Postmodernism and Universal Human Rights: Why Theory and Reality Don't Mix

By Li, Xiaorong | Free Inquiry, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism and Universal Human Rights: Why Theory and Reality Don't Mix


Li, Xiaorong, Free Inquiry


Caesar: Pardon him Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II George Bernard Shaw

Last summer, President Bill Clinton's visit to China renewed the worldwide debate over the relationship between nations with a disparate human rights standards. On the occasion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' fiftieth anniversary, it is only fitting to visit the challenges posed by postmodern ethical relativism and official government rhetoric. A comparison between them, their unlikely alliance and inevitable frictions, will illuminate some of the issues that face the movement of universal human rights. I will focus on China in my comments, although the same situation exists in many other countries with autocratic rulers.

In 1947, on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly's vote to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the American Anthropological Association (AAA) submitted a statement to the draft committee making a strongly worded cultural relativist case against a Declaration. The AAA argued that respect for the individual entails a respect for cultural differences since the individual realizes his or her personality through his culture; that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.

Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that have grown out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole.'

This is perhaps the most articulate voice of postmodern relativism. That it came from anthropologists is not a surprise since their trade advises the preservation of indigenous cultures. Claims to universality of such values as human rights are claims to power and cultural hegenomy in disguise.

Fifty years later, challenges to universality of human rights have continued and, more specifically, have flared up in China, where government leaders have asserted particularist cultural values. Confucianism and other traditions of thought were long derided in favor of Marxism. Having faced the need to counter international criticisms of its human rights record since 1989, the Chinese authorities now claim that their political repression is justified by traditional "cultural values." Replying to questions about human rights during Clinton's visit, Chinese president Jiang Zemin thus defended the government's authoritarian policies: "[t]he two countries differ in social system, ideology, historical tradition and cultural background, the two countries have different means and ways in realizing human rights and fundamental freedoms." Official statements(2) have declared that China has its own unique cultural values (such as obedience to authority, collectivism, family, and other dispositions), which are said to be opposed to human rights ideals that cherish individual freedom and tolerance.

Both the AAA and official Chinese statements made strong relativist claims, not simply empirical ones about the world's great diversity of views on right and wrong that grew out of diverse cultures, or about a lack of commonly accepted criterion for judging across cultures. They made normative claims: the diverse views on right and wrong (or values) should not be judged by, or relocated to, other cultures; or, a culture should not impose on other cultures its own ideas.(3) For them, international human rights are merely disguised Western cultural ideas.

As globalization now more rapidly erodes the once stronger traditional notions of sovereignty, domestic jurisdiction, and cultural autonomy, the current debate reflects pains, pride, and memories of humiliating events that are acutely experienced by nations undergoing radical transformation. Recognizing the great diversity of values and their roots in cultures was once one step in the direction of moral condemnation of colonialism and brutal missionary expeditions. …

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