First Monday Speaker Recounts History of Human Rights


When it comes to universal human rights, ‘universal’ doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. Lynn Hunt, a distinguished research professor from UCLA, explained this and more in her speech, “The Controversial History of Human Rights.”

First, Hunt called into question our definition of and assumptions about human rights. She used Google N-Gram, a text frequency analysis software, to prove how humans only started writing about human rights in the mid 1700s. Before then, rights varied from country to country and no rights were considered “natural.” Everything depended on class, race, and gender. Hunt explained that the U.S. is frequently credited with being the origin of rights, with the Declaration of Independence often upheld as the

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first significant reference to human rights. This is a misconception. A French document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, laid the real groundwork for human rights. This document has a concrete implementation of human rights and is binding, unlike the Declaration of Independence. Hunt also delineated how human rights depended on three separate prerequisites; they are natural, equal, and universal. Hunt briefly touched on the complicated interpretation of these three words. Historically, some believed that humans rights should be applied to everyone.

However, many let prejudice color their interpretation. The history of human rights is full of aristocrats and elected officials trying to change the definition of “human” to exclude some groups from having human rights. After recounting the history of human rights, Hunt posed the audience with an intriguing question: What if we are not at the end of the human rights story but somewhere in the middle?

The most divisive claim of the afternoon came from an unexpected place: epistolary novels. It was the popularity of these serials that kickstarted the international human rights movement. Hunts pointed to Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” as a shining example. These books told the personal stories of the lower class through a series of letters and displayed their humanity to a wider audience. They helped wealthy citizens build empathy for the disenfranchised, and when it was time to write new constitutions, the same empathy found its way into The Rights of Man.

This bold claim has a mixed response. Alan Pnakovitch ’19 didn’t buy it. “There is simply no way to demonstrate any direction,” said Pnakovitch. “Her study only demonstrates that two phenomen[a] occur at the same time.” Greta Wu ’19 disagreed: “She made a compelling argument. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.”

Aside from specifics of the presentation, the topic of the talk itself also had a mixed response. While many students found the talk interesting, to many, it didn’t seem particularly relevant. Ely Merenstein ’21 was one such audience member. “[It was] interesting to see a talk entirely centered on linguistics,” said Merenstein. “While there is likely value in such an analysis, it wasn’t quite what I expected.” Hunt demonstrated how human rights changed over time, but she didn’t necessarily explain why this was relevant to a room full of college students. After her conclusion, Hunt graciously offered to stick around and answer any student questions. There were hundreds of students in Kathryn Morhman auditorium, but only four decided to continue the conversation. Perhaps, the CC student body found the talk interesting, just less interesting than lunch.

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