17 December 2007
In any case...reflections on my first semester:
1. Grad school ain't easy. When they say read, they mean read; and when they say read 300 pgs by next Weds, they don't just mean the first 10 and the last 10. I think I read more pages in the last semester than in my 4 undergrad years combined. And writing...let's just say it had been a while since I'd put pen to paper (ok, no one does that anymore, but you know what I mean) and it took a while to get back into the swing, but it wasn't all that bad...
2. Being a research assistant is interesting...sometimes. But when the prof you're working for buys a new edition of SdB's The Coming of Age that just so happens to be numbered COMPLETELY differently than the previous edition and she's already read and taken notes on half the book...well, finding quotations and writing up page numbers is not the most thrilling thing I can think of. Besides that little charade it was definitely a great learning experience, and I'm glad to take it on again next semester...but w/ a prof who's focus is Ancient?? Parmenides is not quite my forte, but we'll see.
3. The quirky prof who teaches pomo thought...there's a reason his office is actually a closet. He wears a jacket to class and complains that it hot, a hat w/ ear flaps, and busts a sag. Not to mention the key ring that he must have inherited from the janitor who passed away last year... But he is an interesting fellow w/ some thoughts....just don't ask him "What's up?" when he gives you a strange look across the room....his answer: "Is that a trick question?"
4. As an undergrad, everyone feared how the prof would react to their final presentation to the class. As a grad student, everyone fears how the girl who seems to know exactly how to tear every argument, even her own, to shreds might react. The black knee high boots w/ too high heels add to the persona.
5. Reading for fun...hahahahahaha! It took me an entire semester to get through Restaurant at the End of the Universe! It took me one and a half days to read Hitchhikers Guide...hmmm.
Now it's on to semester two featuring:
1) Marx's Critical Social Theory - used to love him, still like some, some's in question...guess we'll see.
2) Current Issues in Theory of Knowledge - a focus on Alvin Plantinga...lotta catching up to do in this one and it hasn't even started.
3) Philosophical Figures: Hume - they say I have to take a modern course...
These three should play nice together...well, except Marx...always gotta be one troublemaker.
01 December 2007
How is one to envision the body of ideas that constitutes international human rights in terms of both the universality of human rights and the particularity, or plurality, of various cultures, religions, nations and tribes vying for their right to self-determination?
Not more than twenty-five yards from the door to my office is the entrance to the Embassy of Pakistan – Interest Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This office handles all visa, passport, student, and cultural affairs for Iranian citizens residing in the
Daily, I ponder the ritual of these women. Such a stark contrast exists between the lives they live, and those which they must portray in front of their own government officials. How is one to understand this divide? This, admittedly, is a mild form of the rift between what a Westerner would consider the universal human right to self-expression in dress and what an Islamic state would consider its particular right to cultural self-determination, but it is a ready example of a much deeper issue that I would like to explore – the gap between the ideal of universal human rights and the ideal of cultural diversity.
“Pluralism envisions a state that allows a thousand flowers to bloom (180).” These words of Coomaraswamy describe the vision of a heterogeneous society in which many traditions are allowed to flourish side by side with respect for one another’s differences like the flowers of a colorful garden. The pluralism, though, that is revealed in such a garden at once and always conceals. Hidden within this ideal of diversity of traditions is the hegemony of each culture which consumes the pluralism of individuals within itself.
Another formulation from Coomaraswamy: “If all women are equal, then why do Muslim women have different rights from Hindu women, or Malay women from Chinese women (180)?” Defining human rights contingently in relation to cultural norms seems inherently problematic if one is to call them human rights at all. The term human, though not historically inclusive, in this iteration seems an attempt at a radical inclusiveness, an attempt to define us all as having this one trait in common – our humanness. The term “human rights” then seeks to endow each of us in our humanness with some certain set of rights that on the basis of our humanness cannot be denied. It seems inherently a universal concept.
Of these various rights, though, a few that seem near the pinnacle are that right of self-determination, that right of religious freedom (but freedom to practice, freedom to cede one’s freedoms to it? freedom here seems already problematic), and that right of a community to band together and define itself as a culture. And should not the culture or the religion that rises as a result of these rights be respected by those outside of it? It seems to follow. But if this culture or this religion demands that members forgo certain of their rights as necessary to the rite of membership, and say that certain of these forgone rights are of the nature of what have been called “human rights,” then does the community outside have a cause to protest? Do the human rights of the individual or the rights of the culture or religion to which the individual originally ceded their rights take precedent here?
While the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of states, regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This ambiguous declaration leaves one still with the lingering question of universality or particularity. Particular histories “must be borne in mind” as the state carries out its duty to “promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” What does this “borne in mind” mean? Should the state punish murder unless it is in the form of religious ritual? How far does the particular, the peculiar, extend into the universal? How much of the relative is submitted to the universality of human rights? This declaration seems to be utterly empty of practicable meaning.
Women’s rights groups have thought out other solutions to this dilemma through a discussion of consent. Coomaraswamy writes: “Women and men should be given the right to choose which law should govern their private lives. If they wish to be governed by Muslim law, that is their prerogative; but if they wish to be guided by general secular law, that should also be a right granted to the individual (181).” This voluntarism is problematic in a couple of ways. At the same time as one recognizes the right of a religion to determine itself, one denies the very same right to a state. At what point is this line drawn? Should a village traditionally of a certain culture that precludes certain rights of the individual be asked to also find room within it for those individuals who would not submit to the cession of those rights? If the individual should decide she would prefer the secular law to govern her actions, must she move from the village? From the state? Does this not place undue burden on the individual if she should prefer a different life than that allowed by the culture, the religion, the village, the state?
Even without this undue burden, even if the village must make room for the individual, there is the question of what kind of choice really exists. Do not traditions by their very nature hold on to individuals? To ask it another way, is it not the case that one is indoctrinated into a tradition, a culture, a religion, in such a way that makes it, in many cases, extremely difficult to leave, even if the illusion of this freedom exists at the surface? The consent to be governed in a way that would preclude one’s human rights seems to be an impossible consent to withhold in many situations, and such a system appears to leave unanswered the question of where space must be made for the individual who chooses to live outside of the dominant group.
Why not whole-hearted universality? Born of the Enlightenment, universal human rights hold within them an inherent bias. It is claimed by the
It seems that the particular of the Western idea of human rights is one that is inherently subject to change via the re-iteration of a certain type of dialog. The constant reverberation of reasoned and rational dialog that is inherent to the Western modern epistemology brings about a constant re-evaluation and revaluation of human rights. The ideas and ideals contained within the term are continually open to re-examination. New ideas and ideals are packaged within the borders of the term as old definitions are left by way. Open, honest, and rational dialog, then, seems of utmost importance in the debate. The particular of Western (Enlightenment) human rights may not be universal, but it opens itself up to the type of dynamic change that allows it to continually grow in that direction.
Does this lead, then, to a universal human rights that consumes the particulars, the relative, of local cultures? It seems not to be the case. To say that it is assumes local customs, culture, religions, and the like to be static, un-evolving constructions. All systems are subject to change, to evolution. There is an incessant interplay between world cultures that unfolds at a feverish pace today. We are not confined to our villages, but, instead, it seems more the cases that the world is our village. To say that cultures around the world are becoming Westernized is to miss the dialog that is happening. Local cultures are not now the same as they were a hundred years ago and they will not be a hundred years hence what they are today. The same can be said of human rights.
The women down the hall have stepped outside of their particular culture and into the realm of the particularly Western iteration of human rights. They still must don the cloak of their culture for certain of their interactions. Only a continuing dialog, a critical dialog, will discover what balance between those stark contrasts will unfold tomorrow and twenty years from tomorrow. We, today, are obligated to keep alive that very dialog.