10 Questions for Lynn Hunt

Professor of History Lynn Hunt's 2007 book "Inventing Human Rights: A History" was published with CIA-sponsored "torture flights," "enhanced interrogation techniques" and genocide all in the news. She spoke with UCLA International Institute Senior Writer Kevin Matthews about whether the very idea of human rights is now in danger, and how novels aided the concept's evolution.

This article was first published in UCLA Today Online.

Who invented human rights?

They became meaningful when the American and the French revolutions gave them a real political capacity. However, the term came into use — not [as] "human rights," but "the rights of man," the 18th-century version — in the 1760s.

What were they invented to do?

To make the statement that everyone should have equal standing under the law.

Have people been more likely to actually enjoy these rights since then?

The distinctions based on social status, property, sex and, ultimately, race began to disappear in the political and judicial spheres. Human rights gave people a platform on which to demand inclusion.

What do novels have to do with human rights?

Novels taught people in the 18th century how to imagine other people as being like them psychologically. Without that, you can’t really, totally accept the notion of equality of rights.

Your book suggests that people really altered themselves by reading.

Yes, though it’s not that people got a novel because they wanted to feel empathy. They got a novel because other people were reading novels, they had a strong emotional reaction to it, and it, I argue, changed the way they thought about the world.

Can’t books and other media products also suppress empathy?

There is something threatening to traditional ideas about the novel, just inherently. That’s one reason people in many parts of the world want to suppress them still, why some groups have been killing novelists.

What about other media, like the Web?

We don’t know much yet. We just know the Chinese don’t want people to be able to go wherever they want to go on the Internet. There’s got to be a reason for that.

How much is this a book about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the last six years?

I actually started writing it in the early ’90s. Still, what was most incredible was the government’s attempt to bypass the Geneva Convention and to develop a clear, explicit, written-down, formal statement about what was going to be allowed and what was not going to be allowed. This was a return to the 18th-century situation in which there was legal torture in all of the continental countries of Europe.

Could we one day lose the whole notion of human rights?

The fact that we argue about them is a sign of their vitality.

How should the public debate change?

There’s still something very mysterious about the way people get agitated about the things they get agitated about. It’s not just strictly in relationship to how horrible the event is, or how near or how far away it is. I don’t fancy myself as a person who’s in a position to change what the discourse is going to be about. I see myself more as a person who is fascinated by how things work.

Published: Tuesday, December 11, 2007