensible place from which to work and
speak (unlike some anthropologists who deconstruct themselves out of
existence). I can't resist quoting Taylor's last paragraph here, he's
discussing the presumption of "equal respect" to all cultures:

"There is perhaps after all a moral issue here. We only need a sense of our
own limited part in the whole human story to accept the presumption. It is
only arrogance, or some analogous moral failing, that can deprive us of this.
But what the presumption requires of us is not peremptory and inauthentic
judgements of equal value, but a willingness to be open to comparative cultural
study of the kind that must displace our horizons in the resulting fusions.
[This is an allusion to Gadamer's notion of "fusion of horizons" from _Truth
and Method_ that Taylor refers to earlier, on p. 67]
What it requires above all is an admission that we are very far away from that
ultimate horizon from which the relative worth of different cultures might
be evident. This would mean breaking with an illusion that still holds many
'multiculturalists' -- as well as their most bitter opponents -- in its grip."
(Taylor, p. 73).