History 541

The following is a series of essays written by graduate students in history at Western Illinois University for a seminar titled, “The First Public Sphere and the Rise of Human Rights, 1650-1800.” Each student in the course chose a specific question about the public sphere or human rights, which was to be answered with an essay about eight-hundred words in length. What these eleven questions have in common is an assumption that to make full sense of the public sphere and human rights today, we must know about these subjects as they first manifested themselves in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. I publicly wish to thank these students for their thoughtful and heart-felt insights about the public sphere and human rights as made evident in their essays; whether they are aware of it or not, they have taught me a great deal about both subjects. Spurred on by my academic interest as well as my sense of responsibility as a citizen and an intellectual, these students have thoughtfully weighed in on key attributes of democracy at the precise moment when they are being called into question by nationalist, populist, authoritarian, and often xenophobic movements throughout the world. By writing essays specifically designed for the worldwide web, these students agreed to join an ongoing conversation–one that began in Europe about three hundred years ago–about the public sphere and human rights. Please note that the views expressed in these essays are not necessarily the same as my own, though I have no qualms about posting them here.

–Edward J. Woell


How was the first public sphere different from what its equivalent is today?

By Adam Seth Moss

On July 14, 2014, Eric Garner was a 43-year old African-American male selling illegal cigarettes on the side of the street in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, New York. At around 3:30 p.m., a plainclothes police offer approached him about his illegal profiting. After several cops attempted to handcuff him, he was put in an illegal chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The chokehold caused the 350-pound Garner to stop breathing and soon die from a lack of oxygen.

Since Garner’s death was not long after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, protests were almost immediate. I happened to be coming out of a meeting on a non-profit on December 6, 2014 after it was announced that Pantaleo would not face charges and therefore Garner would get no justice. Passing me on West 14th Street in Manhattan was a litany of protesters waltzing down the street with signs and yelling “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” This form of organized, spontaneous protest caught my attention in 2017 when looking at the public sphere, from which they got the information.

The idea of the public sphere is one where the people have an opinion on things that affect them, particularly the government. The essence of the public sphere is what we call  public opinion. Jürgen Habermas talks about the development of this in his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), a work that subsequently has been heavily criticized for not covering various topics, such as nationalism or gender-based differences.

In eighteenth-century Europe, where the public sphere developed, the concept  grew out an educated public that had access to new forms of media. This new media helped them understand the broader world around them, something that had not  possible for much of the century prior. New media in this time period included print journals, pamphlets, newspapers,  erudite books, and novels. This new media, although produced by wealthy and educated elite, inspired millions of people  to read them and learn new things. People used these new media and communicated through new locations in an urbanizing Europe. This included coffeehouses, fraternal clubs, salons, musées and debate clubs: where people would have  engaged in debate about what was going on.

In twenty-first-century America, we also have new media, but things are completely different. For example, back in the eighteenth century, newspapers, books, journals,  and the like were accessible for those who had the money to afford it. In this day and age, access to information comes out of a  silicon-chipped machine, a telephone, or even an MP3 player. In a split second, you can have access to the world’s knowledge and be able to use it for a public debate anywhere you wish. The people nowadays are not only gaining access to information, they are also producing it. With the click of a cellular phone, people can now spread any information they have, whether true or not, and give people access to stuff all around the world. Most importantly, unlike the eighteenth-century public sphere all this information is available to anyone, not just educated, wealthy elite.

There are still fraternal clubs and organizations similar, such as The Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis International, and Rotary International, but their impact is much less than they were in the eighteenth century. The salons and musées are mostly things of the past; the latter  was more akin to debate clubs at colleges and universities. With a new generation, social media has become the fraternal order of people all around the globe discussing public issues on anything from politics to the next day’s hairdo. No one cares if you have are wealthy or poor, contribute or support the government of your country, or even what color or gender you are. This is the new public sphere, one that is very diverse and non-caring about who you are.

With protesters walking down West 14th Street, holding signs from “Black Lives Matter” to “Justice”, shouting comments such as “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” or “I can’t breathe!,” no one cared whether you were White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. Everyone who stood up for that point was  engaged through the same public sphere, knowing about the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner from the news. People now are able to walk down the street and be part of a public sphere without being persecuted, unlike eighteenth-century Europe. The modern public sphere is a worldwide phenomenon, all at the swipe of a few fingers.


How was the first public sphere similar to what its equivalent is today?

By Josh Spence

On April 10, 2017 media outlets began reporting about United Airlines forcibly and violently removing a passenger from an overbooked flight. This prompted an immediate outcry by the public, who were quick to denounce United and the actions they had taken. This is a perfect example of the modern day public sphere convening together—in this case on social media—to voice their opinion on the injustice that had taken place.

Although the first public sphere of the late seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries lacked the convenience of modern day social media—like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat—one can see the similarity between the past and present. It was still the same concept, people gathering together to voice their opinion on situations that had taken place and the reaction that people were having.

As Jürgen Habermas notes in his famous book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, while the public sphere has been around since the ancient times, notably in the form of the ancient Greek polis, the idea of a common public sphere did not develop in Western Europe until the late seventeenth century. Even then it took several decades for it to become fashionable among society in the early eighteenth century. The decision to move discussion and debate away from royal courts prompted the emergence of cultural spaces to discuss the great topics of the day in literature, art, theatrical productions, and politics.  As Habermas notes, the public spheres of the early modern period were physical spaces where open discussion between men and women could be carried out. Regardless of their social status, talks discussed at the time included ideas and issues of the day and how those in attendance could stimulate change for the common good. From the salons of the bourgeoisie, to the coffeehouses on the street, anyone could attend and express their opinion as long as they discussed matters in a civil tone.

We have come a long way from the days of salons and coffeehouses discussions. However, people are still gathering together to discuss modern day occurrences and voice their opinions. These people are hoping to be heard and whether it is in the newspaper, like in the days of old, or on social media, the process is still the same, people want a voice. They want to voice their opinion and have it make a difference. Whether it is about a doctor being dragged from a plane or about a political problem that will affect us all, they want to be heard.

The public can initiate change, whether it is stimulated by the public response following an airline’s mishandling of a situation or political change most notably in the Arab Spring of 2011, which saw the toppling of several Middle Eastern governments. Advocates of change throughout the Arab Spring were able to spread their message, bypassing state censors, on social media platforms that discussed not only their reasons of why they sought change, but how they intended to achieve their goal. The public followed along, actively engaging and discussing what should and should not happen both at home and abroad.

Just as the salons of the past may have claimed to be inclusive, they were largely a product of the educated bourgeois members of society–so were many members in the Arab world who fought to get their message heard to the wider product. They too were made up of the educated, intellectual upper and middle class sectors of society. It was largely these groups that were able to articulate their message in a way that could demand results.

The purpose of the first public sphere was to bring people together to debate and reach a consensus for the common good. The public sphere might have entered into public consciousness in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but its relevance is still here today. While the salons and coffeehouses in the past may have been the focal point for debate and discussion in the past, today the public sphere has moved online and still engages in discussions for the common good. Technology is advancing and becoming an important part of society’s daily life. Though technology has evolved over the centuries, it still allows individuals to connect for the purpose of defining and solving problems. Whether they meet in a physical place such as a local coffeehouse, the library, or through a multi-media forum that extends beyond national borders, people can strive for and accomplish change through communicative action. The public sphere is still alive, even in our modern and hectic world.


Based on what we know about the first public sphere, how can today’s public sphere in democratic societies be enhanced or improved?

By Regine Ekoh

The public sphere has been a controversial concept both historically and in our time. The discourse of the ″public″ varies from one geopolitical and cultural space to another. The past public sphere should improve the present one, but in the case of Africa, there is a constitutional gap. Countries are relatively young; consequently, the Western standard remains the sole reference when it comes to enhancing the African public sphere. In order to escape state tyranny or public anarchy, public opinion should be free of reprisals to better shed light on the world.

To make a  distinction between the past and present public sphere, it is better to approach that concept in keeping with the theory of one of the most influential scholars on the subject. Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, theorized that in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the conflict between capitalism and the state fostered a clash between the private and the public that nurtured the growth of the public sphere. Men of letters developed thoughts that were spread through printing and a profusion of spaces of sociability such as coffeehouses, salons, theaters, and masonic lodges.

In the case of the African continent, modern states emerged as the consequence of colonization; as a result, ″leapfrogging″ is fundamental in order to have a global public sphere. ″Leapfrogging″ in this context is bypassing the European countries’ steps in the development of the public sphere.  Even if Africa is a continent of fifty-four countries, it may be assessed  as a single body because of its unique story of colonization and conflicted diversity.  Before colonization, a Baobab tree represented an open space for dialogue that established peace between tribes.  Although controversy existed, it was more between ethnic groups.  Later, the struggle for freedom from the colonialists, mostly France and Britain, fostered the rise of the first public sphere in the 1960s. African countries went from almost no collective experience to an embryonic public sphere. Hence, they are still shifting to democracy timorously  as they strive to follow the Western standard.

Furthermore, in Africa, the political, public, and private spheres are just one entity. While the continent has a public sphere, it carries cultural burdens.  For instance, how could someone who used to rule as a monarch fully switch to transparent elections?  The illustration is in my country, Cameroon, where President Paul Biya has been ruling for thirty-five years. Just across from Cameroon, Gabon is what I should call ʺa presidential monarchy.″ In this latter country, Omar Bongo Ondimba governed for forty-two years; upon his death, his son took office after highly contested elections. In both situations, youth are at the forefront of the public sphere, risking retaliation from the state. There are elections, but they should not be called as such. To improve the public sphere, elections should be frequent, transparent, and fair.

The United States represents a successful example of public sphere. Holding presidential elections every four years is vital.  Federalism is also an efficacious system for an appropriate management of public interests. The argument is that the present Western public sphere is the sole reference when it comes to improving the African one. The rotation of public offices is necessary to avoid corruption, nepotism, and cumbersome administration. This is not to conclude that the Western model is perfect; but it is preferable.

How can the public sphere be improved?  Media as a testing ground of public opinion should be free of reprisals. Indeed, we need Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other platforms. Comparable to the London and Parisian theaters, coffeehouses, and salons of long ago, social media should entertain, educate, and increase sociability, but this is not always the case. In Cameroon, upon independence, two historically distinct countries were tied together. As a result, the English-speaking citizens have been marginalized. The Anglophones are asking for civil rights such as being judged and educated in the English system. The government sends Francophone teachers and judges with limited English proficiency to the English speaking regions. It is difficult to teach someone when neither the  student nor the instructor share the same language. To make matters worse, the government shut down the internet in the English-speaking part of the country in order to dissuade protesters from publishing their claims on media. Technically, the public sphere is asphyxiated.

Up to the present time, the public sphere remains central to democratic societies. Although lessons can be drawn from the past public sphere, in the case of Africa, ″leapfrogging″ is a better solution. Even if the Western experience established a basis of public sphere expressed in democratic principles, achieving a great public sphere globally is utopian.


Based on what we know about the first public sphere, what are the primary flaws of today’s public sphere as it now functions in democratic societies?

By Ricky Newcomb

While defending the bombing of an Assad regime base in Syria following a chemical attack, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently claimed  that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and referred to the death camps of the Third Reich as “Holocaust centers.” Like many, I learned of Mr. Spicer’s comments via Facebook as it was shared by friends and news organizations that I follow. Facebook and other online media have come to replace traditional ways of obtaining information such as television news and print journalism. Though this new connected era opens up many possibilities for the advancement of Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, it also brings inherent flaws to how the public sphere actually functions in free and open societies.

A week after the election, The Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as their 2016 Word of the Year, defined as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” With a 2,000% usage increase since the previous year, Oxford Dictionaries referred to the increased use of the phrase “post-truth politics” with regard to the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the United States presidential election. This post-truth politics manifests itself in “fake news.” The Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact named “fake news” as their 2016 Lie of the Year, citing examples from both side of the aisle during the presidential election. These include fake stories such as Democrats trying to impose Islamic law and a large number of people at a Trump rally yelling racist chants.

Current events, particularly the U.S. presidential election, but also European elections, have revealed flaws in today’s public sphere. The fact that the phrase “post-truth politics” has made its way into popular parlance alongside an election cycle and a developing political environment that saw the rise of actual fake news and false accusations of fake news, are worrisome indications of the flaws in today’s public sphere. A healthy public sphere depends on having fact-based news available to a discerning public that can trust the news. The politicizing of the public sphere through the press of democratic nations is nothing new, nor is spreading falsehoods for political means.

Political competition aided in the development of the press in the eighteenth century. There were many limits to the spread of false information during the eighteenth century that we do not have today, including more restrictive libel laws, but mostly limited by the technology of the time. What makes today’s flaws so much more troubling is that we now have a proliferation of electronic devices that allow nearly anyone to create, publish, and distribute anything, including fake news. When this modern ability is added to an extra-partisan political environment oversaturated with information and overwhelmed by fear of and hate for the opposition, the result is a corruption of faith in the press.

The pervasiveness of fake news undermines the public sphere that has a voice, through public opinion, to impact policy in a democracy. The social interactions that shape public opinion require a basis in logic. Logic is difficult to be had without actual facts. Fake news interrupts this process by thwarting the factual and rational basis of these interactions. Even in interactions where fake news is not referenced, it has an indirect impact by corroding public trust in actual news and fact.

The modern public sphere is attempting to adjust to the expansion of information technology and broad access to this technology. This time of adjustment can now best be described as being in a state of crisis following the events of the past year. The press and technology businesses have decided to take on this issue and figure out ways to combat it, mostly by spreading awareness of it. However, the only group capable of fully solving the problem of how the public sphere is going to operate in a free and open society with access to these powerful technologies is the general public.

Facebook now has tips for spotting fake news, that they advertise to users in their news feed. These tips urge users to be skeptical and investigate before sharing. Facebook and other companies have an incentive to try to combat fake news to maintain their user experience. Whether the attempts of large companies, like Facebook, will be enough to defeat fake news sites motivated by advertiser dollars, we have yet to find out. What is certain is that the current crisis of the public sphere adjusting to modern technology is worsened when our leaders embrace fake news and post-truth politics.


Based on what we know about the first public sphere, what might the sphere’s future be?

By Bob Kett

It was November 11, 2016 and I was in Davenport, Iowa. As I ambled through the crowd gathering to see the incomparable John Prine play classics from his vast catalog, I walked by several wearing hats and shirts supporting Donald Trump and assorted right-leaning groups and causes. Just as many were wearing hats and shirts in support of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and assorted left-leaning groups and causes. After such a contentious election, the political divisions could have carried over to our coming to the concert and ruining a potentially good time. Yet, however we might have felt about the election results, we were united in our love and appreciation of the septuagenarian songster, able to put aside our political differences for the night and simply take in the music, the power of our mutual interest making us joyful. Young and old, right, center, and left, for a few hours, that which divided us seemed to disappear.

The public sphere put forward by Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was initially marked by coffeehouses, cafés and salons where discussions of ideas presented in books, periodicals, and other print media were critiqued and discussed as well as art, music, the world of letters, and religious beliefs. Only later would this develop into a more politicized public sphere.

With knowledge of the roots of the public sphere, I would argue that popular music culture is a realm certainly worthy of discussion within the modern public sphere. In her “Reading Popular Music Festivals Through the Lens of the Public Sphere,” Devpriya Chakravarty states that the communicative network of the public sphere known to be strengthened by press and mass media can also be shaped by popular music culture. In such divisive times, perhaps the future of the public sphere must regress back to its original roots, certainly with a focus on intense discussion of those facets of life that unite various populaces, to include facets that have been overlooked by an increasingly political, partisan, public sphere.

Over the last decade, increasing partisan divisions has led to a fractured populace in the United States. The rise of left-leaning activists  affecting the public sphere in 2008 was quickly followed by the rise of similar forces on the right, perhaps best exemplified by the emergence of an intensely devoted cadre of hard-right activists dubbed the “alt-right,” in subsequent years. Divisions in the public sphere in Britain helped to precipitate that nation’s gradual withdrawal from the European Union, the so-called “Brexit.” The popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, could very well lead to a “Frexit” should she become President of that nation. These examples further show the difficulties of division within a hyper-partisan public sphere, and that it is anything but an American phenomenon.

Another possible solution to combatting divisions within the public sphere might be to have a mainstream media and press willing to package the truth in easy-to-follow narratives that people can understand and share. However, this presupposes that mainstream media and press outlets generally have a desire to present news for reasons . The fact is that polarization has hindered a more politicized public sphere and many mainstream media sources are unwilling or unable to combat the increasing divisions within it.

Even if politics may divide the public sphere and the mainstream media is all too happy to focus on theatrics to increase consumption of their brand over desiring to tell the truth, there will always be those venues in which the public sphere can flourish and prosper. In such ugly times, when protest divides on so many levels, even if the true protest is beauty, perhaps the future of a worthwhile public sphere is to focus as much as possible on less politicized topics for discussion. The public sphere of the cafés, coffeehouses, salons and such of the eighteenth century have given way to a highly technological twenty-first century public sphere, where one and all can unite near and far and virtually anywhere to discuss any number of topics within the public sphere. The necessity of a strong, civil dialogue is an absolute must, of course, and the public sphere can never be adequately served by mere trivial discussions devoid of merit. But perhaps popular music is a regression back to the roots that the public sphere needs until such a time that press and mass media are willing and able to provide what the general populace needs regarding the more politicized facets of the public sphere, not what will lead to the highest amount of consumption.

The future, for now, is in embracing the past.


How were initial human rights different from what they are today?

By Tim Bradish

It may be beneficial here at the start to ask oneself what is meant when an individual refers to their human rights? The Oxford English Dictionary defines human rights as “the set of entitlements held to belong to every person as a condition of being human.” Throughout history it has not always been guaranteed that every citizen would have the right to things that are taken advantage of today like playing an active role in the formation of laws or the right to freely express thought and opinions both verbally or through the written word. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw different countries begin to establish human rights, which can be seen in such things as the French document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, written in 1789. This and other documents of the era began to give men certain unalienable rights like being able to hold public administrators accountable for their actions or being assumed  innocent until proven guilty. However, what is most important to focus on  in the last sentence is that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these rights were primarily only applied to white males that owned property. The question must then be asked: in what ways have human rights changed since their creation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

One of the primary ways in which human rights have changed since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries comes in the way that the scope of human rights has expanded in order to include larger percentages of the population. This expansion can be seen by comparing documents like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which only has seventeen separate articles, to documents from the twentieth century such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which contains thirty articles. Changes to human rights can be seen by the examples of articles two and four, which extend all rights to everyone regardless of sex, religion, or race and outlaw the slave trade, respectively. These two articles in particular do a great job of highlighting some of the biggest improvements made to human rights from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. Women were not included under the umbrella of human rights during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to seeing them as dependent upon a father, husband, or some other male relative. One of the primary examples that show the expansion of human rights comes in the form of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the exclusion of anyone from voting based on sex.

During the eighteenth century when human rights were first beginning to be made legitimate it was not only women that were not seen as full citizens, but African Americans and other ethnicities outside of  European ones were excluded as well. The advancement made in the language used in documents that focus on human rights can be telling of how initial human rights have changed when compared to human rights of today.  One can see in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that nouns like “citizen” and “man” have been replaced by pronouns like “no one” or “everyone.” The use of these more ambiguous terms allows for a more open interpretation that makes it much harder to exclude anybody unless they are green and from another planet.

The primary difference that exists between initial human rights and the human rights of today can really be seen as a matter of evolution. In the eighteenth century the idea of human rights was new and revolutionary as individuals became more aware of themselves and began to understand their want for essential human rights. The relatively fresh idea of human rights in the  eighteenth century means that the men who were attempting to transfer human rights from a set of ideals into a permanent list of rights had extremely little precedent to draw upon. The documents and ideas that the people of the eighteenth century created have since been analyzed, argued, and built upon as people of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries have all attempted to better what was laid down before them. The initial human rights of the eighteenth century can be seen as the seed of human rights, which was then watered and cared for by generations of human beings until human rights became the expansive and inclusive plant that everyone knows today. In the present it is vital that everyone remains aware of ongoing human rights issues whether it be the rights of immigrants and refugees or any other group of disenfranchised people. It can only be hoped that in twenty, fifty, or one-hundred years in the future people will be able to look back and say some progress has been made concerning some of the human rights issues that exist now in 2017.


How were initial human rights similar to what they are today?

By Jeff Meyers

Recently, a court in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand declared the Ganges River a “legal person,” thus enabling the state government to protect “Mother Ganges” from being polluted from mining companies. This raises a host of questions for the Ganges (and other new “persons” including the glaciers from which it originates). For instance, will the Ganges be recognized once it crosses into the next state? Do dams affect her right to existence? However, India’s decision is part of a growing trend. Recently in New Zealand, Maori activists saw their 150-year dream realized when the Whanganui River was given legal personhood, as well. The Maoris claim the river as their ancestor and have been fighting for legal recognition of “Te Awa Tupua” (their name for the river) since 1870. New Zealand has appointed two tribal representatives to speak for the river and has stated that any harm that comes to the river will be seen as harm coming to the tribe.

While these events may seem strange to our Western eyes, I believe they are actually part of a process that began during the eighteenth century and continues to the present. In fact, the events in Asia and the Pacific Rim more accurately represent traditional Enlightenment thinkers than corresponding Western developments in the United States. American liberals are no doubt aware of the court case Citizens United v. FEC, which allegedly granted personhood to corporations (and degraded the American electoral process by allowing corporations to fund campaign coffers). However, the concept of “corporate personhood” has a much longer history, extending back to the so-called Gilded Age. While our media has not reported it, our country has long recognized corporations as persons. Citizens United and the subsequent cases such as McCutcheon v. FEC and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby are merely the latest salvos in this century-long war.

However, the transformation to seeing non-persons as individuals is not as extraordinary as we might think. Rather, it is the natural result of processes set in place during the eighteenth century. The concept of personhood was still relatively new at this point. During this era, three interrelated ideas joined to promote the new idea of personhood: private autonomy, empathy, and individuation. That people could free themselves from their passions by using reason (and consequently, free themselves from tyrannical states) was still novel even to those who were considered “enlightened.”

The growth of a right to personal autonomy arose as a result of Europeans seeing themselves as separate from one another (individuation) and physically setting themselves apart from each other. Lynn Hunt explores this process in both articles and monograph form—pointing out how feelings of bodily shame led to eating from separate dishes at supper, sleeping in separate bedrooms at night, and ultimately the suppressing of emotional outbursts altogether.

This individuation obviously did not develop overnight, but evolved over decades at least. However, Hunt posits that unlike portraiture which was a bourgeois and upper class affectation, the means by which empathy became ubiquitous within the European population was much more plebeian. Novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie became bestsellers because they allowed the population to feel things they had not felt before and develop a sense of compassion about those unlike themselves. While we may question this idea of an “empathetic genesis,” there can be no doubt that the eighteenth century philosophers discussed ideas that were revolutionary.

The American Revolution proclaimed it self-evident that all men were equal and possessed the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The French Revolution built upon this, stating equality and freedom entitled men the rights to property, personal security, and opposition to repression.

The revolutionary notion of personal autonomy expressed in both of these (but especially the latter) cannot be overemphasized. While calls against torture and capital punishment certainly developed in the eighteenth century, they were premised on the factors of personal autonomy and a new-found empathy for individuals that arose during this period.

Today we find ourselves still wrestling with the same questions that eighteenth century philosophers debated amongst themselves. What defines a person? While some would question the wisdom of granting personhood to a corporation, I would argue this is merely the natural evolution of a society that wrestled with granting autonomy to slaves, women, and fetuses. In my home state of Iowa, a new bill was introduced which would ban abortion after the twentieth week because it defines the fetus as a “person.” Many conservative lawmakers opposed it because they

I bring this up not to wade into the quagmire that is the abortion debate, but rather to explain that personhood continues to be a polarizing question around which human rights are centered, and interestingly I return to the question of granting personhood to the Ganges. At first glance, this seems to fly in the face of the eighteenth century philosophers who are remembered for their secularism. However, we would do well to recall the reason personhood originated in the eighteenth century. While the United States grants personhood to corporations merely for a profit motive, countries like India and New Zealand are offering personhood to rivers out of a sense of empathy, seeing them as worthy of protection from exploitation. This is the natural evolution of those who advocated for natural rights; in fact, it is the epitome of it.


Based on what we know about initial human rights, why are today’s human rights not more accepted or heeded?

By Heather Monson

Today as I began to write my Apple Watch alerted me that Russia had just moved to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from their country. Although this group has been peaceful and has never violently protested the government, they were added to a list of extremist groups which includes the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS. Freedom of religion is a basic human right according to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet in our modern world there are countries that lack  this. It is hard to believe that in  over two hundred years since the concept of natural rights was discussed in the salons of Paris that our world still has not achieved the basic human rights of freedom from torture, freedom of religion and freedom to love whom we want.  I believe the reason that human rights are not universally accepted or heeded is due to

When the United Nations approved their Universal Declaration of Human Rights  they created an idealistic document that had no teeth. There was no way to enforce these human rights, and even if a country signed the document agreeing to uphold these human rights, there was no way to hold them accountable if they violated them. The language used is vague, muted, and general.  The law is nonspecific and open to interpretation. There are also no consequences if the rights are violated. The rise of nationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century led countries to create a national identity and national myth that had to be protected. This led to the violation of human rights in order to protect the state, or society. When society is put above the individual, rights are violated in order to bring peace or create order to the society.

As nationalism grew, groups within a country were marginalized in the name of protection. Any small fringe group including ethnic, religious and racial groups, were pushed to the margins. They were eliminated or pushed out in the name of building a nation. Lynn Hunt mentions in Inventing Human Rights that when France declared its empire over half of the empire did not speak French. A massive education process began to get all the new citizens to confirm through language and ideology and get citizens on board with the nationalistic movement, a movement of conformity. Here the individual  was being transformed to fit into the society. If the individual does not fit in to the society, then the individual must be changed. It would be wonderful to believe that the individual will change society, but the reality is that society shapes the individual far more than the individual shapes society. When leading nations such as Russia and the United States violate human rights, it sends the message to other nations that nationalism is to be protected above all else.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States radically changed the way the United States viewed terrorism and torture. The United States is one of the most powerful nations and claims to be a leader in protecting human rights internationally, yet  it has used torture. The justification of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to protect the country is indeed torture according to Human Rights Watch. The United States believes an individual’s rights are violated for the greater good. Even though the United States has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 5 that torture should not be used, the United States interprets the phrase “the right to security” as the reason they are able to use torture; it is supposedly done to protect the nation. The muddled legal language in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights leaves the door open for interpretation. Islamic nations can use “freedom of religion” as the right to believe women should be subjugated by the society. The United Nations has relied on nations to make good choices, but this is difficult when a nation has multiple groups with varying values and morals and governing is hard. Eric Posner suggests that the protections of human rights have been a failure because of the “top down” approach of implementation.  His article articulates the weaknesses of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and why a new approach to protecting human rights is in order. He mentions that this restructuring would be nearly impossible for countries like Brazil, the United States and China. These nations have used nationalism as a way of creating unity and conformity, eliminating dissenting opinions. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are peaceful, in fact they do not participate in government in any way, which also means they do not enlist or fight for their government. This is one of the reasons they are seen as an extremist group and against the government, peaceful or not. In order to protect the state, they are to be eliminated; society trumps the individual.

The concept of human rights is possibly the greatest ideal humanity has ever invented. Its greatness is realized in the fact it seems impossible to obtain. Our humanity unifies us, but being human means being an individual. Our individuality is our most human quality and therefore we are constantly at odd with society as it pushes us to conform. As majorities try to control minorities, we must remember that the smallest minority is the individual, which always needs to be protected.


Based on what we know about initial human rights, why are today’s human rights accepted and heeded as readily as they are?

By Matt Bersell

In a recent B.B.C. News article, Imogen Foulkes reported that during Donald Trump’s first one-hundred days as President of the United States, the United Nations as well as several other non-governmental organizations have grown increasingly apprehensive of a potential change in the American position regarding human rights.  Even before Trump’s unlikely electoral victory, U.N. agencies in Geneva worried that Trump’s rhetoric on prominent human rights issues such as immigration and torture would undermine the international body’s goal to uphold the fundamental human rights enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The global community’s fear that the Trump Administration would weaken the American commitment to protecting universal rights was further confirmed in early May when Trump invited Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, to the White House.  Trump’s decision to invite the controversial Filipino leader directly coincides with the U.N. Human Rights Council’s upcoming review of possible human rights violations committed in the Philippines during Duterte’s vicious “war on drugs.”  In response to Trump’s “very friendly” conversation with a head of state accused of inciting various crimes against humanity, U.N. human rights commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein warned that he would be “watching the U.S. very carefully” while John Fisher, the Geneva director of Human Rights Watch, described a Duterte state visit as “entirely inappropriate.”

The gradual advancement and extension of human rights over a period of one-hundred and fifty years is one of several reasons why today’s human rights are readily promoted by the international community and various non-governmental organizations.  In Inventing Human Rights: A History, Lynn Hunt traces the modern conception of universal human rights to 1789 when representatives of the National Assembly of France approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  According to Hunt, the Declaration of the Rights of Man “incarnated the promise of universal human rights” for almost two centuries.  While the French Declaration is heralded as one of the most important human rights documents of the eighteenth-century for its inclusion of Enlightenment concepts of individual and egalitarian rights, Micheline Ishay, the author of The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era, claims that the document’s universal promise of rights was ultimately diminished by concerns over which social groups would be the main beneficiaries of human rights.  In addition to excluding propertyless male citizens, free blacks, religious minorities, and women from the freedoms and liberties entrusted within the document, the framers of the French Declaration also overlooked notable aspects of today’s human rights such as universal suffrage, economic welfare, education, and women’s rights, which were all later enshrined in the 1948 U.N. Declaration as well as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the accompanying International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

The global community’s willingness to accept and defend modern notions of human rights stems from the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.  According to Hunt, the U.N. General Assembly’s vote to approve the Universal Declaration “crystallized 150 years of struggle for rights.” This historic human rights document not only reinforced eighteenth-century principles of individual liberty such as the freedoms of speech and religion, but also incorporated more recent conceptions of political and socioeconomic rights that developed during the spread of industrialization in nineteenth century.  In addition to clauses regarding the prohibition of slavery and the right to national self-determination, the Universal Declaration also included assertions guaranteeing everyone the right to fair employment, education, social security, and an adequate standard of living, which are all central features of today’s human rights. Even though the document’s moral guidelines had “no mechanism for enforcement,” Hunt writes that despite its limitation, the Universal Declaration has set the precedent for international discussion and action on human rights for more the fifty years.

In the decades following the U.N.’s adoption of the Universal Declaration, countless non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors without Borders have emerged as important defenders and promoters of today’s human rights.  While NGO’s were previously responsible for a significant portion of the language used in the 1948 Universal Declaration, Hunt writes that these organizations “gained more international influence beginning in the 1980s, in large part due to the spread of globalization.”  According to Ishay, the human rights community has taken advantage of the development of global information technology to mobilize “infopressure” campaigns against human rights violators.  Some recent examples of this methodology include a list compiled by Amnesty International that describes ways in which the Trump Administration’s policies are currently undermining human rights across the world as well as multiple articles published on the Human Rights Watch website dedicated to highlighting the atrocities committed during Duterte’s “war on drugs” in the Philippines.


Based on what we know about initial human rights, how might today’s notion of human rights be flawed, incomplete, or limiting?

By Gabrielle Filipink

Human rights have always been an integral part of the doctrine of the United States since its decision to break away from Great Britain in the late eighteenth century. When Thomas Jefferson stated in the . However, as some politicians strove to realize that promise, candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties wielded human rights as an electoral tool instead of a moral responsibility. Starting with the victory of Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1968 and continuing through today, the hyper-partisanship of the United States has led to the current instability of the country’s position on human rights.

Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, some Americans felt as though the safety of their communities had been compromised. As historian Rick Perlstein explains in his book titled Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, conservative middle-class citizens felt that the oncoming flood of African-Americans and other ethnicities threatened their job security. They were even more afraid of the idea that these people might try to move into their communities and take away their safety. These feelings were stirred up by many Republican candidates, especially Richard Nixon, which helped to create the feelings of hyper-partisanship that can still be seen today.

Human rights became the foreign policy of the United States during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as he attempted to make the country a beacon of morality in the murky landscape of the Cold War world. Although he did not promise to address each and every issue, Carter promised during his campaign that threats to human rights anywhere in the world would be dealt with in a constructive manner. In 1978, Presidential Directive 30 set guidelines on how the nation should approach human rights policy as well as the specific rights that should be protected. Although the Carter administration did have some failures in pursuing this, they were able to set the tone for the human rights policies of future Democratic administrations.

After the end of the Cold War, the United States focused more and more of their attention on pursuing human rights as a foreign policy in order to fill the vacuum that the collapse of the Soviet Union had created. Up until the current administration, the Secretary of State has personally presented a report on the state of human rights worldwide. Although different amounts of emphasis were placed on the issue, both Democratic and Republican administrations over the last twenty-five years or so have deemed human rights to be an important issue.

However, the “America First” mindset of President Donald Trump has caused a change in the nation’s approach to human rights. By ignoring the past efforts of previous administrations, Trump has ignored human rights completely and in effect has made the issue disappear from his agenda. For example, he recently met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, a leader who was banned from the White House during Barack Obama’s presidency due to the massacres of hundreds of Egyptians for which Sisi is responsible. At no time during this meeting was the issue of human rights in Egypt brought up, which has cast a negative light on the Trump administration.

This decision on the part of the United States to ignore human rights has encouraged other countries to follow suit. Russia has recently decided to abolish the post of human rights commissioner, moving the functions of that post over to the Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights. Although Russia has never been a major advocate of human rights, this decision may encourage similar actions around the world. By ignoring human rights, both Russia and the United States are only encouraging more violations to occur.

In conclusion, hyper-partisanship has greatly influenced the United States’ human rights policy. As the presidency oscillates between the two parties, emphasis on the importance of the rights that Jefferson guaranteed for all men has fluctuated wildly. Although many people have tried to advocate for equal rights everywhere, it is dependent on the administration as to whether or not the calls will be heeded. While I do have hope that bipartisan efforts will take place in the future, I am unsure if they will occur within my lifetime. As long as these hyper-partisan sentiments exist within the United States, the state of human rights will be in flux.


Based on what we know about initial human rights, how might more people and governments be convinced to recognize and observe today’s human rights?

By Jonathan Schulze

Most people that I know are always able to come up with one instance when they were at a family gathering and have had arguments with family members about politics, religion, or a rising social issue. I have definitely had my fair share of these and as the years pass they have kept me from going to family events as frequently as I used to. In the United States, whether you lean more towards the left or more towards the right on the ideological spectrum, most debates that occur today have to deal with  questions about who deserves which human rights, depending on who you are or where you come from. When asking the question on how people and governments would be convinced to recognize and observe today’s human rights, I think that there needs to be a worldwide consensus on whether human rights are universal or a product of cultural relativism.

In Lynn Hunt’s book Inventing Human Rights we are given the basic concept of what universalism is when it comes to human rights in that there are distinct rights that should apply to everyone despite who you are or where you come from. Cultural relativism is the concept that says human rights come from the social and cultural context from which a person had come from. Even within the link that is provided, scholar Laura K. Graham is unsure about the amount of grey area that divides that debate between universalism and cultural relativism.

As an example of the difficulties  in the argument for cultural relativism and universalism in human rights, many see the idea of female genital mutilation, as being a case for universalism. In this case, the idea that one has control over one’s own body and the right to keep one’s own body from harm would be under the universal rights that everyone should have. However, these procedures to women are still performed in several countries around the world.

In my opinion one of today’s biggest threats towards the progression of human rights is the amount of isolationist support coming from certain countries that are or were parts of larger governmental unions. For instance, the recent elections in France and the growing support by many for National Front Party’s Marine Le Pen. As well known by many, Le Pen has been in strong favor to possibly leave the European Union if the election wins in her favor. If this happens, what does this mean for the stability of the European Union, and more importantly, the future of human rights within Europe? It could mean that without more unity between certain nations or governments, the divide between what is seen as human rights by one country as opposed to another could start to grow.

Within the United States, the question of human rights has become  more discussed  since the start of Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency. Donald Trump’s view on human rights has since become an ongoing question because of the lack of consistency seen in his beliefs on the subject. However, one of the most altering statements that he’s given is his idea that all nations have the right to “put their own interests first.” With regard to the debate over human rights, this would further promote the idea of cultural relativism. However, since his inauguration Trump has been selective about his stance on certain human rights. And the threats that he or his administration has made about the observance of human rights do not seem to be ending any time soon.

Having a different perspective on human rights than most of the western world, North Korea has often been a nation that denies human rights to its people. Along with this we know that the United Nations has had a struggling relationship with North Korea concerning these human rights issues. In a surprise turn of events, however, recently it was announced that North Korea has agreed to a meeting with a United Nations human rights expert for the first time. While it does not seem that this is any major move towards North Korea being more compliant with the United Nations or with advancing human rights in their own country, this should be seen as a step forward in reaching a point of compromise between two drastically different nations that have different views on the issue of human rights.

In order to convince people or other governments to recognize and observe human rights, based on the context of what we know about initial human rights, there must be a worldwide consensus about whether these rights are universal or based on cultural relativism. From what we have seen, the lack unification in determining what human rights are is one of the biggest obstacles that threaten their future. Relating these examples to the question that began this post, human rights are often a divisive subject. However, an agreement over what constitutes human rights is one of the most important steps towards universal observance of them.