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Values without qualities: Pathos and mythos in the universal declaration of human rights

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Pathos and Mythos in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights
Mark Goodale
And suddenly, in view of these reections, Ulrich had to smile and admit to himself
that he was, after all, a character, even without having one.
(Musil [1930] 1996)
This chapter takes one of the most inuential and totemic documents of our time,
the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and reads it as a historical-
literary text that is infused with, and shaped by, two pervasive rhetorical modes:
pathos and mythos. For the rst, the UDHR arises from the ashes of the charnel house of
the Second World War as a moral cri de coeur, a protest against the unthinkable col-
lapse of modernity, and a rearmation of the utopian promises of the international
system. Like all texts shaped in part by pathos, the UDHR was meant to embody a
collective catharsis of pity and fear(Walker 2000: 280) pity for the unimaginable
horrors of genocide and military imperialism, and fear that the world had not seen
the last of their ravages.
At the same time, the UDHR moves from its origins in pathos to do work as a
prospective, heuristic, and instrumental text. Here, it is not pathos, but the mode
of mythos that marks it as a document with universal aspirations and universalist
connotations. Indeed, the success of the UDHR as a globally translated text with
hegemonic implications, particularly after the end of the Cold War (and, even more,
after the end of the postCold War, see Goodale 2013), can be traced in large part to
the ways in which what I call the myth of universalityhas taken root in interna-
tional politics, transnational civil society discourse, and, more recently, international
law. As I will argue below, however, the mythic character of the UDHR was present
from the very beginning despite its growing importance with the rise of what Sally
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Merry Engle and I have described as the practice of human rights(Goodale and Merry
2007). In this way, the so-called globalization of human rights in recent years has
been accomplished by enlarging the community of moral and political actors who
come to share an implicit commitment to a set of baseline assumptions.
However, in reinterpreting the UDHR and thus the practices of human rights
that are inspired by this founding document through the two dominant rhetorical
modes that animate it, we are led, by a series of circuitous paths that will be descri-
bed below, to a conclusion with both surprising and troubling implications: that the
eventual triumph of the UDHR as the international Magna Carta of all men
everywhere,as Eleanor Roosevelt put it during her famous speech to the UN
General Assembly in December of 1948, depends on a paradox (1948b). On the one
hand, the myth of universality is constructed on an abstract account of the man
in the all menof Roosevelts speech (today we would say the personin
all people”–the question of gender is not important for our purposes here). That is,
in order to enlarge the community for whom all men/people share certain essential
traits in common dignity, equality, rationality, etc. it is necessary that the cate-
gory be emptied, slowly but surely, of the kinds of innumerable contingencies that
dene the actual lives of people living within particular cultural and historical
moments. It is just at that moment or threshold when a transcultural and transspe-
cicmanemerges, not as a simple concept, but as a social category that is capable
of structuring action, that the myth of universality comes into its own in the way
contemplated by the drafters of the UDHR and those who were involved, to greater
or lesser degrees, in its production.
But, on the other hand, the realization of the myth of universality again, as a
structuring social category that has underpinned the relatively recent apotheosis of
the postwar human rights project has meant the emergence of what can be descri-
bed as values without qualities.This is a way of understanding what results when
human rights norms are vernacularized,as Sally Engle Merry (2006) has put it, in
the course of implementation, practice, resistance, and political struggle. Much like the
condition of modern identity that Musil explored in his twentieth-century master-
piece, the values without qualities that characterize a diused and pervasive human
rights as norms, as discourse, as those protean forms of social action assembled,
by convention, under a portal named human rights’” (Baxi 2002: v) likewise lack a
core of sustainable (in this case moral) substance. Indeed, the relationship between
the growing hegemony of human rights and the thickness of the moral content
that comprises it is inverse: as human rights (again, dened and understood in the
multiple) increasingly assumes the kind of much-delayed dominance that was con-
templated during the production of the UDHR, it thereby loses more and more of
its normative meaning. However, unlike Musils argument, if one can call it that, in
the volumes that make up the magnum opus The Man without Qualities, that identity
without substance is a necessary precondition for survival in the modern world, the
argument here is that a human rights framework that is emptied of normative rich-
ness in practice is a framework that is increasingly fragile. Much like a house of
cards that waits only for a slight gust of wind to cause it to collapse upon itself,
the values without qualities that have come to captivate much of the global moral
imaginary likewise teeter and sway.
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The collapse of modernity
The cultural and political process that led rst to the call for a universal declaration of
human rights, then the drafting of what became the UDHR, cannot be understood
apart from the immediate context of world-historical catastrophe that preceded it.
It is dicult now, in retrospect, to fully capture the prevailing sense of both horror
at the then-immediate destruction of the Second World War and the sense of relief
that followed immediately upon it. These twined responses were, of course, experi-
enced in vastly dierent ways among dierent populations in dierent countries;
indeed, the confessional, autocritical, and magical realist literatures of various countries,
especially during the 1950s and 1960s, reveal how this general horror/relief sensi-
bility was expressed within particular cultural and historical contexts (see, for
example, the writings associated with the German Nachkriegsliteratur [especially those
from Group 47], the postwar works by the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, or
the nest dirtyingnovels of the Austrian Thomas Bernhard).
Nevertheless, despite the obvious diversity, the general sense of experienced
calamity was pervasive, even for those or particularly for those for whom the
experience of recent catastrophe was vicarious. This was perhaps the most characteristic
feature of the cultural aftereects of the paroxysms of violence that shattered the rst
half of the twentieth century that their ravages, despite their direct consequences
for hundreds of millions of people, transformed the worldviews for hundreds of mil-
lions more people whose lives were not immediately aected. This was undoubtedly
true for ordinary people; but we know about its implications most clearly from the
politicians, intellectuals, and social leaders who would attempt to create a world
made new,as Eleanor Roosevelt described it (see Glendon 2001). As the intellectual
historian Isaiah Berlin put it, reecting on the sense of vicarious calamity later in life,
I have lived through most of the twentieth century without, I must add, suering
personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history
(quoted in Hobsbawm 1995: 1).
But if the sense of disaster and total collapse was pervasive in the immediate
aftermath of the Second World War, how was this dark zeitgeist understood and
what were the implications for the postwar settlement? As Peter H. Wilson (2009) has
argued, in his denitive single-volume history of the Thirty YearsWar, the interna-
tional system of nation-state sovereignty was perhaps the most lasting consequence
of the Peace of Westphalia. This seventeenth-century (1648) settlement was intended,
in part, to create a new system of international relations, at least in the West, that
would inter alia set up barriers (political, economic, cultural) to the outbreak of
total and destructive war that would sweep up civilian populations and overow the
borders of the inevitable disputes that were expected to arise from time to time. The
gradual emergence of sovereign nation-states as a political framework for avoiding
widespread destructive war marked the beginning of modern Europe (Wilson 2009).
Although it is an open historical question whether or not the Westphalian system
served its functions in the intervening centuries, what is beyond historical debate is
the fact that the sequence of implosion that began with the outbreak of World War
One led to the total collapse of the modern international political order and all of its
pretensions well before American bombers dropped nuclear weapons on the civilian
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populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (both war crimes under international law, at
least in theory, which caused the deaths of nearly 200,000 people). As a consequence,
those who were charged with the rebuilding in the aftermath of this global implosion
were confronted with a two-part dilemma: what were the political implications to be
drawn from it, and how was the half-century of unprecedented dehumanization and
mass atrocity to be understood as a reection on human nature and the possibility
for moral renewal?
Pathos in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Despite some doubt about the provenance of the aphorism that history is written
by the victors(various sources attribute it to Machiavelli and Churchill, for example),
there is no question that the postwar settlement that began in 1945 was fundamentally
shaped by the realpolitik interests of the great powers that were in a position to
dictate its terms and, by implication, deny the alternatives (see Bosco 2009). So as a
response to the rst part of the dilemma, instead of conceiving of a post-Westphalian
political order, the small number of inuential victor-nations took the step (in
the form of the United Nations and its permanent member Security Council) of
dramatically augmenting the centuries-old system of national sovereignty and billiard
ball autonomy. Rather than seeing the cataclysm of the rst half of the twentieth
century as the ultimate argument against the international system of nation-state
sovereignty, it was taken as evidence that the system itself had been imperfectly
constructed and implemented. The United Nations and its Charter were thus taken
to represent a more perfect realization of the Westphalian order.
But the second part of the dilemma was not so easily resolved. It took a profound
leap of faith to make the sweeping pronouncements about human nature and moral
equality in the UDHR. Each urgent assertion that made its way into the text was
shadowed by the calamity of war, racial murder, and military imperialism. The claims
themselves were meant to stand in stark contrast to their antitheses, which would
seem, taken together, to have been a more accurate, if impossible to acknowledge,
description of the political and moral moment in 1948. This is what we might call
pathos in the mirror: the use of aspirational, emotionally charged, and morally
elevated language to intentionally obscure, deny, and collectively repress the
memory and troubling implications of mass tragedy:
The inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of
the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the
world whereas the peoples of the United Nations have rearmed their
faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human
person and in the equal rights of men and women all human beings are
born free and equal in dignity and rights and should act towards one
another in a spirit of brotherhood .
(UDHR 1948: Preamble Article 1)
And so on. The value assertions push the boundaries of meaning, especially in the
context of their emergence; they are invoked with totemic relish; they gesture both
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backwards and forwards toward cosmopolitan fantasies of what Kant called perpe-
tual peace; they are deantly capacious.
But what is important to realize is that this act of employing pathos in the mirror
was unique given the underlying historical circumstances. Unlike other world-historical
documents that similarly made the assertion of values without qualities a central
discursive strategy for example, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and
of the Citizen (1789), the US Declaration of Independence (1776), and the Soviet
Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People (1918) the UDHR was
not originally associated with revolution, an emancipatory politics, or the framing of
a new social order. Instead, it is a text whose origins are, in a critical sense, ironic. While
its formal purpose was to outline a postwar regime in which barbarous acts which
have outraged the conscience of mankindwould never again blight the global
landscape, in fact, its implicit purpose was to provide a discursive outlet for collec-
tive forgetting and denial. In this way, the text of the UDHR is an inversion of the
didactic messages that infuse novels like Milan KunderasThe Book of Laughter and
Forgetting (1980). If the epigrammatic line from that novel is the struggle of man
against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,then the UDHR might
be said to represent the struggle of forgetting against memory.And the discursive
bridge that was meant to carry this struggle forward was the myth of universality, a
myth whose power continues to grow.
The myth of universality
Although the literature on mythos as a key rhetorical device is vast (see, e.g., Lincoln
2000 for a relatively recent critical and wide-ranging survey), what is most illuminating
when rereading and reinterpreting the UDHR is the idea that in order for storylines
or plots within a narrative to be understood by an audience, the audience must share
a set of baseline, implicit understandings that consist of common moral perspectives,
historical sensibilities, and linguistic cross-references (Walker 2000). The possibility
of meaning of any narrative, in this sense, depends on the presence of these pre-
existing metacategories. The presence of these shared categories among an audience
does not, however, determine how the specic meaning of a narrative will be shaped,
interpreted, and acted upon; it only establishes the necessary preconditions for the
creation of meaning itself.
In this way, the production of the UDHR in 1947 and 1948 took place at a time in
which a global audience did not yet exist that could receive and participate in its
narrative power. This problem was recognized by Eleanor Roosevelt herself: the fact
that the story or plot, as it were, of the UDHR was given to a world years and even
decades before it shared a set of baseline assumptions about human nature, about
the radical equality of all people, and about the necessary subordination of the
nation-state to the imperatives of a transnational moral order that is, before it was
capable of understanding its transformative message. In a wide-ranging 1948 Foreign
Aairs interview, which was published as The Promise of Human Rights,she
explicitly acknowledged that the soon-to-be adopted UDHR was a text for a world
that did not yet exist. Instead, she and the drafting commission understood that the
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narrative of the UDHR could only be received in its own terms once enough people
around the world agreed that it embodied a set of ideals which they must strive to
reach,the most important of which was the idea that certain rights are considered
inherent rights belonging to every human being(Roosevelt 1948a: 475, 477).
In other words, the narrative of the UDHR could only be fully understood after
a belief in a universal moral ontology had taken root and come to be taken for
granted. It is this general myth of universality –“mythnot as a false assertion, but
as a preexisting and baseline cultural belief that has captivated people around the
world, especially after the end of the Cold War (see Goodale 2013), rather than
the problems associated with specic rights that people might or might not claim
(as important as these are for academic and legal specialists, political leaders, vulnerable
populations, and so on).
And the importance of inculcating a belief in the myth of universality was recognized
not only by those in the relatively small circle who were involved in the drafting and
later promotion of the UDHR, the most important of whom among the latter was
undoubtedly René Cassin, whose zeal and untiring (self-)promotion around the UDHR
eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 as the fatherof the UDHR, despite
the fact, as Johannes Morsink (1999) later documented in his almost hour-by-hour
history of the drafting of the UDHR, that it was John Humphrey who played the
decisive role in the drafting process and not Cassin. (As Morsinks research
revealed, the so-called Humphrey Draft formed the basis for over 90 percent of what
became the UDHR.)
It was also a key concern for the members of an obscure subcommittee of the
United Nations Educational, Scientic, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that was
charged, somewhat controversially, by UNESCO Secretary-General Julian Huxley to
assist the UDHR Drafting Committee by conducting a global empirical survey whose
purpose was to gauge the extent to which a belief in universal human rights was
already present among the worldsdierent populations (see UNESCO 1949). The
results of this survey were then supposed to be analyzed and a report forwarded to
the Drafting Committee to be used as part of the actual drafting process. The timeline
of this report, its impact on the UDHR, and the details surrounding the formation
of what has come to be known as the PhilosophersCommittee are all questions that
are both still unclear and beyond the scope of this chapter. What is important to
emphasize is the fact that the report of the PhilosophersCommittee, which was
compiled during the summer of 1947 after a meeting in Paris, goes to great lengths to
underscore the fact that its analysis of the global survey, and the broader conclusions
to be drawn from it, were far from driven by purely scientic concerns.
Instead, the PhilosophersCommittee noted that its study was fundamentally shaped
by the ethical purpose and transcendent mission of the UDHR Drafting Committee.
As it put it, in its report to the Drafting Committee, its conclusions were meant to
contribute to the formulation and implementationof the forthcoming UDHR,
despite the fact that the responses to the survey could be interpreted in many dierent
ways (UNESCO 1949: 272). To this extent, the PhilosophersCommittee created the
myth of universality from a complicated and ambiguous data set, which included a
response to the survey by Gandhi, in which he appears to reject the importance of
human rights in favor of duties learnt from my illiterate but wise mother(1949: 18).
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Indeed, the role of the PhilosophersCommittee and its report to the Drafting
Committee have become a primary signpost pointing to the empirical fact of human
rights universality and the key counterargument to the position that the UDHR and
the idea of universal human rights more generally was a form of neoimperialism
foisted onto the world by the West (for a particularly emphatic example of this use
of the work of the PhilosophersCommittee, see Kohen 2007: 13738; see also
Glendon 2001).
But if the myth of universality was a necessary and intentional bedrock of the
UDHR, as important to its existence and the eventual reception of its narrative of
human dignity and global equality as any of its specic articles, what are the con-
sequences of the fact that the archetypal [contemporary] language of democratic
transition(Wilson 2001: 1) among its other hegemonies depends on a global
consensus around such a wispy generalization?
Conclusion: values without qualities and the dark sides of culture
Despite the important counterexamples of opponents of the postCold War human
rights revolution such as China and (in dierent, but no less consequential ways) the
United States (not coincidentally, the worldsrst and second largest economies), there
is no question that the then-futuristic dreams of Eleanor Roosevelt and the other key
players in the postwar human rights project have been realized the world made
newis upon us. But the various social, economic, and political processes through
which this new world has dawned have depended, as we have seen, on the prolifera-
tion and global embodiment of a set of baseline assumptions, the most important of
which is the myth of universality. But in order for this myth to foreground an
increasingly hegemonic global discourse, it was (and remains) necessary for the vast
range of thick alternatives to be diminished, transformed, vernacularized.These
alternatives have often been grouped together, by convenience, under the rubric of
culture: an equally vague referent that has only recently made its way partially
back from its dark associations with premodernity, otherness, structural violence,
and patriarchy (see, e.g., the attempted rehabilitation of culturein the 2007 UN
Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). And yet for all this, the thickness
of actually existing culture and its implications of deep and real historicity and
contingency remains a perceived obstacle to the nal triumph of a mythic global
cosmopolitan culture held together by a set of shared values whose transparent
thinness is precisely their virtue.
But should values that are essentially empty of meaning, values that owe their
origins and validity to a political process shaped by a troubling ethics, form the basis
of what has become the only legitimate transnational game in town? (By legitimate,
I mean according to the secular, internationalist governmental and nongovernmental
actors and regimes that are on the ascendance. This leaves aside, of course, other
claimants anchored in religious, economic, and ethnic ideologies.) The answer to this
question depends on ones vision of human conict and the possibilities for the
reestablishment of the kind of broad-reaching, pervasive cultural and ideological
unity that Henry Adams pined away for in The Education of Henry Adams. (His
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earlier study of the great cathedral of Chartres was an ode to the highpoint of unity
on his reading of history thirteenth-century medieval Europe, a world tightly
bound by the strictures of Catholicism, a system founded on another kind of myth
of universality.)
To return to Musil and the character of Ulrich, an argument can certainly be
made that values without qualities are precisely what is needed for a world made
new, a world founded on a secular unity based in mythical universal claims about
human dignityand the inalienable rights of members of the human family”–that
is, everyone. However, not even Musil really believed in the viability of the man
without qualities, the kind of man whose very emptiness was a precondition for
survival in a world marked by multiplicity, the death of optimism, and tragedy. But
to his credit, Musil did not oer an alternative, perhaps because he had become too
wearied by circumstances to conceive of one. Given its origins, the same might also
be said of human rights.
Further reading
Jonsson, S. (2001) Subject without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity,
Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (A critical study of the relationship between Robert
Musils literature and the reconceptualization of the human subject in postmodern Europe.)
McBride, P. (2006) The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity, Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press. (An exploration of the possibility of moral life in a
world in which moral values have become obsolete.)
Merry, S. E. (2015) Measuring the World: Indicators, Human Rights, and Global governance,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (An ethnographic study of the largely ideological
eorts to measure the empirical eectiveness of human rights in the postCold War period.)
Moyn, S. (2010) The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press. (A polemical argument about the postwar history of human
Baxi, U. (2002) The Future of Human Rights, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Bosco, D. L. (2009) Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the
Modern World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Glendon, M. A. (2001). A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, New York: Random House.
Goodale, M. (2013) Human Rights After the Post-Cold War,in M. Goodale (ed.), Human
Rights at the Crossroads, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goodale, M. and Merry, S. E. (eds.), (2007) The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law between
the Global and the Local, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hobsbawm, E. (1995) Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 19141991, London:
Kohen, A. (2007) In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World,
New York: Routledge.
Kundera, M. (1980) The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, New York: Knopf.
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Lincoln, B. (2000) Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Merry, S. E. (2006) Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local
Justice, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morsink, J. (1999) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent,
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Musil, R. ([1930]1996) The Man without Qualities, New York: Vintage.
Roosevelt, Eleanor (1948a) The Promise of Human Rights,Foreign Aairs 26: 47077.
——(1948b) Speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. December 10.
UNESCO (1949) Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations, New York: Columbia University
Walker, J. (2000) Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, P. H. (2009) The Thirty YearsWar: Europes Tragedy, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press.
Wilson, R. A. (2001) The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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