Notes on: de Sousa Santos, B. (2002)  Toward a multicultural conception of human rights.  In B. Hernández-Truyol (Ed.), Moral Imperialism. A Critical Anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Dave Harris

Human rights can be progressive and emancipatory, but can also lead to fragmentation and identity politics. The aim is to develop the notion as a driving force and language for 'ever more inclusive local, national and transnational public spheres (104).

We should not conceive of universal human rights because this is a 'globalised localism'. They should be seen as multicultural, cosmopolitan, counterhegemonic. They should emerge from 'cross-cultural dialogues on isomorphism concerns' (106) and we need criteria to distinguish progressive politics, empowerment and emancipation.

All cultures refer to human dignity, but not all of them see it as a matter of human rights, hence the need to look for isomorphic concerns which may have different names or concepts or worldviews. Some are more open than others, some more reciprocal in terms of other cultures (107). We can see this as incompleteness , more visible from the outside from another culture and we need to raise this 'consciousness of cultural incompleteness to its possible maximum',  a mestiza conception of human rights, appearing as 'a constellation of local and mutually intelligible local meanings, networks of empowering normative references'.

This exchange takes place between different knowledges and different cultures and may involve 'in a strong sense, incommensurable universes of meaning' (108), so full understanding may be impossible. Instead, he proposes diatopical hermeneutics, a discussion in the local cultural context that mobilises 'social support for the emancipatory claims' that local concepts of human rights and dignity 'potentially contain'.

The idea is that the topoi of an individual culture is incomplete, although this may not be visible from inside. The objective of diatopical hermeneutics is not to achieve completeness which is unachievable, but to raise 'consciousness of reciprocal incompleteness', by engaging in dialogue, 'with one foot in one culture and the other in another' (108). For example we can conduct the exercise between 'the topos of human rights in Western culture and the topos of dharma in Hindu culture and the topos of umma in Islamic culture'. This may be seen as impossible because one is secular and the others religious, but the whole distinction between secular and religious is a western one, and anyway 'conceptions of secularism vary widely among the European countries'.

[He then turns to the work of a certain Pannikar]. Dharma gives cohesion and strength to anything in reality. Notions of justice, law, religion, destiny and truth are very briefly summarised and dharma seems to be a matter of locating things or actions within the whole complex of reality. Human rights are therefore incomplete because they do not address the links between individuals and the whole, and look at what is derivative, the rights rather than the primordial duty of individuals to find their place in society and the cosmos. Overall there is 'a very simplistic and mechanistic symmetry between rights and duties' (109 – 110). There is a bias in favour of the status quo, which sidelines injustice and conflict as a way towards a richer harmony, shows disinterest in democratic order, individual freedom and autonomy, and forgets that 'human suffering has an irreducible individual dimension' (110).

Turning to umma in Islam [with a footnote referencing a work that again seems to compare Western culture and its dichotomy between individuals and society with the weaknesses of Hindu and Islamic culture which fail to recognise that human suffering is an individual dimension, ignored in hierarchical societies], we begin with a problem because the Koran offers a variety of passages which 'are so varied that its meaning cannot be rigidly defined' [bold!].  Although there seems to be always a reference to bodies of people who 'are the objects of the divine plan of salvation'. However individual human rights do not help us ground 'collective linkages and solidarities'which are the basis of society, and Islam struggles generally with defining communities as 'horizontal political obligation'. As a results, it 'is bound to condone otherwise abhorrent inequalities, such as the inequality between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims'. Diatopical hermeneutics will show that Western culture dichotomises too strictly between individuals and society which leads to excessive individualism, but Hindu and Islamic culture failed to recognise that human suffering is an irreducible individual dimension which 'can only be adequately addressed in a society not hierarchically organised' [which seems quite similar to the work in the footnote, but I wouldn't take it any further until I have gone back and checked].

There are differences among Muslims between traditionalists and modernists, and those who propose a middle way. He doesn't want to comment on the validity of any of these solutions because to offer his opinion would be 'Orientalism' (112) [I don't think that would save him]

Diatopical hermeneutics need several people. The bloke in the footnote offers an exemplar but conducts his exercise 'with uneven consistency' and accepts the idea of universal human rights 'too readily and acritically'[aha!] We need instead 'a collective and participatory knowledge based on equal cognitive and emotional exchanges' (114), emancipation rather than regulation. There are clearly difficulties if one of the partners has already been involved in 'interlocked unequal exchanges' or has already experienced 'massive and long lasting violations of human rights perpetrated in the name of the other culture' (115). In these cases, 'cultural incompleteness may be… the ultimate tool of cultural hegemony' (116 – 117). Generally, any given culture that considers itself complete sees no interest in intercultural dialogue, but if it enters a dialogue 'out of a sense of its own completeness, it makes itself vulnerable and is, ultimately, offers itself to cultural conquest' (117).

Instead we need to aim at 'self reflective consciousness of cultural incompleteness… progressive multiculturalism' (118) and we can choose those versions of a given culture the further widest kind of reciprocity, the most recognition of other versions, and to take two versions of human rights in our culture, the social Democratic or Marxist one must be adopted rather than the liberal one because it extends to economic and social realms not just the political.

Partners and issues can never be unilaterally imposed but must be mutually agreed upon. And there must be ground rules — 'people have the right to be equal whenever difference makes them inferior, but they also have the right to be difference whenever equality jeopardises their identity' (121). 'This project may sound rather utopian' [!].