Friday, February 07, 2014

Human Rights and Cultural Imperialism

Despite certain precedents in many cultures, the notion of human rights is essentially a modern one, growing out of 18th Century European thought.  Central to it is the notion of natural rights, that are supposed to be inherent in being human.  Some aspects appear to have been inspired by some of the evils of colonialism, especially in Spanish America, where the contrast between the official motive of the conquistadors and their behavior was noted and reported by the missionaries accompanying them.

Probably the most important propellant was the rise of the Merchant class, and their push to attain and displace the privileges of the feudal orders.  It is an interesting case study in how an imagined reality gains force and wrests itself from the control of its creators.  Once one starts declaring inalienable human rights endowed by the creator, it get harder to say except for you.  So rights that started out being really just for wealthy Western European males gradually leaked out to slaves, colonial subjects and women.

Such notions played a key role in de-colonialization, both as inspiration for the colonized and reproach to the colonizers.  Ironically enough, they may also have been one of the most potent instruments of cultural imperialism wielded by the West.  Of course the West still earns plenty of reproach for failing to live up to its ideals, but these notions of human rights, especially in their most general forms, are profoundly hostile to many deep indigenous cultural traditions.

I doubt that we have much idea where this struggle is going to end up, here or elsewhere, but certainly the US and Europe have already been utterly transformed.  That's probably true also in some of the most Europeanized former colonies.