Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, April 08, 2016

A topic for debate?

The author, Loubna El Amine an assistant professor of political theory in the department of government at Georgetown University, asks some great questions about the universality of ideas like democracy. Want to have a debate?

Are ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ Western colonial exports? No. Here’s why.
In September 2014, students in Hong Kong gathered in a public square to protest some of the Beijing government’s legislative initiatives. One of their slogans was “When dictatorship becomes a reality, revolution is a duty,” which has been attributed to Victor Hugo…

Some academics and public intellectuals who study non-Western societies, worried about imposing Western values, have expressed concern about the use of categories like human rights and liberal democracy. They have instead favored drawing on non-Western societies’ own intellectual traditions and lived experiences. Thus the academic debate about the form of government that China should adopt has focused on drawing from the ideals of Confucianism…

Protesters in Hong Kong did not mention Confucianism at all, prompting one commentator on a prominent Chinese and comparative philosophy blog to ask, “Where are all the Confucians … tonight?”

If Western categories ought to be rejected in favor of non-Western ones, as these academics tell us, then what should we make of the fact that protestors on the ground continue to cling to the former in a very familiar way, explicitly demanding rights, including women’s rights, equality, elections and the rule of law?

The slogans are familiar… because the situation they are responding to is familiar: a state using extensive and arbitrary power…

I argue that these tools are precisely the so-called Western ideals that some academics are skeptical about: democracy, rights and the rule of law. These should be understood not as Western, but as modern: normative tools particularly suited to the realities of political life under the sovereign state, the central institution of modern politics.

Sovereign states centralize politics and impose a monopoly on the use of force in a way that pre-modern empires could not, and did not. The only protection against the risk that states will abuse their power is to make the government accountable to its people and protect the inviolability of human life. In other words, demand democracy and rights. Non-Western states now have the same essential features of sovereignty as Western ones. And so their citizens can protect themselves only by fighting for these ideals, and their intellectuals can support these citizens’ efforts only by advocating for these ideals.

This is not to deny that many critics around the world denounce human rights and democracy as Western impositions…

However, to justify themselves to the public, these arguments also inevitably build in guarantees against abuse, legally limiting the use of state power and requiring states to consult with the people, usually through elections…

Efforts to provide Islamic variants on democracy or Confucian variants on rights thus should be understood not as alternatives to modern ideals, but as variants on them. This is just as it should be. Just as there are differences between the democratic systems of Germany and the United States, so too would a democratic China and a democratic Yemen be different both from each other and from the U.S. and German models. Crucially, these differences are not between East and West, but among different countries with different material realities…

In short, when citizens in non-Western countries clamor for democracy, there is no reason to suspect elitism or Western manipulation or false consciousness. Not everything familiar is a sign of cultural imperialism. This is not to deny that power differentials continue to structure the relationship between the West and the East, but rather to suggest that overcoming the discourse of “us” and “them” will open up more promising avenues for responding to domination.

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