The Ethics of Human Rights (10): Universality of Rights Through Dialogue

It’s true that most if not all human rights can be found, implicitly or explicitly, in all cultures and religions of the world. However, there’s also cruelty everywhere and universal respect for human rights requires more than simply looking for similarities and making the sum. Unity, consensus and universality will only be the result of hard-fought influence and difficult and prolingued processes of persuasion, not of the simple detection and addition of things that are equal and that exist, as such, independently of each other.

Persuasion, however, implies dialogue, intercultural dialogue for example. One culture or religion can discuss with others and try to convince others that something which is considers to be important is in fact important.This dialogue doesn’t have to be unconditional (dixit Obama) but too many conditions make it impossible. And progress can only be achieved through dialogue.

This kind of intercultural dialogue can engender universality or can at least bring universality somewhat closer, but then it has to be a dialogue between equals. Nobody is persuaded when one of the parties to the dialogue believes himself to be superior, speaks without listening, and considers the other to be “evil” (e.g. part of an “axis of evil” dixit Bush) and a legitimate target of a bombing campaign (dixit McCain).

It also has to be a dialogue where there is at least a possibility that one convinces the other – in both directions. A “dialogue de sourds” – a dialogue of the deaf – cannot create consensus. We must be open to the possibility that those whom we abhor may have something interesting to tell us. And anyway, we have to listen if we want to understand them, and to see why they act the way they act. Only then can we have a chance of changing them.

This means that extreme cultural relativism is not an option. Cultures have to be allowed to influence each other, to open themselves and to mix with each other. Sealing off cultures and keeping them out of each other’s way because of the protection of identities, makes a dialogue impossible. Being persuaded means changing certain elements of one’s identity.

The need to convince one another implies that no one should believe themselves to be in possession of the truth, and of the only correct and just system. It implies self-criticism, and also a certain degree of tolerance, freedom of expression etc. It seems as though the conclusion is implicit in the premises. The attempt to universalize human rights through intercultural dialogue already requires human rights. You cannot hold a dialogue with someone who is intolerant or who is not allowed to speak his or her mind.

A dialogue in this case is not a negotiation. There can be no negotiation on human rights. It is “take it or leave it”, even if one can accept a partial adoption of human rights for strategic reasons (the theory of basic human rights or rights minimalism). Something is not as good as everything, but it is better than nothing.

And an inter-cultural dialogue is even less a conversation, in which one culture needs to convince other cultures, as if some cultures need more convincing than other cultures. Persuasion is a two-way street and at least, as much an intra-cultural affair as an inter-cultural one.

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