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Decolonising human rights: a Q&A with Benjamin P. Davis

I want to talk about how all of us can decolonise human rights in our everyday lives, in constructive and imaginative ways

Tell us a bit about your book

Choose Your Bearing is about decolonising human rights in constructive and imaginative ways. It tries to shift how we understand human-rights practice. If you ask someone what it means to defend human rights, they might think of an international courtroom or a refugee camp. I want to talk about how all of us – in addition to lawyers and aid workers – can defend human rights in our everyday lives. In this way, my approach to human rights is in dialogue with, but not limited to, international law and domestic policy.

My approach results from the strange path I took into decolonising human rights, which was through an artist: the Caribbean poet, novelist, and essayist Édouard Glissant, who was born in Martinique in 1928. Reading human rights through Glissant’s artistic lens, I see a tool for imagining and practicing new ways of life. My position is slightly different from both the decolonial approaches that critically emphasize the coloniality of human rights and Amnesty International’s focus on holding those in power accountable. I argue that human rights can be a tool to build power among those of us who often feel powerless today.

Cathédrale Saint-Louis, Fort-de-France, Martinique

Did your research take you to any unusual situations?

The question of decolonising human rights raises a further question about place, positionality or situation. Does decolonisation happen in documents, such as declarations of independence? In the streets, as illustrated by the film The Battle of Algiers? Or somewhere else? The ‘unusual situations’ my research took me to included prayer camps at Standing Rock and the annual assembly of the Xukuru nation. It is fair to say that academic philosophers do not usually think of Indigenous camps and assemblies as sites for ethical theory, political theory, epistemology or metaphysics. If we did, then our field would shift tremendously. Just imagine what political theory would look like if its starting point for theorising the state were not on some pages in Thomas Hobbes or James Madison but on the receiving side of water cannons at Standing Rock – or, as Human Rights Watch has recently stressed, at Qalandia checkpoint.

What was the most exciting thing about this project for you?

The conversations I had along the way, including with my students, to whom I dedicated the book.

I also learned so much from reading, correspondence and dialogue with a few thinkers, who are worth thanking here. Joy James speaks truth to power in beautiful ways, and her Resisting State Violence remains an under-studied book in political philosophy. I wouldn’t have written this book’s final chapter had it not been for Sam Moyn’s discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois and decolonising human rights in The Last Utopia. Bernard Harcourt offered me a distinction between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ nationalisms. That insight helped me theorise nationalism in this book. I have learned from how Ayça Çubukçu has written about the ideal of ‘humanity’. Jane and Lewis Gordon and the Caribbean Philosophical Association have provided a philosophical home.

And as I say at the end of Choose Your Bearing, in many ways I am trying to do for ethical theory what Jeanne Morefield does for political theory in her stunning book Unsettling the World: Edward Said and Political Theory. I am asking the field of ethical theory not to be afraid to look to unusual, unexpected – indeed, overlooked – places for philosophical insight.

Has your research in this area changed the way you see the world today?

Absolutely. My friends and I have recently been talking about how research is embodied. After reading about human-rights violations for the past few years, I now grind my teeth. When I see a Humvee or a drone, even recreational ones, I get tense. I no longer sleep very well, ever. In other words, those of us who are (imperfectly) trying to decolonise human rights feel it in our bodies. And this is only a fraction of what is felt by those who live on the underside of state violence every single day.

Moving beyond my previous critical work, I have also become invested in working with people who are trying not just to abolish things, but to build alternative futures. I have argued elsewhere that human rights are limited but useful tools for constructing new societies. If Choose Your Bearing succeeds in decolonising human rights by framing human rights as part of a transitional vocabulary, from our colonial present to a future of right relations with each other and the earth, then it will play a part in a larger transition unfolding around us. One group doing inspiring work here is The Center on Modernity in Transition.

The book cover of Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics by Benjamin P. Davis. The cover images is a minimal geometric design of a white background with occasional diamond-shaped tiles in different shades of blue.
Choose Your Bearing by Benjamin P. Davis

About the book

Choose Your Bearing

Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics
Benjamin P. Davis

One of the first readings, in English or French, of Édouard Glissant as an ethical theorist

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About the author

This is a black and white headshot image featuring the author Benjamin Davis looking straight at the camera, sitting at a desk with a book in front of him.
Benjamin P. Davis

Benjamin P. Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Field Notes from the Margins. He writes frequently at Public Seminar. His essays can be found on his website.

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