A real difficulty for anyone engaged in peace-building, justice-building, or simply trying to do good is the over-abundance of bad news. There is a staggering shortage of silver linings in the news. And many of the potentially positive stories in the news are vastly overshadowed by negative stories, or the negative aspects of the story seem to resonate more deeply than the positive ones.
This is true in our normal, everyday lives, as much as it is true on a global, international scale. Particularly with respect to Human Rights. That’s a major problem for someone that’s trying to do work like I am. The problem isn’t the scope of the problems, or even the nature of the problems. The problem is cynicism – that mindset that settles in like dust bunnies into corners and cracks. There are aspects of it that are actually quite humorous (see this blog, this blog, and this blog – but, if you read between the lines, it’s not cynicism so much as satire), but overall it is a paralyzing force. You’ve heard of ‘the wall’ for long-distance runners, and what happens to them when they hit it? Cynicism is that wall for Peace & Human Rights Advocates. It’s when all the wind leaves the sails, and the work pays bills, rather than makes an impact.
So, how do you move forward? Are random quotes from leaders (“be the change you want to see…”) really going to sustainably inspire you to make the world a better place? I think not.
Could you really just will yourself to be blind to all the bad news, and keep moving forward, with blind hope? I wouldn’t suggest that. Mostly because there is often a lot to learn from some of the failures and mistakes of the past.
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple question, how are you going to maintain action?
The best exposition on this, that I’ve read, is by Peter Rosenblum (1). He wrote that a good purpose for teaching human rights is to train students to become ‘ambivalent activists’ – to be aware of the multiple consequences of human rights work (good, bad, and otherwise), to understand that the field of Human Rights is not simply an ideology that can be fervently supported or destructively criticized, but that it is a tool for advocacy. That rings true to me. At times, I’ve felt like a Human Rights charlatan, because I’m not particularly adamant about ‘critical’ human rights issues. But, Rosenblum seems to suggest that this is ok, that being a Lawyer, and having a lawyerly response to critical issues in Human Rights (“it depends”) is not only OK, but an important aspect of shaping advocacy and building the human rights field up in a positive, informed way.
For example, if you’re asked the question: “Is democracy necessary for peaceful post-conflict transitions?” How would you answer that? Well, to a person, the academics I heard answer that questions said, “yes/absolutely/without question…but…”. It’s the ‘but’ that carries the force of the Human Rights discourse forward. Saying that, yes, Democracy is necessary is simply a normative response to align oneself to the ‘Human Rights Tribe’. It’s the discussion that follows the ‘but’ where the real human rights work is done. And I believe that’s critical – naively stating that the only way to get lasting peace is through setting up a democracy fundamentally misunderstands the complex, context-specific circumstances in a post-conflict state. And it puts the concept of ‘Democracy’ in a neat little box, where it can be crushed by critics when it doesn’t work in places like Zimbabwe, or blindingly championed in places it does (Chile).
Human Rights do not properly fall into absolutes. They haven’t been around long enough for there to be evidence to back up any of the ‘absolutes’. Instead, the development of Human Rights presents to the would-be Human Rights Advocate a broad, largely untapped landscape of opportunities to attempt to help individuals, groups, and communities. Human rights are a tool. The starting point is the desire to help people. The exciting part is that there are a lot of tools at your disposal, and where there are gaps, you can create more human rights tools.
Or, expressed much more eloquently by Rosenblum:
“The human rights field is one of normative and strategic entrepreneurs, who use human rights as a tool of social change, of individual emancipation. They mine the discourses that are made possible by the human rights texts and, like advocates in any field, they push arguments beyond established boundaries. But unlike most other legal disciplines, human rights has no ultimate arbiter. Hence, diversity is likely to remain an essential element of the field for the foreseeable future.”
In order to fight cynicism, you have to get past ‘what are Human Rights?’, and look to ‘what are Human Rights for?’ It’s a simple, but critical difference.
(1) Rosenblum, (2002) “Teaching Human Rights: Ambivalent Activism, Multiple Discourses, and Lingering Dilemmas” in the Harvard Human Rights Journal.
(Photo courtesy of Conan O’Brien, borrowed via the internet and ‘Edwin Himself’)