“A World Without Human Rights?”: A Response
David W. Montgomery 23 July 2020

I am grateful to those who have contributed to this Reset Dialogues Dossier project “A World Without Human Rights?” engaging the short essay Adam Seligman and I wrote on “The Tragedy of Human Rights: Liberalism and the Loss of Belonging.” It is an honor to have something one has written elicit a response from so many and to subsequently be given the opportunity to participate in a discussion about it. In our most productive exchanges, we learn how others see the world and this reveals possibilities, alongside challenges, for how we can address the problems of society. Some exchanges force us to reconsider our taken-for-granted assumptions (when we see them) and through others it becomes clear that convictions are being laid out with very different understandings of how the world works (or should work).

I fully share the critiques put forth by my coauthor in his reply to our critics. Seligman’s emphasis on the distinctions between individual autonomy and collective belonging and minority protection and universal values brings into focus points underlying our argument that our interlocutors interpreted differently. This is as one would expect in a forum aimed at eliciting different ideas, but in reading what others have written, it is clear that most of our interlocutors are engaging with the question of civil society from different explanatory postures than we are. As such, a defense of our position regarding the insufficiency of rights and the need for belonging benefits by calling attention to the process that led us to understand the problem of living with difference as we do. In my response, I clarify some misunderstandings (mischaracterizations) of our position as well as give some context of what led us there. Ultimately, the goal is to suggest a way forward in addressing the tension between rights and belonging. While we touched upon this at the end of our piece, important in this process of addressing the tension is appreciating the colonizing assumptions of human rights’ “universality” and why difference and religion are important to conceptualizing other ways of belonging.


Tragedy and the Colonization of Universality

Our concern in the discussion around rights and belonging is not merely theoretical but about the underlying need—for us, a social imperative—to move from knowledge of the world to knowledge for the world. The tendency of those of us in the university is to be content in describing the world; the need, of course, is to do more than describe the world, as Karl Marx argues succinctly in his “Theses on Feuerbach.” The need is to find ways of implementing knowledge in practice. This position is not a personal critique of our interlocutors—the majority of whom I do not know, but those I do know care deeply about their communities and engage with them purposefully—only to say that our position in the debate is one of a critique for the sake of change.

Given our concern about knowledge in practice and guiding a path toward meaningful change, that we critique human rights through a defense of belonging may come across as peculiar to devotees of rights. After all, human rights purports to offer a vision of the world that its advocates characterize as being centered on change and social transformation, whereas belonging is often associated with pasts, traditions, and other ways of life that at times seem incompatible to secular liberal views of the modern world. But it is wrong to assume belonging is outmoded; belonging is a human need that cannot be supplanted by a vision of human rights that all too often ignores the communal in favor of the individual. Communities the world over prioritize the individual differently, and for many there are other paths to human good than through rights. Belonging, however, is always part of the conversation. So while a number of the respondents bristled at our characterization of human rights as a “tragedy” and suggested (inaccurately) that we were advocating for a “world without human rights”, these responses proved exemplary of the problem we aimed to describe in our essay. Rights and belonging are different; each must be addressed, with the latter not elided by the former.

Seeing how strongly many reacted to the title phrasing “the tragedy of human rights” was telling, for to them we had touched something personal. Interestingly, the title given to this collection of essays—“A World Without Human Rights?”—is no less provocative than “The Tragedy of Human Rights” yet no one remarked on this, aside from the occasional inditement that we were suggesting such a world. To be clear, none of the authors are advocating for a “world without human rights”—Seligman and I are unambiguous about this in the second paragraph of our essay—yet the use of tragedy to describe human rights came across as abrasive to some (e.g. Luzzati, Avilés), as if we had come too close in our critique to something held sacred. This response to “tragedy” as a characterization of rights reveals a lot about bias and the protectionist instincts in defending one’s position.

Our use of tragedy comes in relation to the advancements of social life frequently associated with human rights and the observation that the fervent advocacy for rights is not enough. Our position on human rights and tragedy is simple and straightforward. Human rights may be necessary for some level of society’s functioning, but they are insufficient to meet real sociological needs. We agree, for example, with Silvio Ferrari’s assertion that rights do not have the task of providing belonging. It is not, however, “a more general misunderstanding of the role that law plays in the regulation of social relations” (Ferrari) that leads us to highlight the insufficiency of rights, but rather ethnographic engagement over decades that suggests we must insist on more than human rights both in law and in society. And in that context, Claudio Luzzati’s challenge that we “underestimate the violence of exclusion… [in not speaking about] how strong the desire is to kill the enemy” is misplaced. Indeed, we have run programs in Bosnia, Indonesia, Israel, Rwanda, Uganda, and elsewhere and we see not only the legacy of violence but also that despite the intentions of Western interventionists, it is not rights alone that fix local problems.

Further, the insistence that the response should be more human rights, more refined legal understandings, or elegantly constructed regimes of human rights misses the point (e.g. Pariotti, Avilés). We accept human rights, though digressions that reify increasingly legalized or abstract visions of human rights miss the opportunity to ask a much more constructive question about the nature of sociality and its need for belonging. We challenge claims about the neutrality of rights, as is often assumed in emphasizing their universality, and defenses that characterize human rights as “the best of the left” (Luzzati) highlights almost ironically the fact that rights emerge from particular cultural and political contexts. For all their universality, human rights are seen as a success of the left but not also of the right.

The assumption of universality matters, because from such assumptions normative claims are made. Yet human rights, like all codes regulating behavior, are culturally embedded. They may be presented as if they are neutral and shared, but the reality is more complicated, as any long-term stay outside of the West will reveal. Rights language imposes structures and a particular way of thinking that sets the terms on which questions are answered. Such efforts to colonize the consciousness of wildly diverse cultures—many that do not prioritize the individual in the same way as the West—overlooks what belonging means in other contexts. After a while, the very nature of the conversation about rights is assumed to be normative, with the native answering questions in terms established by the colonizer.i

This has been one of the legacies of the spread of human rights and one that would be good to keep in mind as we discuss tensions between rights and belonging. While for some, “rights, if we remove the material and emotional blackmail of one’s group,” carry with them the potential to emancipate from cultural constraints (Luzzati), such critiques trivialize equally thoughtful and meaningful ways of constructing the world. And contrary to Francesco Viola’s claim that the aim “is always ultimately personal identity”, not all cultures prioritize its members this way.

Andrea Pin reminds us “human rights discourses tend to replace other types of narratives because that discourse is the most likely to win in courts,” and this functional observation of rights explains a lot about both sides of the debate. One can feel empowered by calls for “more rights” (legal and otherwise) if they produce outcomes that align with a particular vision of the world one wants others to accept. But we should be honest about the particularity of any vision that purports universality. (The social need for belonging may be universal but it is a need met in ways particular to the participants.) What is more, we should accept that the ubiquity of rights-based arguments on grounds of judicial utility has different implications in different contexts, as Seligman notes in his reply discussion on female genital modification. Rights and the rhetoric associated with them have causal effects. And it is a mistake to ignore the varied social lives of human rights and the structures and relationships they foster.

It is thus odd to read María del Carmen Barranco Avilés claim that “the way the ‘extreme right’ is depicted [in our paper] is somewhat shocking and even naïf…. [in that we] seem to disregard that the only belonging the extreme right recognizes is the Western one.” Yet, the very language of human rights is a Western one. Furthermore, Avilés’ suggestion that the paper could have been more fittingly titled “the tragedy of the Western extreme right” misses our point entirely. We disagree with the extreme right and find their actions dangerous and disturbing to everything we hold dear. What is more, it is not about weighing the social good of human rights relative to that of the extreme right; that question is neither interesting nor relevant as it is a straw horse for a straw jockey. But we must acknowledge that what accounts for the success of the extreme right needs to be explained, which saying the liberal left is better than the extreme right fails to do. Part of that explanation, in our view, is that the importance of belonging has been appreciated by the extreme right whereas the left seems content with the status quo. And currently, the left is getting outplayed.

For us, defending human rights was beside the point. As we have seen here, it has its own devotees able to defend it in very committed language. The importance for us was to draw attention to how the unwavering conviction to rights above other approaches to the human good is problematic. It obscures other ways people frame the world that are centered on belonging.

Setting aside the importance of belonging for the moment, however, John Holmwood’s essay in this collection shows a painful instance where rights are used to oppress a minority population. The “Trojan Horse affair” is a tragic abuse (again, tragedy!) of civic possibility. Holmwood shows us how the Equality Act 2010, a derivative of the Human Rights Act, was used against the British Muslim community in Alum Rock, an inner-city suburb of Birmingham, England, that had remarkable success in turning around their schools. The fact that Equality Act 2010 was used against the population of Alum Rock is relevant, because its application of “rights” was used subversively—not to instill greater integration and equality, but as a tool for segregating at the expense of a minority group. Regrettably, this is not a one-off application of legal structures and rights language to subversive ends.

We wrote our piece hoping it would encourage people to critique their own assumptions, not merely defend them. And to see, for example, the unintended consequences—as Holmwood shows—of assuming that human rights are enough to fix the problem. Further to this point, during the writing of this response, a crises of race relations is (again!) unfolding in the United States that emphasize the urgency of considering the limits of rights, the importance of belonging, and other approaches to building community.

The recent round of protests for racial equality, this time following the killing of George Flyod by white police officers, is not about rights. We have to convince people “Black Lives Matter” not because the laws are bad but because, in face of structures of exclusion—built on a legacy of racism and a legal regime of rights—black Americans and other minorities are marginalized. People are protesting for a stake in belonging, not of rights. This is not to say rights are irrelevant, only that the question in addressing this problem is not one of getting the balance of human rights law correct; it is recognizing the limits of human rights and the need for something more.


The Relevance of Difference and Religion

For nearly two decades, we have led an international educational nonprofit organization called CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion that runs programs on how to equip people with the tools needed for living with difference and building a civil society. This work has shaped a good deal of our thinking about rights and belonging and also informs why discussions around difference and religion are so central to understanding the social needs of community. A few years ago, at one of the Indonesian programs, a European participant started the program claiming that she did not have an “other” and was accepting of everyone on grounds of human dignity and the universality of human rights. After two weeks of living through the diversity of the other group members from around the world, with different confessions, and varied experiences, she confessed that she did not like religious people much; they were her other. It was not with hostility that she acknowledged this, for she was quite friendly with members of the group who were religious, but it was the experience of being in an environment with others whose different conceptions of the human good led her to realize the defining character of her secular beliefs and European identity. She began the program assuming shared universality but learned through living with difference that not everything can be (nor need be) shared.

The observation that not everything can be shared is a relevant point. It influences how we think about the universality and limits of things like rights. Lucia Bellucci’s claim that our emphasis on what cannot be shared “tends to hide inter-religious experiences (e.g. churches that celebrate Catholic and Protestant rites) or coexistence” fails to appreciate things as basic as the fact that Catholics and Protestants cannot share the Eucharist. This may not matter to someone who defines themselves as secular, but the distinction of how the Host is viewed makes all the difference to the Catholic and the Protestant. In Kupang, West Timor, for example, there are periodic riots and people have been killed as Protestants have tried to take communion in the Catholic Church. This is not a trivial matter and in and of itself highlights the importance of religion and difference. The inter-religious experience of Hagia Sophia, for example, works only as long as it is a museum, where questions of practice and ornamentation are suspended. Recep Erdogan’s recent decree ordering its reconversion to a mosque does not bring with it a celebration of inter-religious experience or coexistence.

Religion is among the least negotiable forms of social order and thus useful to think through the challenges of living with difference, which is precisely the challenge we face in an increasingly diverse world. The idea of CEDAR began in 2001 in the ashes of the Bosnian war and was focused on teaching religious tolerance. The thinking was that religious understanding—not superficial understanding, but a deep appreciation of what could and could not be negotiated—would aid communities in conflict to live together more peacefully. We soon realized that though our initial focus was religion, the broader challenge in any setting was always around difference.

Even when the theme of a program did not address religion, religion would emerge as an issue among the fellows because the activities of the program respect the religious obligations of its participants. What this means is that if we have Muslim fellows, the whole group will go to a mosque for Friday prayers; if we have Jewish fellows, we make sure any Saturday programming is within walking distance; if we have Christian fellows, Sunday is church, etc. Individuals of different confessions, or none at all, attend the services of the other rather than staying behind or doing something on their own during this time. In allowing others in the group to meet their religious obligations, participants discover distinctions such as Protestants not taking communion in a Catholic church and begin to appreciate what can and cannot be shared, despite idealized claims to the contrary. Differences matter here, for it is not what is shared that is the challenge.

Such engagements also allow us to see the limits of individual agency. For many secular individuals, religion is seen as oppressive in the restrictions it places on the group. This can especially be the case around sexual orientation. One liberal response to religiously committed yet persecuted LGBTx individuals is to suggest they leave their religious community and opt for a secular life where they can be accepted regardless their sexual or gender orientation. This false assumption is documented in the film Trembling before G-d about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews trying to maintain a relationship to their religious community. As the documentary so clearly shows, the assurance of human rights does not replace the need for some to be part of a religious community of belonging, even when they are painfully excluded.

The advocacy for LGBTx can be helpful, but within some religious communities the exclusion is moral. Overcoming the pain of exclusion is not accomplished through the insistence of individual rights because belonging in a community binds one beyond the individual. We see this in the work of Eshel, a Jewish Orthodox LGBTx organization that works on creating a space for belonging within Orthodox communities. Not the right to belong but belonging. What is more, it is not the “right” to leave a group that provides belonging but rather that one owes an obligation to a broader community with which one may disagree at times.

In a CEDAR program in England, we watched Trembling before G-d with congregants in a gay and lesbian church. Among the diverse participants in our group, there included an Evangelical Christian for whom homosexuality was a sin. Getting him to abandon his religious convictions on grounds of human rights would have been too much to expect. In watching the film with others, he saw the suffering of the LGBTx who wanted to maintain ties to their religious communities, and suffering was a narrative with which he could connect. This was a pivotal moment for him and others in the group. He found a way to maintain his moral conviction yet at the same time advocate for the LGBTx who suffered yet strove to belong within their religious community.

The significance of seeing the suffering of another as he or she experiences it—as opposed to relying on one’s own framing of the world—is a way forward that can be reached only through engaging with real and defining differences. Through claims of universality, human rights advocates have grown accustomed to trivializing difference, eliding the problem by focusing on what is shared. Hence, religion becomes paradigmatic of the broader problem of inclusion, for the limits of what can be shared are definitional. Among the monotheistic traditions, for example, Abraham as a shared ancestor is not enough to unite Jews, Christians, and Muslims who see Jesus as a heretic, the messiah, and a prophet respectively. These are differences that matter to fundamental aspects of belonging and cannot be glossed over. There are ways of living with differences and this is what we emphasize; an approach to living with difference that respects, takes seriously, and does not trivialize someone else’s difference.

The question we face is how to embrace the differences that connect to other people’s sense of belonging in an increasingly diverse world. Part of the solution, we argue here and elsewhere, is through acknowledging the difficulty difference creates and developing the tools to address this.ii That is the point of the CEDAR pedagogy. There are ways to share experience without sharing meaning, but the insistence of defending human rights blinds us to this for it insists on a shared meaning rooted in a European intellectual tradition that is precisely that: a European intellectual tradition. The emphasis of working out disagreements and differences primarily through a framework of rights has meant we have lost the skills necessary to work them out together, respectful of difference.


Service and the Practice of Community

In making a distinction about the social need for belonging and the insufficiency of human rights in meeting that need, we are neither advocating for a world without human rights nor simply making an analytical argument for academic debate. We absolutely welcome the debate, and again, are indebted to those who engaged with our piece. But our concern and purpose are very much aimed at activist—rather than merely intellectual—approaches to public engagement. In showing ways the extreme right have coopted language of belonging, we hoped to stimulate those on the left to begin envisioning a more holistic approach to engaging differences across society. Calls to trivialize difference or praise the universal utility of human rights seems more descriptive of the position the left traditionally favors than a creative way forward. It was thus interesting that few of the commentators engaged with the last section of our essay about “Difference as a Path toward Civil Society”, which outlined an approach to meeting the social need for belonging.

In our work it has become clear that the differences that matter to people emerge most vividly when people are doing things together that encourage them to reconsider their taken-for-granted assumptions and biases. What emerges are measured reflections, sometimes reached through great struggle, of the challenge of belonging and at times of even being with others who are different. The importance of bringing this up in contrast to human rights language is that within human rights, the underlying assumption is that—in essence—we are all the same; there is a universality to who we are that trivializes difference. But we need difference to be human. The extreme right has taken this point and radicalized it, pushing racist, homophobic, and other anti-civil agendas, often while using rights language to justify their ability to do so.

Andrea Pin is right in commenting that “no political institution seems to be able to heed” the call to “revitalize a shared sense of community.” Part of the reason for this seeming inability is the consensus of the structures in place that the problem is being addressed through regimes of human rights. These are visions that prioritize individuals acting through individual interests. If there is to be any hope of collectivity, individuals must appreciate that obligations to a group exist beyond self-want.

Engaging difference without trivializing it can be uncomfortable, but it is certainly manageable. In most instances, the work of community does not require us to resolve every epistemological challenge we face. At a macro level, a sense of community could evolve out of a national service program where people from diverse backgrounds work together to some civic end. Such experiences of collective service guided through a pedagogy of difference would be one step toward answering the question of how to build communities among a population that is increasingly diverse. Rights, however, are simply not enough.


i See Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

ii See Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, and David W. Montgomery. 2015. Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World. Berkeley: University of California Press


Photo: Nelson Almeida / AFP

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