Human Wrongs and the Tragedy of Victimhood: Response to "Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood" [Excerpt]

Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 16.2 (Fall 2002)

November 25, 2002

Robert Meister asserts that mainstream Human Rights Discourse in transitional politics has become a component of a reactionary project that has as its ultimate goal the perpetuation of social injustice. I disagree with him over the utility of the discourse and politics of revolution and counterrevolution in illuminating the path to moral regeneration. The problem with the politics of victimhood, as it has been conducted by revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries engaged in ideological conflict, is that it creates a morally arbitrary hierarchy of victims that can then be used to justify the worst moral transgressions against the "other." This adversarial discourse is counterproductive; driven by a Schmittian conception of the political, it fails to escape the logic of cruelty, which is perhaps why the politics of revolution/counterrevolution has so often translated into a politics of cruelty. Such discourse and politics need therefore to be overcome or transcended. Liberalism - in particular, Judith Shklar's "liberalism of fear" - can provide a route to transforming that politics of victimhood by encouraging an alternative discourse and politics - of redemptive tragedy - that I believe can more adequately capture the complex reality of victimhood, and guide us toward building morally constructive legacies from the experience of injustice.


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