For some decades now there has been a debate over the alleged Western bias of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the multitude of activities that have emanated from it. The debate has typically focused on the priority of individual rights over collective or communal rights. The former are supposed to be characteristic of the West, while the latter are ascribed to various non-Western cultures and philosophies. The Singapore government was in the forefront of advocating so-called “Asian values”. More recently the Chinese government has jumped on this particular bandwagon, morphing the old Marxist collectivism into the traditional Confucian ideal of the “harmonious society”. Roughly similar ideas have been voiced in the Islamic world. The typical butt of the criticism is the Western individual—isolated, alienated both from nature and from true community, animated by an abstract notion of human rights divorced from history. By contrast, there is another view of the individual, embedded in a community and in harmony with nature. The latter, of course, is deemed to be superior, more in tune with true human nature.
In trying to assess this ideological constellation, it is useful to take apart its geographical assumption. Where is the West? Seen from Singapore or Beijing, the West is located in Europe and North America (where, not so incidentally, the headquarters of all major human rights organizations are to be found). This was not always so.
The critique of the isolated, abstract individual can probably be dated from the reaction to the French revolutionary ideas carried into Germany on the bayonets of Napoleon’s armies. German romanticism and idealistic philosophy rejected this allegedly superficial individualism in the name of the profound spirit (Geist) of German culture. Germany had this deeply spiritual Kultur; the West (France and England lumped together) had a merely technological Zivilisation. It was clear: The West was on the other side of the Rhine.
Russian writers and thinkers repeated the exercise, with minor variations. Slavophiles debated appropriately named Westernizers. The Slavophiles contrasted the depths of the Russian soul with—yes, indeed—the superficial, only technologically sophisticated West (Germany definitely included). This duality is eloquently if crudely expressed by old Karamazov, in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, when he announces that he believes in hell—but not a metaphorical Lutheran hell—no, a true Russian hell, with real devils poking you with real fiery pincers. Now the West is located on the other side of the Russian border.
Conservative French thinkers contrasted the communal culture of an “integral Catholicism” (which was supposed to be the true nature of France, “the oldest daughter of the Church”) with the overly individualistic Protestantism to their east and west—a theme taken up by Catholic traditionalists everywhere. The West is wherever Protestantism had done its corroding work. Conservative thinkers in Britain neatly reversed the invidious comparison. They focused on the “other France”—revolutionary, republican, anti-clerical—marked by the values of a rootless individualism. Sober, communal Britain is compared with the “geometrical” abstractions of French democracy—a comparison nicely caught in Edmund Burke’s image of peacefully grazing English cattle. Now the West was located on the eastern side of the English Channel.
Spain too cultivated a counter-image of a rootless, overly individualistic Europe. In contrast, Spain possesses a deeply spiritual culture, perhaps most dramatically expressed by the figure of Don Quixote. Miguel de Unamuno, arguably one of the greatest modern Spanish writers, conceded that Europe was superior technologically, then exclaimed “Let them invent!” Spain did not need their inventions; it had the “tragic sense of life” (del sentimiento trágico de la vida), immortalized in the title of Unamuno’s most famous book. Now the West is north of the Pyrenees.
Latin America imitated the ideological exercise of the motherland—only now the individualistic antithesis was not Europe, but the United States. In 1900 the Uruguayan writer Jose Enrique Rodo published Ariel (the title refers to Shakespeare’s character of an “aerie spirit” in The Tempest). The book gave the name arielismo to a self-image of Latin America, as a world of imagination and soul, set against the American Caliban—a gross, mindless individual, mired in the empty pursuit of material goods. The West is north of the Rio Grande.
Perhaps it was inevitable that this dualism would finally land in America itself. The antebellum ideology of the South contrasted its own supposedly gracious communalism (slaves and all) with the—you have guessed it—crude, materialist, individualistic North. A conclusion suggests itself: The West is exclusively located in Akron, Ohio.
This exercise in parody is useful in disclosing an underlying motif in all these ideological constructions. The alleged malady—no matter whether its roots are believed to lie in Protestantism, or republicanism, or capitalism—is always what is deemed to be an “excessive individualism”, pitted against an allegedly superior, more natural communal solidarity. Parody aside, is there any validity to this dualism?
There is. There is a real antithesis between individual and collective rights. It is also true that the original codification of the former occurred mainly (though not exclusively) in Western Europe and North America. It certainly makes sense to pit the Confucian idea of the individual living in harmony with the community against the Western idea of the rights of the individual against the community. But the attempt to locate the antithesis geographically makes less and less sense.
There is a long history behind the idea of human rights and liberties belonging to every individual, regardless of any ascriptive status—regardless of race, gender, class, religion, and so on. But the word “idea” may be somewhat misleading here. To be sure, there were formulators of theory who played important roles in the aforementioned history—Greek philosophers, Christian theologians, Roman jurists, and very decisively the writers of the Enlightenment. But history is not an ongoing philosophical seminar. The rights of the individual can indeed be read about in books. But much more importantly, there is a distinctive experience of individual existence which leads compellingly to the notion of individual rights. At a certain point of history these rights are perceived as “self-evident”—very interestingly, in places far removed from the Western history of ideas. One may view this fact as a case of cultural imperialism. I think that, more tellingly, this is an imperialism of truth—a truth about the human condition which can be and is perceived by people who have never read a book or heard a speech about human rights. “The West”, attacked by all these communalists, is not a geographical location, but a way of looking at the world.
I don’t know what books had been read by the protestors who in 1989 erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I doubt whether they were pledging allegiance to a specifically Western ideology, or whether they had any coherent theory at all. What is clear is that they were asserting their rights, as individuals, against the community defined by the state. As was that street vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia, or the young people who congregated on Tahrir Square in Cairo. There is no easy road from this experience to institutions that codify and protect the experience. Still, the experience is primary—and it is available universally.