The ideology of Human Rights: on the semiotics of having rights and the politics of being human

Autor:Allan M. Hillani
Cargo:Ph.D. student of philosophy (New School for Social Research) and Master of theory and philosophy of law (Rio de Janeiro State University ? UERJ). E-mail: allanmh@newschool.edu.
Páginas:10-31
 
TRECHO GRÁTIS
Direito, Estado e Sociedade n.57 p. 10 a 31 jun/set 2020
* Ph.D. student of philosophy (New School for Social Research) and Master of theory and philosophy of law
(Rio de Janeiro State University – UERJ). E-mail: allanmh@newschool.edu.
The ideology of Human Rights: on the
semiotics of having rights and the politics
of being human
A ideologia dos Direitos Humanos: sobre a semiótica de ter
direitos e a política em ser humano
Allan M. Hillani*
New School for Social Research, New York – NY, USA
1. Introduction
In Seeing [Ensaio Sobre a Lucidez], José Saramago continues the story of the
nameless city struck by the “white blindness” of his previous book Blind-
ness [Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira]. In the rainy day in which the local elections
took place, the number of absentees is oddly high, making the government
call for new elections. In the second attempt, for the authorities’ despair,
the abstention is even higher, entailing supplies cut, persecution against
“subversive agents”, and other exceptional measures from the State. The
book as a whole is a brilliant and satirical account of the limits of modern
democracies, but one of its dialogues stands out for its pertinence. At some
point, during a ministerial meeting to discuss government actions in virtue
of the dramatic circumstances, the minister of defense compares the citi-
zens’ abstention with a siege against the State, what unfolds a discussion
on the meaning of rights in general:
11
Direito, Estado e Sociedade n. 57 jun/set 2020
The ideology of Human Rights:
on the semiotics of having rights and the politics of being humano
May I remind our dear colleague and the council as a whole, said the minister
of justice, that, when they decided to cast their blank votes, the citizens were
only doing what the law explicitly allows them to do, therefore, to speak of
rebellion in such a case is, as well as being, I imagine, a grave semantic error,
and you will forgive me, I hope, for venturing into an area of which I have no
authority, is also, from the legal point of view, a complete nonsense, Rights
are not abstractions, retorted the minister of defense, people either deserve
rights or they don’t, and these people certainly don’t, anything else is just so
much empty talk, You’re quite right, said the minister of culture, rights aren’t
abstractions, they continue to exist even when they’re not respected, Now
you’re getting philosophical.1
This short dialogue articulates an interesting problem of legal theory.
On the one hand, there is the standpoint of the law, personified by the
minister of justice, according to which the citizens had the abstract right
to be absent in the elections, no matter at what cost. On the other, we have
the standpoint of order, personified in the minister of defense, according
to which rights can be “abused”, and, therefore, materially lost in some
circumstances. The possibility of having rights and not being able to enact
them, suggested by the minister of culture, is dismissed as “philosophical”.
In the present paper I want to elaborate precisely on this indeed philo-
sophical question: what does it mean to have rights? I believe the problem
is twofold, and its two sides are already present in the first juridical docu-
ments of so-called modernity: the American Declaration of Independence,
from 1776, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,
from 1789. In both documents – and in all the others following their spirit
– rights are declared to be universal and not linked to social status. They
are taken to be a “self-evident” truth, not an aspiration or a political aim,
and everyone is already born with them, regardless of State recognition.
However, the aftermath of the liberal revolutions and the history of the
following centuries did not cease to contest this claim.
Lynn Hunt notices the paradox implied in the “self-evidence” of hu-
man rights: if they are “so self-evident, then why did this assertion have
to be made and why was it only made in specific times and places? How
1 SARAMAGO, 2007, translation amended.

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