Imprisoned defenders and Richard Rorty

12 Jul 2018
Author: Robert Precht

There was a moving event at Fordham Law School on July 8, 2018 marking the third anniversary of China’s crackdown on human rights lawyers. Several lawyers remain secretly detained by the authorities and their health is uncertain. During the ceremony, two lawyers were presented awards for their work in absentia. The awards were accepted by the wives of the imprisoned lawyers, one in New York and the other in Beijing. 

Geng He, wife of Gao Zhisheng, accepted an award for her detained husband and read a statement about his persecution. She cried during much of the speech. Li Wenzu, wife of imprisoned Wang Quanzhang, was shown in an introductory video trailed by a mob of state security officers as she tries to register her small child for school. The child is heard in the background calling out “mama, mama.” 

The wrenching stories calls to mind one of philosopher Richard Rorty’s most popular essays: “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” In a nutshell, Rorty argues that the best way to combat human rights violations is to engage people emotionally, rather than rationally. He believed that it was useless trying to convince people that human rights are universal -- the goal should be to enlarge empathy, so that people feel that the victims of human rights violations are not some quasi-human beings but members of their own community. 

Rorty observes that those who commit abuses dehumanize their victims; their actions against people of different religions or beliefs are permissible because in the eyes of the perpetrators the victims are not really human -- they are enemies of the state. No amount of rational arguments or pointing out UN conventions will change the view of the abusers that the victims are subhuman. The better course, according to Rorty, is sentimental education. “We pragmatists argue from the fact that the emergence of the human rights culture seems to owe nothing to increased moral knowledge, and everything to hearing sad and sentimental stories….” (p. 119). 

Believing that it is futile to demonstrate the universality of human rights, Rorty thinks the best way to get people to adopt a human rights culture is through the cultivation of sympathy -- “By ‘sympathy’ I mean the sort … that whites in the United States had more of after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin than before, the sort that we have more of after watching television programs about the genocide in Bosnia.” (p.128). 

Rorty’s approach is relevant to China. The violations of human rights are occurring against the backdrop of new restrictions on education. Students in China are not taught sympathy, to view human rights lawyers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other religious minorities as people like them, people they should care about, people whose sufferings should move them. To my knowledge, there is no Chinese equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird. Students are not able to watch the images and stories we experienced yesterday in New York. It’s a pity that American corporate executives and college presidents were not in the audience too.