Why Human Rights needs the Humanities

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Contrary to popular assumption, the humanities do not simply luxuriate in ambiguity: they wrestle with it daily.”  


Between 1947 and 1948, as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was being drafted, a special committee was set up by UNESCO (the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural organisation) to advise on the theoretical bases of human rights. Philosophers were gathered; a survey was sent out to key thinkers and influencers across the world, including Mahatma Gandhi (not a fan of human rights as it turned out); a report was written.

One of the philosophers was a Chicago University professor, named Richard McKeon. In an essay published in 1948, the year the UDHR was launched, McKeon argued that you need three things to make human rights work: 1. Clarity – we need to know exactly which human rights are being protected; 2. Relevance to people’s social, economic and cultural conditions – human rights have to seem plausible, realisable, and meaningful; and 3. Implementation – there has to be a will on behalf of governments, or a demand on behalf of citizens and activists, to put human rights to work.

We can argue about these conditions, and many have, but so far so sensible. McKeon’s conclusion perhaps was more unusual. The key condition for human rights, he argued, was ambiguity.

This was a bit of pragmatism. We’re never going to come up with one global theory of human rights; states are never going to administer rights in the same way; and even campaigners and activists can often campaign for human rights whilst having different, and sometimes opposing, political and ideological principles. Rather than give up on human rights because they seemed too slippery, McKeon instead suggested that what might make human rights work was the precisely the fact that they do not mean the same things to all people at all times.

It is no coincidence that ambiguity is also the core business of the humanities. McKeon understood this very well; he was a philosopher of rhetoric whose students included the literary critic Wayne Booth, the philosopher Richard Rorty, and the writer Susan Sontag. Tolerating, disentangling, and above all learning from ambiguity are the foundational skills of a humanities education. And for good reason: to dwell within the shadows of meaning is to get the full measure of the work of being human in a complex, competitive, and often inhuman world.

Every writer knows the experience of expressing something ambiguously only to later realise that what looked like a contradiction was part of the process of creating something new. This is why historical leaps in the bid for human rights have often come with innovations of form, genre, and artistic expression. Had Jefferson simply repeated ‘Get Independence Done’ ad nauseum rather than crafting a story about a bad father-king, things might have worked out differently. Had Frederick Douglass not forged a new genre that defined modern freedom in opposition to colonial slavery in his 1845 memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave, the testimonial form might have ended up merely being supplicatory rather than emancipatory. Had George Orwell not imagined a man restless enough to steal a pen and begin to write down his own thoughts in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the totalitarian mind might have remained a theoretical abstraction. And so on.

These writers understood that to put new ways of being human into the world they needed to create new ways of making the world look less certain than it seemed. Literature, wrote Jean Paul Sartre in 1946, ‘consists in moving immediate, unreflected, perhaps ignored actions on the plane of reflection and objectivity.’ Literature often creates ambiguity precisely to provoke judgement. This is why many will also say that literary and artistic ambiguity is essentially democratic: readers, viewers and listeners have to interpret apparent contradictions, share in the making of meaning that is essential not just to art, but also to our social and political lives.

Contrary to popular assumption, the humanities do not simply luxuriate in ambiguity: they wrestle with it daily. Historians and anthropologists specialise in showing how what appears ambiguous actually makes sense once it is put in the correct context; how what looks like contradiction from a particular time and place is in fact nothing of the sort once you do the work. This too is a kind of human rights work and is why, for example, the work of decolonisation is currently at the core of humanities endeavour. Batting opinions about is the stock and trade of politicians and journalism, but for scholars making sense of the grey zones of human history and morality takes meticulous and painstaking work.  “Look, here are the list of names, the minutes, the memos of command, the incriminating texts, the profits paid, the  photographs taken from every different angle. This was the reality. There’s nothing ambiguous about it.”

Disambiguation, as any moral philosopher will tell you, is vital to good decision making. But we cannot get to moral clarity without tarrying with ambiguity first. So long as there is human plurality, difference, complexity, there is no short cut to designing a policy for a better world, as McKeon and his contemporaries understood very well seventy two years ago.

With these thoughts in mind, we should give more serious attention to the fact that today attacks on the very idea of human rights have come at exactly the same time as the humanities are being openly devalued. How is a humanities education useful? ask governmental and educational accountants. What might be the moral and democratic costs of turning the humanities into an elite specialism is less often asked.

Elsewhere as in Victor Orbán’s Hungary, the double assault is explicit: humanities courses have been targeted and closed as part of an explicit propaganda war against human rights. At their most extreme, the so-called culture wars are characterised by an intolerance of ambiguity which is probably, at root, an intolerance of human plurality itself.

Back in 1948 the drafters, thinkers, policy makers and activists working for human rights understood all too well where intolerance for the ambiguities of collective human existence could end. Faced with a deadly plague, gross and unsustainable levels of inequality, the climate catastrophe and a new epoch of human migration, we cannot afford to make that mistake again. So long as we think human rights is a project worth continuing with, we’re going to need the humanities.

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s new collection of essays Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights is now published with Oxford University Press. She will be talking about the humanities and human rights with Lisa Appignanesi, Sunny Singh and Thomas Keenan, on December 3rd which is organised by the University of Birmingham. 

You can also listen to Lyndsey talk with the human rights barrister, Adam Wagner. A member of Doughty Street Chambers, visiting Professor of Law at Goldsmiths, Wagner was the founder of the human rights information organisation, RightsInfo, now operating as Each Other. In this conversation, recorded as part of School of Law’s innovative ‘Language and Law’ course, they discuss why telling the story of human rights matters so much today. The password to listen to this discussion is: A7d$P%1!