Novel ap­proach

De­vel­op­ing em­pa­thy through lit­er­a­ture

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

The Novel of Hu­man Rights By James Dawes Har­vard Univer­sity Press 240pp, £21.95

ISBN 9780674986442 Pub­lished 28 Septem­ber 2018

Hu­man rights have al­ways been se­lec­tive and im­per­fect, but at the mo­ment there is an un­abashed bru­tal­ity at work in Europe and the United States that we haven’t seen since the UN proudly de­clared a new age of Uni­ver­sal Hu­man Rights 70 years ago this De­cem­ber. Western politi­cians re­dis­cov­ered an ap­petite for play­ing fast and loose with hu­man rights and in­ter­na­tional law dur­ing the War on Ter­ror. Fif­teen years on, it’s not just the bad guys we’re pre­pared to lock up and harm. Now it is ap­par­ently also fine to leave refugees and mi­grants to lan­guish in squalid camps, im­prison their chil­dren and abrade ba­sic hu­man rights with de­lib­er­ately hos­tile bu­reau­cratic sys­tems.

For many in the US, this has felt like a par­tic­u­larly ig­no­min­ious fall from mo­ral grace. From Thomas Jefferson and the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence through to Franklin Roo­sevelt’s Four Free­doms in 1941, and Eleanor Roo­sevelt’s key role in draft­ing the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights in 1948, the US can claim a long and dis­tin­guished his­tory in rights talk, even as it has of­ten been slower to walk the rights walk when it comes to hold­ing it­self as ac­count­able as other pow­ers.

It was not un­til the 1970s that the US recog­nised the ben­e­fits of own­ing a pow­er­ful mo­ral-po­lit­i­cal and in­ter­na­tional lan­guage for do­ing good (and oth­er­wise) in the world, as his­to­rian Sa­muel Moyn ar­gued in his myth-bust­ing The Last Utopia: Hu­man Rights in His­tory (2010). Jimmy Carter com­mit­ted the US to hu­man rights in his 1977 in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, the same year as Amnesty In­ter­na­tional won the No­bel Peace Prize. Yet even be­fore Guan­tá­namo and the Tor­ture Memos, the con­tra­dic­tions of the US’ com­mit­ment to hu­man rights were plain to see. One of the things hu­man rights does best is em­bar­rass power with the truth. Hu­man rights ac­tivists and writ­ers in the US have al­ways wanted more jus­tice than their politi­cians have been pre­pared to con­cede. The last Utopia may now be fa­tally dam­aged, but it is not quite dead.

In his new book, James Dawes ar­gues per­sua­sively that one of the places we might still find vi­brant and crit­i­cal hu­man rights is in the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can novel. In fact, the “Amer­i­can novel of hu­man rights” is now a genre of its own. This is not per­haps such a sur­pris­ing claim. When hu­man rights are as dis­missed and re­viled as they are cur­rently, the Amer­i­can novel might in­deed be one of their last forms. Like binge-watch­ing old episodes of West Wing, the novel of hu­man rights at least re­minds us of the bet­ter an­gels of Amer­ica’s na­ture.

The nov­els Dawes is drawn to are scep­ti­cal and prag­matic, ill at ease with them­selves, the US and, in­deed, hu­man rights. Those such as Nathan Eng­lan­der’s The Min­istry of Special Cases (2007), Fran­cisco Gold­man’s The Long Night of White Chick­ens (1992) and Chris Abani’s The Se­cret His­tory of Las Ve­gas (2014) are any­thing but eth­i­cal balms. At the heart of this book, then, is a proper mo­ral and po­lit­i­cal ques­tion for our times: if we can learn to read the novel of hu­man rights, can we learn to do hu­man rights bet­ter, too?

Prob­a­bly not, but the book does have some im­por­tant things to say about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the hu­man­i­ties and hu­man rights, morals and pol­i­tics, in our presently grim sit­u­a­tion.

The con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can novel of hu­man rights emerges as a com­plex re­frac­tion of ide­al­ism and self-abase­ment, ad­vo­cacy and cri­tique, right­eous­ness and

The best sto­ries are those that ask us to con­front what is most dif­fi­cult in the world, not sim­ply to em­pathise with those who are its vic­tims

dis­may. Pretty much, one might say, like the hu­man rights move­ment it­self. Yet, in mak­ing a case for the com­plex­ity of this new genre of novel, Dawes also demon­strates a re­turned mo­ral pur­pose for lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. He is a pa­tient and care­ful close reader, alert to para­dox, ex­cel­lent at tak­ing the slow path to mo­ral irony. Lit­er­ary crit­ics have long loved am­bi­gu­ity and dif­fi­culty. In the novel of hu­man rights, am­bi­gu­i­ties and im­passes are ways of ask­ing hard and timely ques­tions.

Jus­tice, for ex­am­ple, is a con­cept ob­vi­ously cen­tral to hu­man rights. It can mean the fair dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth and op­por­tu­nity or, more nar­rowly, find­ing a form of clo­sure in the wake of atroc­ity. In the Amer­i­can novel of hu­man rights, it is the lat­ter “jus­tice plot” that pre­vails. This is

not sur­pris­ing given the US’ his­tor­i­cal re­luc­tance to see hu­man rights as also be­ing eco­nomic and so­cial rights. But Dawes shows how this nar­rower un­der­stand­ing of jus­tice can­not es­cape dif­fi­cult ques­tions about power and priv­i­lege: “How do you act for jus­tice in a spe­cific place when your right to claim au­thor­ity in that place is pre­cisely what is at ques­tion? How do you act out of care for oth­ers when your well-in­ten­tioned in­ter­ven­tions in­volves [ sic] not only al­tru­ism but also the pro­jec­tion of your own anx­i­eties, con­flicts, and needs onto the other?”

These are pre­cisely the ques­tions that need ask­ing of a hu­man rights project that is widely con­demned in the rest of the world for hid­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal swag­ger in the lan­guage of hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism, reck­less in­ter­ven­tion­ism and a fre­quently cat­a­strophic mo­ral nar­cis­sism. Dawes gets his nov­els to ask these ques­tions for him, even if that means some­times be­ing hard on the au­thors’ aes­thetic and mo­ral pur­poses.

The most com­mon claim made about the value of the arts to hu­man rights is that, be­cause they teach us em­pa­thy, they en­cour­age a more open and char­i­ta­ble view of other peo­ple. Dawes gen­tly pulls us in an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. His fi­nal chap­ter is a keen anal­y­sis of per­pe­tra­tors in nov­els of hu­man rights. He is not in­ter­ested in em­pathis­ing with per­pe­tra­tors, but he is com­mit­ted to un­der­stand­ing how it is that evil hap­pens in the world. His last book, Evil Men (2013), was a bril­liant anal­y­sis based on in­ter­views with Ja­panese war crim­i­nals who com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties in the Sino-Ja­panese War of 1937-45.

Like the po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt, Dawes es­chews melo­drama in favour of a more pa­tient un­der­stand­ing of the lethal ba­nal­i­ties of ev­ery­day atroc­ity. Arendt taught us how po­lit­i­cal cul­tures of im­punity, men­dac­ity and bru­tal­ity can tempt us into re­treat­ing into our own imag­i­nary worlds (she would have hated Twit­ter). Fic­tion, she also claimed, far from be­ing yet an­other form of es­capism, can be a means of en­dur­ing an in­tol­er­a­ble re­al­ity by fac­ing up to it. The best sto­ries are those that ask us to con­front what is most dif­fi­cult in the world, not sim­ply to em­pathise with those who are its vic­tims.

In an age of click­bait and easy out­rage, The Novel of Hu­man Rights is a wel­come ex­am­ple of slow read­ing, hard think­ing and the value of re­al­ity-test­ing in dire po­lit­i­cal times. Dawes teaches at Ma­calaster, a lib­eral arts col­lege which, like Bard Col­lege, was one of the first higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions in the United States to em­bed the teach­ing of hu­man rights within a hu­man­i­ties cur­ricu­lum. If we re­ally wanted to learn how to do hu­man rights bet­ter, we would em­ploy more ex­cel­lent lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sors to train greater num­bers of young peo­ple to think crit­i­cally, scep­ti­cally, cre­atively and, above all, hon­estly about what it means to share the world with other peo­ple.

But lib­eral arts col­leges and, in­creas­ingly, hu­man­i­ties de­grees them­selves are not open to the many. In­deed, crit­ics from both the left and right have charged that it is be­cause they have too long been the priv­i­lege of an elite that hu­man rights are in such a mess now. Nor is it a co­in­ci­dence that the same peo­ple who rub­bish hu­man rights also ques­tion the value of a hu­man­i­ties ed­u­ca­tion. The re­sponse to these claims is not to shut up ei­ther shop. As this book shows, it is rather to ar­gue strongly for the con­sid­ered and com­plex scep­ti­cism that the novel and the arts in gen­eral, at their best, in­sist upon.

Lyn­d­sey Stone­bridge is pro­fes­sor of hu­man­i­ties and hu­man rights at the Univer­sity of Birmingham. Her lat­est book, Place­less Peo­ple: Writ­ing, Rights, and Refugees, will be pub­lished by Ox­ford Univer­sity Press next month.

Grim present it is no longer only crim­i­nals who are be­ing kept be­hind bars – it is ap­paren tly

tly fine to leave refugees and mi­grants to lan­guish in camps and to im­prison their chil­dren

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