Monday 1 February 2010

Fiction and Human Rights

In a scathing article, Jerome Stolnitz (1991) argued that art has only short term effects. Greek drama is regarded as powerful but, says Stolnitz: “There is no evidence that Aristophanes shortened the Peloponnesian War by so much as a day” (p. 200). Stolnitz asserts that effects of art simply do not appear in history.

Except that—as Frank Hakemulder has pointed out to me—they do. They appear in the history of human rights. As historian Lynn Hunt (2007) has shown, the establishment of human rights has been strongly affected by literary art.

We now think of human rights as universal, but Hunt shows that 300 years ago even the idea of human rights was not present in European society. It had to be invented. By the end of the eighteenth century a change was accomplished. Hunt offers three landmarks, which she cites (pp. 215-229). In the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 we read: "all men are created equal … with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In The French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, the first article is "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." Now, in our present age we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, in the shadow of the Nazi era. Its first article is: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

The full establishment of these principles in society world-wide is still some way off, but important steps have been taken. Slavery is no longer tolerable. Torture is no longer accepted as a legal procedure. Women and people of ethnic minorities, who previously lacked legal rights, are now established in many countries as having full rights of citizenship.

Hunt's finding is that invention of the idea of the equality of rights, declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which really is a human universal. "It depends," says Hunt, "on a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one's own" (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people's immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially. "Reading novels," she says, "created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative" (p. 39). Many novels contributed. One that Hunt discusses is Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) written by a man and inviting empathetic identification with a woman of a humble social class. Hunt quotes from Pamela:
… he kissed me two or three times, as if he would have eaten me.—At last I burst from him, and was getting out of the Summer-house; but he held me back, and shut the Door.

I would have given my Life for a Farthing. And he said, I'll do you no Harm, Pamela; don't be afraid of me. I said I won't stay! You won't, Hussy! Said he. Do you know who you speak to? I lost all Fear, and all Respect, and said Yes, I do Sir, too well!—Well may I forget that I am your Servant, when you forget what belongs to a Master.

I sobb'd and cry'd most sadly. What a foolish Hussy you are! said he: Have I done you any Harm?—Yes, Sir, said I, the greatest Harm in the World: You have taught me to forget myself, and what belongs to me (Richardson, p. 23).
Pamela and other novels of the middle of the eighteenth century were hugely successful and enthusiastically discussed by a rapidly growing reading public. Hunt cites Diderot as writing of Richardson's narrative: "In the space of a few hours I went through a great number of situations which the longest life can hardly offer across its entire duration" (pp. 55-56). Readers learned to enter into the emotions of ordinary people, says Hunt; and then she says: "Human rights grew out of the seedbed sowed by these feelings. Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion" (p. 58).

Lynn Hunt (2007). Inventing human rights. New York: Norton.

Samuel Richardson (1740). Pamela. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2001).

Jerome Stolnitz (1991). On the historical triviality of art. British Journal of Aesthetics, 31, 195-202.


Bill Benzon said...

This post is interesting in view of recent arguments about Avatar. There is an argument that says the movie is a version of the "late imperialist romance" in which the racial Other (in this case, the Na'vi) is merely a vehicle for the self-realization of white protagonist (from an imperialist society). Yet, if, through that protagonist, the audience comes to identify with that Other, then maybe the film can contribute to people's ability to identify with those who are different from them. And then we've got to consider the fact that the protagonist in this case, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic, which means that audience members have to identify with a paraplegic if they want to get to the goodies.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Bill, for this comment. You put the issue beautifully.

An avatar, as I understand it, is a body of another which has been entered by a human mind. The literary term for this kind of entry of the mind into another is identification.

James Cameron is a very psychological movie-maker, I think, and in Avatar he arranges first that we identify with Jake Sully who, as you point out, is in a wheelchair. Then, in turn, Jake Sully himself enters a set of three identifications (so there is a recursion). Jake Sully identifies first with someone like himself, the marine colonel in charge of the military mission to the Na'vi, then with someone less like himself, Grace the anthropologist who is seeking to understand the Na'vi to see whether they can be cajoled, and then finally with someone quite unlike himself, a Na'vi princess. Not only does Jake Sully fall in love with the Na'vi princess but we are given to understand that with her the avatarish entry into otherness is complete.

Bill Benzon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Benzon said...

Did Hunt discuss "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Keith? It was the best-selling novel in 19th century America and the "Bible" is the only book that outsold it. It certainly helped catalyze abolitionist sentiment and thereby played a role in the, alas bloody, elimination of slavery. Note, however, that Stowe's depiction of blacks would not meet current standards, but that didn't stop people from empathizing with the black characters in the book and, through that, coming to the conclusion that actual existing slavery was morally wrong.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Bill, for this question. Lynn Hunt does not discuss Uncle Tom's Cabin in her book. She has a good discussion (in her Chapter 1) of eighteenth-century fiction and its influences. She focuses principally on Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, and on Rousseau's Julie, but she also mentions other novels, as well as the very affecting autobiography, written in high eighteenth-century style, of a slave who became educated, bought his freedom, and settled in England, Oludah Equiano: The interesting narrative of the life of Oludah Equiano which was published in 1789 and had strong influence on the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Hunt does have sections on the abolition of slavery, first in France, and later elsewhere, including Haiti and the United States, but in these sections her argument has progressed to the relation between declarations of rights and practicalities of establishing and maintaining legal equality for people, including black people.

Anil Menon said...

@bill. Thanks for the link and write up. Late to the conversation, but would like to make a couple of comments.

1. It's really far-fetched to think the ancients did not have the refined sense of empathy that we so modestly claim for ourselves. Almost all cultures had elaborate codes of proper conduct and some were quite specific about the rights and responsibilities of various groups. I'm not sure we needed to wait till 'Pamela' came along to appreciate the Other.

2. The gradual growth in awareness of human rights-- not just this or that group's rights-- needn't be due to fiction at all. Walter Ong argued quite persuasively I think the changes we now identify as modernism originated in the shift from oral traditions to written ones. I've experienced text-illiterate or poorly-literate readers getting totally sucked into a story; they are the ones who can't help themselves from identifying with a character, even going so far as to confuse the truth-status of what they're seeing. More modern participants are able to keep their distance from the text or image. What we are seeing today might be a return to the oral-visual traditions of the past, again something Ong talked about. There's something really weird about writing.

Of course, it'll probably help if I actually read Hunt's book. :)

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Anil, for your comment. Sorry for my delay in answering.

I find what you are saying very thought provoking.

First, I agree that the ancients not only had a sense of empathy, but used it in public. For instance, I imagine that some of what Quintilian wrote about can be thought of in terms of empathy. So, I am sorry to have given a wrong impression here.

As to Lynn Hunt, I suppose I might have been unduly influenced by her. She is a historian, and I am not. I found her argument that the political movement of human rights had a distinctive starting point in the eighteenth century, and was influenced by fiction, persuasive. She does not say that fiction was the only influence, and I hope that in my post I didn't imply that, but she does argue that fiction was one of the influences.

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