Should We Move Human Rights, or Should Human Rights Move Us? Reflecting on the Possibilities of A Broken Academic Heart

By Hilary Leathem


"Your own actions are a better mirror of your life than the actions of all your enemies put together. That is why I told you to watch what you do to others instead of always thinking about what others do to you."--from Ngugi wa Thiongo's "Wizard of the Crow" (2006)


Although I am a graduate student in Anthropology, it was literature and the humanities that first introduced me to human rights and emphasized the immensity of their social importance. The work of African writers like Ngugi, Wole Soyinka, Mongo Béti, and Amos Tutuola were not just read for the beauty of the prose but for the magnitude of the stories they told. Ngugi sharply depicts the horrors of the Mau Mau rebellion in his Weep Not, Child, while Beti fictionalizes and satirizes the effects of missionaries in colonial Cameroon in the Poor Christ of Bomba. Refusing to gloss any side as purely evil, Béti rather equates evil to the ways that power is used and abused, regardless of sex, race, nationality, or creed. For the sake of brevity, this wave of literature can be seen as the advent of a calling to human rights outside of the realm of the purely political.

This said, from the moment I read this literature I considered it a duty to understand how such historical moments of violence, of subjugation, of the conscious destruction of human beings, could even take place. Moreover, how is it that human beings find it within themselves to deal so cruelly with others, and to what extent are we surrounded in our everyday lives with droves and slowly crystallizing heaps of colonial debris, no matter where we turn in the world? These questions lead anthropologists – and many others in various disciplines – to strike out and attempt to dispel of the yoke of colonialism; how can we decolonize the world we live in when we simultaneously participate and construct lives that are built on these very colonial foundations, no matter how ruined or dilapidated these literal (and figurative) structures might be?

As my dissertation research is reshaped and reimagined, I find myself becoming more preoccupied with the asymmetries of power that are built into the system that is likewise material and immaterial. I am consistently horrified by the atrocities committed around the world, and consequently mortified by how difficult it is to truly break free from prior imperial frameworks. One dimension of my own work seeks to track the “right to heritage” that we find in so many communities or environments where peoples’ livelihoods depend on the dictums of a transnational organization like UNESCO, and the legal institutions that follow therein. Delving deeper, I find that human rights have become irrevocably intertwined with notions of heritage and patrimony, and heritage is now not just a commodity (sensu Comaroff and Comaroff 2009), but it is a collective abstraction embodied in monuments that represents a particular vision of the past. I want to pursue deeper what it means that heritage has become a human right; how as recent as this year the International Criminal Court summoned a man and prosecuted him for the destruction of Timbuktu in Mali and its surrounding sacred architecture. They did, in fact, mention the crimes he committed against people, the murders and the rapes, but what does it say about the society that we live in that suddenly a violent act against material “heritage” overshadows homicide? What does it mean for heritage and human rights that the former’s destruction—a sort of erasure of a group’s history—can now be labeled a crime against humanity and a war crime? What are the stakes of envisaging history and its affective resonances within an international legal framework? And does the moral order of this kind of project draw on remnants of older, colonial ways of thinking?

To bring this back to the start, the subject of human rights came to me as an emotional response to the injustices of the world from a very young age. Now, as a PhD student in Anthropology at UChicago, I can finally research these forms of historical and social injustice, how they resonate in the present, and make my own (perhaps feeble) attempt to answer why these kinds of injustices exist and circulate. In other words, I can move human rights, and so can you.

But what has weighed on my mind in recent weeks is whether we should allow ourselves to be moved by human rights in turn? What about self-reflexivity? That is, despite the stiff-upper-lip attitude that is condoned and admired in the academy, can and should we allow ourselves to weep when watching difficult footage or hearing a moving testimony? Should our emotions—or tears— be seen as weakness? The struggles of those we sometimes study certainly aren’t. The anthropologist Ruth Behar has argued for a self-reflexive anthropology that “breaks your heart,” essentially calling for empathy with our interlocutors and the material we read, process, and write. She demonstrates that this is one of the curious and most wonderful and potent aspects of ethnography.

While I was initially highly skeptical of Behar, the recent tears I myself have shed in dealing with human rights-based research belies the terrifying truth—it is impossible for me to be completely divested from what I do, and this is an important realization. Further, it allows for better research. I suspect that human rights has the same capacity as the kind of anthropology Behar proposes. Human rights and all contained within this umbrella – like the decolonial, moving writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o for example—should break your heart. Because if the work doesn’t move you, how will you move it?