Ethics & International Affairs Volume 16.2 (Fall 2002): Debate: Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood: Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood [Excerpt]

Nov 25, 2002

A Human Rights Discourse that emerged in the 1990s supplanted the dialectic of revolution/counterrevolution that dominated the twentieth century. On the revolutionary side, the aim had been to produce unreconciled victims who would continue to struggle against the beneficiaries of past injustice even after the perpetrators were defeated; the counterrevolutionary response was to exploit the fear of passive beneficiaries in oppressive regimes that they would be treated no better than perpetrators should the revolution prevail. Human Rights Discourse hopes to end this dialectic by allowing the victims of past injustice a moral victory on the understanding that ongoing beneficiaries will get to keep their gains without being held responsible for the evils of the past. In this respect, Human Rights Discourse continues by more benign means the counterrevolutionary project of depoliticizing the effects of systemic injustice.

The article argues for a renewal of the politics of victim and beneficiary that avoids moral pitfalls of the revolutionary project. These pitfalls inhere in a politics of victimhood that allows self-conscious victims to experience themselves as the objects of hostile desires that they do not (simultaneously) experience themselves as having. Fin-de-siècle Human Rights Discourse does not directly confront and transcend this syndrome. By attempting to make future violence (terror) "unthinkable," it merely enables the continuing victims and beneficiaries of structural injustice to dissociate from and defend against the underlying desires and fears that would have made them comprehensible to each other as victim/perpetrator. Diverse theorists, such as Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, and Judith Shklar, have called attention to this feature of moral psychology, and the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein helps us to understand and criticize it. Through what Klein describes as "splitting," the beneficiary of past injustice can defend against the fear of being treated as a guilty perpetrator by engaging in "mock reparation" with the good (innocent) victim, while demonizing the "bad" one who deserves to be treated as a threat.

The article concludes by suggesting that, in addition to the individuating project of liberal Human Rights Discourse and its concern for what perpetrators do, the politics of human rights must also focus on what beneficiaries support, wish, and condone. A re-politicized discourse on human rights must enable us to discuss questions of collective responsibility for the past outside the context of vengeance. To begin such a discourse, we must understand that the fear of being treated as a perpetrator is part of what it means to be a beneficiary of injustice over time.

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