Ethics & International Affairs Volume 16.2 (Fall 2002): Debate: Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood: The Liberalism of Fear and the Counterrevolutionary Project: Reply to Catherine Lu [Excerpt]

Nov 25, 2002

While Lu invokes Shklar's "liberalism of fear" as a "transcendence" of the politics of friend and foe, I regard it as an attempt to give liberalism political purchase by identifying its true foe, those whose political convictions make them insensitive to cruelty, and especially to physical cruelty. Lu's liberalism is thus not without enemies; rather, it finds its enemies in those who engage in a Schmittian conception of politics, including Schmitt himself. This liberalism is expressly antirevolutionary (even when the revolution has liberal aims) and implicitly counterrevolutionary in the sense that the revolutionary resort to violence is a prima facie affront to human rights that liberals who "put cruelty first" must treat as casus belli. Unlike Lu, I do not believe that the infliction of physical pain is a uniquely evil form of injustice, nor do I regard it as prototypical of social injustice generally. I agree, however, that revolutionary victims producing victims in the turn of the historic cycles is tragic, and calls for transcendence of the politics of victimhood itself. Where, however, is such transcendence to be found? Lu's conception of "redemptive tragedy" is better understood, I think, as a form of social melodrama that allows continuing beneficiaries of injustice to pity victims without fearing them, because they see the victim's grief as disconnected from a sense of grievance. Unlike the melodramatic victim whose cause Lu can embrace, the tragic victim undergoes a transformation of grief into grievance, and thus calls forth a mixture of pity and fear. This distinction sums up my criticism of the pathos of Human Rights Discourse today, and, also, of Lu's response to my essay.

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