Modernism vs. Postmodernism in Human Rights

October 5, 2016




Modernism in the philosophical tradition began with the advent of the scientific revolution: upon realizing the mechanical nature of the universe, artists, scientists and political theorists alike attempted to systematize the world using what they held to be pure rationality. Eurocentrist thinkers believed they derived through reason the inalienable rights of all human beings, and it was up to those enlightened Westerners to bestow their divine wisdom to the ‘uncivilized savages’ of the new world. The result of this ideology was the ethnocide of countless colonized nations, the exploitation of human beings justified by the condescending values of the most powerful people in the world - namely straight, cis-gendered, Western men of the upper social class. For instance, the French held their culture to be the highest of humanity, which thereby allowed them to justify this imperialism and the fascist marginalization of their colonies.

The fact that Europeans had the ability to colonize other nations was not a result of their inherent superiority, but rather of geographical contingencies that allowed them to economically develop in a way that was conducive to growing empires. Postmodern theorists have eventually come to realize that any perceived ‘universal’ values are actually dependent on cultural and life experiences, and that rationality is biased by the norms, time, and place into which one is born. The modernist notion of universal human rights transcending specific cultural practices has given way for a new, ethically relativist view: respect for the autonomy of other cultures and not to impose your ideals upon them, as their practices are just as valid as one’s own. Some oppressive measures that were justified by the notion of ‘universal human rights’ were halted, which had the liberating effect of emancipating people of races, sexual orientations, and religion that were considered ‘deviant’ from the imperialistic norm. Within the Postmodernist framework, the ‘objective rationality’ of those in power has been decentralized, its immutable truth rejected, which leaves room for marginalized people to express themselves in a meaningful way.

For all of its positive effects, Postmodernism has also left society with a great ambiguity: the possibility of all views being equally valid, and what could be liberating is in actuality leading to anxiety resulting from a lack of concrete truth. If we cannot apply totalizing principles to resolve ambiguity, all one can do is helplessly accept the heterogeneity. In this framework, the United Nations have no legitimacy in protecting human rights, because the varying countries/cultures ought to have the right to self-determine what they consider to be unacceptable actions.

On a smaller scale, this ethical relativity implies that one ought not to impose their ideology upon another individual, because there is no objective ‘reason’ to appeal to beyond subjective experiences. The proposal of moral dictums seems patronizing given that the supposed injurer’s actions have been wholly dictated by their biological makeup, culture, and personal experiences. In this determinist view, one could not reasonably be held responsible for their actions, and there is no universal standard against which to weigh the moral implications. One could justify the penalization of wrongdoings based on what the established laws of a given society are, but those laws would have no justification beyond what were ultimately arbitrary cultural norms becoming legislation.

Is the perpetual uncertainty and subjectivity of Postmodernism the inevitable final stage of human thought, or is this merely another challenge for modernist rationality? How can we achieve a balance between the passionate aspirations of perfection in modernism and the decentralizing analytic implications of Postmodernism? Is there any way of selectively choosing the admirable aspects of each view, synthesizing them into the next stage of human thought? How are we to deal with the immediate problems of human rights issues on one end, and the imposition of oppressive, patronizing ‘universal’ values from the other?

Postmodernism can be used as a critical tool to destabilize what is held as ‘objective reason’ ( as usually espoused by a privileged group of people), but it cannot also justify any actions that refer to a transcendent rationality, even if they are noble gestures. The diametrically opposed options of ethnocide and inaction are pure ideologies, but a compromise between the two must be made for international human rights to be protected in a justified, meaningful way.

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June 30, 2017

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