Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jack Bauer and the Future of Human Rights

In her recent book, "The Invention of Human Rights", historian Lynn Hunt argues that to understand the development of the notion of human rights we need to look at the development of the novel as form of literary expression. In the middle of the 18th century, people were engrossed with stories that gripped their emotions and encouraged them to have a kind of empathy with the lives of fictional characters such that these imaginary worlds were mirrors of their own sentiments and feelings. From this new kind of experience, a new social and political order developed that spoke about the importance of protecting human beings from the cruelties of the state and arbitrary power. Human rights, then, develop out of a growing moral and political consciousness that was nurtured through narrative and a new understanding of the proper role of the emotions.

Slovoj Zizek points out that this moral progress is now under attack--we no longer have a benchmark that says certain kinds of practices, such as torture, are simply wrong. He hints that there is growing consciousness that sometimes "awful things" have to be done by authorities in order to provide for security and well being and that this is coming from popular culture. Television shows such as "24", "The Shield", and "Lost" have, since 9/11, presented numerous scenes of torture and mutilation by police and intelligence officers against the bad guys. What's worse is that military and intelligence officials have admitted that they have been influenced to develop interogation techniques from TV shows like this.

Hunt points out that human rights have a very shaky foundation in our political and legal traditions. Can they be supported in a world nurtured by stories of morally questionable heroes who "have to do what they have to do"? What sort of social and political worlds will develop from these tales?

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At 7:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would suggest, Joseph, that you just have to look around to see the result. Not only with 24 etc, but in recent history. The prevalence of this kind of story is not new. I guess the difference is that there is no discussion around it.

My question: Which came first, Guantanamo Bay or 24/The Shield/Lost?


At 10:36 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Dennis: I'm not so sure that things have been getting worse. The narrative of decline is always one I'm suspicious of, in general. When it comes to violence, recent studies indicate that we might indeed be coming to a more "civilized place". If this is so, then we should indeed be worried about popular culture that bucks this trend.


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