When I ask my students to rethink the universality of human rights, the mere suggestion befuddles them. Creatures of their progressive times, the a priori existence of such rights is as firmly established in their minds as the existence of witches or geocentricity was in the minds of their ancestors. Even as they indulge my lines of inquiry, their convictions by and large remain unshakeable. But though unshakeable, they prove fantastically protean, as recent events have made disconcertingly plain.
When asked if human-rights violations of the sort that were committed on October 7th could ever be justified, champions of those rights became unequivocally equivocal. These students hold that the US incarceration system is but a system of human bondage whose inmates are veritable slaves; they vehemently and categorically denounce the use of torture in the War on Terror; they bristle with moral indignation when contemplating the fate of Korematsu and other Japanese Americans, condemned not for their deeds, but for their descent. Even so, they now contend that, in the case of the slaughter of over 1,000 Israeli civilians, context suddenly matters.
When confronted with this contradiction, some prefer to remain silent, either too disinclined to wade into a minefield so treacherous or too uninformed to proffer a meaningful response. The isolated voices of moral clarity that can be heard are stifled by the sophistries of those who concede that the events of October 7th were horrific, and then in the following breath qualify their concession with an ominous “but…” It turns out those who committed atrocities had their reasons, and—by implication, if not explication—legitimate ones at that.
Reasons, of course, are never difficult to come by. As Benjamin Franklin reflected when he set aside his principles to satisfy his hunger, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” And as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history will acknowledge, humans often have a mind to do unconscionable things. As Sir Henry Gurney, Britain’s Chief Secretary to Palestine, correctly and unconscionably observed, “If Hitler persecuted Jews, there must be some reason for it.”
The minds of students today display a peculiar and perturbing amalgam of relativism and absolutism. They are dogmatic, if not fanatical, when it comes to issues of social justice, perceiving matters of enormous complexity and ambiguity through a crude Manichean lens. Yet they are able to rearrange realities so as not unsettle their prearranged paradigms, inclining them to punish and pardon with an ill-concealed partiality that cannot be squared with justice (which is partial only to itself).
A genuine relativist would acknowledge the relativity of justice and not punish people in the name of it. A genuine absolutist would at least be consistent in his (im)moral outlook. (One hesitates to call it a saving grace, but at least the absolutism of Hamas leaves no doubt about where its members stand on the question of Israel, or Jews more generally. Should any doubts linger on this score, the organization’s foundational covenant ought to dispel them.)
Relativistic absolutism, on the other hand, inevitably invites a level of incoherence that ought to be intolerable—as a matter of logic, no less than of principle. It legitimates the most egregious violations of human rights in the minds of those who otherwise maintain that human rights are inviolable. And it does so for “good” reasons that are woefully reasoned. Per the popular narrative, a people who would be reckoned indigenous in almost any other setting and who have had, in Nietzsche’s words, “the most grief-laden history” of any people (words penned over half a century before the Holocaust) are the colonizers and oppressors of a people whose own claim to the disputed land rests on a long history of conquest and imperialism.
Either human rights are universal or they are the outgrowths of a particular civilizational dispensation, namely the Western one. In the case of the former, with regard to the sorts of atrocities that occurred on October 7th, context simply does not and cannot matter. If the latter, context does matter, but not in the sense posited by the apologists of terrorism. One might say it matters because what happened on that day betokens a civilizational conflict, between a civilization that sowed human rights and a civilization in which human rights have persistently failed to take root.
In essence, civilization and barbarism are antagonistic, antithetical even. Wherever one is ascendant, the other is in retreat. The inability to appreciate as much that bedevils far too much of the so-called civilized world bodes well for barbarism.