Making Human Rights Sexy:  Authenticity in Glamorous Times

Making Human Rights Sexy: Authenticity in Glamorous Times

Payam Akhavan[1] (Harvard LLM ’90 SJD ’01) is Professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He was previously Senior Fellow at Yale Law School and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. Professor Akhavan was the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague (1994-2000) and has served with the United Nations in Cambodia, East Timor, and Guatemala. He has appeared as counsel in leading cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the European Court of Human Rights.

Joseph Kony and George Clooney, seemingly disparate, occupy a common space in our imagination: wanted criminal and vaunted celebrity, both are human rights spectacles of our times.  Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army messianic cult, is wanted by the International Criminal Court.  He stands accused of crimes against humanity for the horrific abuse of child soldiers and terrorization of civilians in northern Uganda.  He became globally infamous by the efforts of Invisible Children, a hitherto obscure organization that made the appealing but simplistic Kony 2012 short film calling for his arrest.  They succeeded in spreading the film virally on an unprecedented scale: within a few days of its release, it registered 100 million views on the YouTube video-sharing website and raised millions of dollars.  Clooney, a Hollywood actor of great renown and wealth, has starred in numerous best-selling films and is the subject of much idle gossip in the tabloids.  Among his many accomplishments, he has received the Academy Award – the so-called “Oscar” – the pinnacle of success in the film industry.  He is also famous for his human rights activism and celebrity diplomacy concerning mass-atrocities in the Darfur and South Sudan.  There is an obvious contrast between Kony and Clooney.  But there is also an intriguing similarity: they are both personalities that the average person “on the street” can probably identify with global human rights issues.  Both public figures owe this distinction to successful engagement with the hyper-culture of cyber-compassion: amidst myriad distractions just a click away, worthy causes must assume an air of glamour to compete for our fleeting attention.  In short, in affluent consumer societies that privilege superficial sentimentality over profound commitment, mass-mobilization and public awareness usually depends on making human rights sexy.  What should we make of this reality?

Whether it is the Kony 2012 video or the star power of Clooney, the contemporary discourse surrounding human rights activism is seemingly a struggle between utilitarianism and authenticity.  Consider Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole decrying the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” and disparaging Kony 2012 as “a big emotional experience that validates privilege” rather than justice:  “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality.”  By contrast, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof praised the video “for galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference”, retorting that “if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”[2]  Amidst public apathy, the question seems to be whether “slacktivism” – substituting “feel good” activism for meaningful engagement – is better than doing nothing at all.  This meagre utilitarian discourse and its contrary polemics are hardly sufficient to address the enormity of the moral challenges facing us in the struggle for justice.  What then is the appropriate context for addressing the glamourization of human rights and its implications on our self-definition?  Exploring this query requires a brief deviation from the topic at hand into the historical journey that has resulted in the fusion of the superficial with the sacred.

The etymology of “glamour” is itself an instructive illustration and starting point.  The Oxford Dictionary traces the word to the early 18th century – originally a variant of the Scottish gramarye – meaning “enchantment” or “magic”.  It was an alteration of the English word grammar with a medieval meaning of “scholarship” or “learning”.  Grammar was about the proper form of words and sentences as it is today.  But since only a few religious clerics could read and write in the European Dark Ages, and much of scholarship related to knowledge of occult practices, the learned grammarian’s craft was perceived as mysterious and magical.  Use of the word “glamour” was popularized in English by Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, published in 1830.  It referred to a magic spell likened to a “delusive or alluring charm”.  With the decline of religious thought, “glamour” assumed a non-magical meaning, referring to the impression of attraction or fascination; an impression that is better than reality, but ultimately deceptive.  In its archaic use, glamour is still defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “enchantment” or “magic”.  Its contemporary meaning however is “an attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing”.  Its usage in American English – in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary – is also variously “a magic spell” or “an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness” (the example offered is “the glamour of Hollywood”).  The American cultural critic Virginia Postrel defines glamour in contemporary usage as a “calculated, carefully polished image designed to impress and persuade.”  In other words, glamour invites us to transcend the mediocrity of everyday life to enter into an idealized world; a world of glitter that is ultimately an illusion.

The linguistic evolution of “glamour” is thus situated in the broader historical context of the European Enlightenment which the 19th century German sociologist Max Weber described as a process of “rationalization and intellectualization and … the disenchantment of the world.”  In his worldview, modernity, progress, and secularization were synonymous.  Belief in the mystical world was gradually extinguished as the rationalism of scientific inquiry and separation of state from church triumphed.  In brief, the magic was gone.  In its stead, materialistic ideologies emerged to offer new utopias, not unlike substitute religions.  Hitler and Stalin appropriated modern-day prophets like Nietzsche and Marx, in pursuit of modern visions of glory and transcendence. Others worshipped the creed of racial superiority and colonial domination in the name of civilization.  Millions of lives were sacrificed at the altar of these modern ideologies, each with an illusory better world.  The unprecedented magnitude of this violence shattered modernity’s promise of progress. 

The monstrous atrocities of the 20th century were scarcely imaginable during the Dark Ages.  The incantations and rituals of modern ideologies had cast a magic spell of such destructive force that it rendered medieval ignorance and superstition comparatively benign.  In 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust, in a ceremonial exorcism of Nazi excesses, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Redolent with the promise of a better future, its preamble proclaimed “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.  Bemoaning the horrors of the war, it recognized that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.  In a testament to its universality, the Declaration was enshrined as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.  Conceived as a transcendent and unimpeachable axiom at the core of a new global ethos, human rights discourse assumed the role of the sacred.  Even if it was clothed in secular terminology, it defined an inviolable space from which all things good flowed.  As Émile Durkheim maintained [in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life], “the distinctive trait of religious thought” was the division of the world between the domain of the sacred and the profane; not between the sacred and the secular.  Thus, amidst a disenchanted Western civilization in desperate search of a moral compass, enchantment with inalienable human rights fell manifestly within the socially constructed domain of the sacred.  Beyond reproach, these fundamental norms became the magic incantation of both state and society; a cosmopolitan faith complete with its own deity, temples, and rituals.

With decolonization, globalization, and the collapse of communism, Western liberalism and human rights ideals spread.  But the market economy’s consumerist culture spread even more rapidly.  In place of spent totalitarian ideologies, hedonism and self-indulgence increasingly define the pursuit of happiness.  The seduction of the American dream, the relentless propaganda of mass-culture, has cast a magic spell on people from all corners of the world.  Consumption and greed have become a pervasive belief system, the seeming purpose of existence, the true opiate of the masses.  This materialistic ideology is not without its competitors.  This is captured in Benjamin Barber’s juxtaposition of Jihad vs. McWorld, symbolizing the struggle between economic globalization and religious fundamentalism.  But it seems both that McWorld is winning the contest, and that Jihad manifestly fails to provide an appealing alternative.

It is telling that in American English, the archetypal image of the “glamour of Hollywood” is so integral to cultural self-definition.  In the virtual pantheon of consumerism, star power and entertainment are the pillars of escapism and instant gratification. As Neil Gabler puts it, “Hollywood has always been an irresistible, prefabricated metaphor for the crass, the materialistic, the shallow, and the craven.”  In this realm of kitsch, authenticity is worthless.  Why pay a steep price for the original when the imitation is readily available?  Why fill in the emptiness with depth and sacrifice when escape is but a click away?  And why heartfelt empathy when exaggerated sentimentality can provide effortless meaning?  It is here that glamour intersects with human rights, to cast a magic spell likened to a “delusive or alluring charm”; an “exciting” and “romantic attractiveness” that appropriates the discourse and imagery of the secular sacred to create the illusion of authenticity.  In this exercise, the reality of the victims is lost as people marvel at the beautiful spectacle of the saviour.  Adventures, adrenaline, and awards become tantamount to action.  The suffering of others becomes a platform for demonstrating virtue.  Vanity and justice embrace.

But why should authenticity matter?  If glamour can persuade young Americans to momentarily look up from their iPhones and learn that there is a place called Africa where people suffer, is that not praiseworthy?  The utilitarian argument it seems accepts this superficial culture far too casually, especially when it implicates the human rights industry itself.  It abruptly dismisses deeper contemplation in the name of sensational activism, without consideration to how the voices of the dispossessed constantly fail to penetrate the self-contained world of the saviours.  The scale of injustice and despair, the nobility of the human spirit, our capacity for profound compassion, the extraordinary means at our disposal, these demand something far greater than fame-seeking and righteous platitudes. Authenticity matters because only true seeking and genuine empathy allows us to penetrate the veils that delude us into believing that we are doing good when we are not doing nearly enough.  By being true to our self, by connecting with others in a communion of oneness, we begin to conceive the world in a different perspective, to imagine other possibilities.  The greatest acts of heroism, the daily struggles of those that suffer, are not headline news; they do not entail prestigious awards or chasing the latest mass-atrocity.  They are not entertaining.  The tortured prisoner of conscience whose youth wastes away in prison; the mother mourning her activist daughter’s execution; a child struggling to survive in the streets amidst crushing poverty; a father’s despair for his starving family in a corrupt world of plenty; these images call for humble contemplation so the depth of reality and the moral challenge in its wake can fully sink into our conscience.  These are felt experiences that cannot be reduced to “feel-good” sound bites and tweets in a consumer culture that has emptied itself of all depth and meaning.  Without being touched in this profound way, we are not wont to make any profound changes.

Sentimentality is not spirituality.  Self-indulgence is not sacrifice.  The learned grammarians of the Dark Ages dabbled in occult practices.  They confused magical incantations with mystical experience.  In seeking the divine, they mistook the illusion of rituals for the reality of love that is at the essence of our humanity.  The learned grammarian – magical and enchanting – the glamorous activist – superficial spectacle – both represent our capacity for self-deception, our propensity to avoid the hard work by portraying hypocrisy as righteousness.

I left Iran for Canada as a child because my family belonged to the persecuted Báhá’í religious minority.   After the establishment of the Islamic Republic following the 1979 revolution, life in exile gave way to unbearable anguish.  On 14 June 1981, my uncle Dr. Firouz Naimi – a physician of great renown and friend of the poor – was executed in the city of Hamadan after enduring horrific torture.  His sole crime was that his religious belief was deemed a “heresy” by fanatical clerics.  Two years later, on 18 June 1983, my contemporary, Mona Mahmudnizhad, was hanged in the city of Shiraz at the age of 17, also because of her religious belief.  The infinite courage and dignity of these souls in the face of the unthinkable, and the many others whose suffering is beyond words, profoundly shaped my understanding of human rights.  Suspended somewhere between Jihad and McWorld, between the violence of religious fanaticism and the vulgarity of fanatic consumerism, I have since grappled with the human condition in our world of extremes.  As a young lawyer, I spent my early career as a UN war crimes prosecutor in The Hague, served in Bosnia during the war, and subsequently in Rwanda, Cambodia, Guatemala, and other battered, bleeding countries torn apart by hatred and cruelty.  In 2003, I advised the Ugandan Government to refer the Lord’s Resistance Army case to the International Criminal Court.  By 2006, this strategy to isolate Joseph Kony succeeded in bringing an end to nearly two decades of terror in Acholiland.  I watched with interest Kony 2012’s rendition of events and the critical reactions of my Ugandan friends.  I watched Hotel Rwanda and In the Land of Blood and Honey (about the Bosnian war) and other films depicting events that transpired many years ago, but which seemingly never transpired until Hollywood took notice of it.  Yes, it is good that people who are oblivious to the world become somewhat less oblivious.  But it is grossly inadequate.

I have had no shortage of exposure to grim realities.  Nor am I unaware of the urgency with which we must come to the help of those in distress.  But I am of the view that the knowledge we fundamentally lack is not how to find practical solutions, or to achieve mass-mobilization through attractive awareness campaigns.  Making human rights sexy may be better than nothing.  But it will bring meagre results.  It will rationalize our sentimental self-delusion and justify our manifest lack of sustained and profound commitment.  The knowledge that we lack in a culture of crass materialism is the magic of painful struggle, the enchantment of genuine empathy, and the transforming power of mystical experience that awakens us to our extraordinary potential for good.  If we are to move beyond the narrow confines of glamour to the vast expanse of authenticity, then we must first learn to distinguish between illusion and reality:

“The story is told of a mystic knower, who went on a journey with a learned grammarian as his companion.  They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur.  The knower straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood lost in his reasonings, which were as words that are written on water.”[3]



[1] Payam Akhavan LLB (Osgoode) LLM, SJD (Harvard) is Professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and former Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague.

[2] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Viral Video, Vicious Warlord”, New York Times, 14 March 2012.

[3] Bahá’u’lláh, The Four Valleys, p. 51.

No comments yet.

No one have left a comment for this post yet!

Only registered users can comment.