The Making and Maintenance of Human Rights in an Age of Skepticism

Human Rights Review 18 (3):347-353 (2017)

Abram Trosky
Boston University
The democratic surprises of 2016—Brexit and the Trump phenomenon—fueled by “fake news”, both real and imagined, have come to constitute a centrifugal, nationalistic, even tribal moment in politics. Running counter to the shared postwar narrative of increasing internationalism, these events reignited embers of cultural and moral relativism in academia and public discourse dormant since the culture wars of the 1990s and ‘60s. This counternarrative casts doubt on the value of belief in universal human rights, which many in the humanities and social sciences argue have of late been used as instruments of postcolonial oppression. This book essay introduces three texts written before the dawn of the latest “post-truth” era—The Sociology of Human Rights by Mark Frezzo, The Political Sociology of Human Rights by Kate Nash, and Keeping Faith with Human Rights by Linda Hogan—that address moral skepticism of human rights. Along with these authors, the essay briefly treats human rights’ past and prospects, analogizing it to the waves of feminist thought: in international politics, developing nations first desired a seat at the table and repeal of discriminatory laws and practices; when one-nation-one-vote did not result in equal treatment, the persistence of hierarchy helped developing nations awaken to their own evolving national identities and they wished to be recognized as not only equal, but different and unique. The essay recapitulates and amplifies these authors’ argument that the contemporary challenge for all nations, their citizens, and for the human rights community is to deliberatively decide what values unite these identities beyond simple self-determination and extend them toward the goal of a just global whole. The essay also makes an original contribution in summarizing the initial post-war debate in the United Nations that birthed the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which has been subject to revisionism and perspectivism typical of cultural and moral relativism. It provides some social scientific, historical, and philosophic grounding for serious conversation of the ideas of truths in politics, and universal, transcultural goods and rights that underpin the authority of the international human rights regime in theory and practice. It does so while recognizing the serious epistemological challenges to this universalist conception, chiefly: how a social construct can be both time-bound human creation and continue to be morally binding across space, time, and the accelerated change global citizens of all corners are experiencing, simultaneously yet in their own way.
Keywords Human Rights  Constructivism  International Relations  Sociology  Political Sociology  United Nations  Relativism  Moral Skepticism  Universal  Social Construct
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Reprint years 2017
DOI 10.1007/s12142-017-0458-2
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