Humanity & the Refugee: Another Stab at Universal Human Rights

I had the great pleasure of giving a keynote address today to the North American Society for Social Philosophy. Here’s how it starts and a few excerpts….

“The minimal definition of humanity, the zero degree of humanity, to borrow and expression from Barthes, is precisely hospitality.”  —Julia Kristeva


Writing in his curious little book of 1967, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan noted that with the new invention of the television we were thrown into a world of radical new responsibility for each other. The television had turned the world into a global village. All those other people I could previously ignore? Now I turn on the television and they are in my living room. “Our new environment compels commitment and participation,” McLuhan writes. “We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other” (McLuhan and Fiore, 24). Nearly fifty years later, as refugees pile up at borders of nations that are becoming increasingly xenophobic and nationalist, this technological determinism seems hardly warranted. For all our new media, millions of people around the world are bereft.

Statistics on the Refugee Crisis

According to the United Nations High Committee for Refugees ( , the world over,

  • 5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, that is, one in every 122 people in the world
  • Of these 59.5 million people, 38 million have been displaced within their own country and the rest are refugees or seeking asylum abroad
  • 5 million people are registered refugees, 51% of whom are under 18
  • every day 42,500 people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution, and
  • Additionally, according to the UNHCR, 10 million people are stateless, meaning, they have been “denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement”
  • During 2014, only 126,800 refugees were able to safely return to their country of origin. This was the lowest number since 1983.
  • 3 million people live in what the UNHCR deems a protracted situation, that is, a situation in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile in the same country for at least five years trying to get asylum.

On average, a refugee will spend 17 years as such, possibly spending as many as 25 years there.


In this paper I take up the questions of (1) how the refugee crisis exhibits the fault lines in what is an otherwise robust human rights regime and (2) what kinds of ways of seeing and thinking might better attune us to solving these problems. There is surprising agreement internationally the content of human rights, though, as I’ll discuss, there is a huge gulf between international agreements on human rights and their actual protection. The subtitle of my talk, “another stab at universal rights” has a double entendre: In the midst of a crisis that is stabbing international agreements on human rights to its core, I will take a stab at using the crisis situation to point a way forward toward a cosmopolitan social imaginary that uses human imagination, not just as an ability to represent in one’s mind what one has seen elsewhere, but also as an ability to imagine something radically new, something entirely different from what already exists, like the end of racism or democracy throughout the Middle East. Not too long ago, envisioning marriage equality called for such an imaginary.[1] Imagination is indeed powerful, perhaps even more than our technologies.

A cosmopolitan social imaginary is not a new thing, but the shape it takes now is new. In ancient times it took the form of identification with human beings as such; in early Christianity cosmopolitanism meant an understanding of all people being God’s creatures; and in modernity it was a matter of all having the same kind of rational nature. These were various views of how, despite ethnic and national differences, no matter how foreign someone else seemed, there was something that connected us all. Today’s cosmopolitanism, I venture, grows out of a political imaginary of a global world, inaugurated in part with the television and with that first photo of the earth taken from space in 1968 and published on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which profoundly shaped popular consciousness, literally showing the world without borders.[2]

But this image is not enough, nor are all the screens in our world. A cosmopolitan imaginary is in part an effect of ways of seeing, not just what we see but how we see it, what our vantage point is (vertical? horizontal?) and how we see ourselves relating to what we see.[3] ….

Refugees, stateless and exiled, interned in camps, living in states of extremity, waiting for months and even years to be taken in by a host country, are denied their own humanity. And this is not only or mainly because of deplorable living conditions, however dreadful, but because they are boing denied their right to politics.[1]

Even if and when they are taken in, more is to be done. So long as they are treated as foreigners and not as members, I argue, they are denied their humanity. To live in a society without full membership in that society, including the political capacity to shape it, means being alienated from others and from one’s own humanity.

This is not just a problem for the refugee but for anyone with second-class status in a country, including those who hold green cards in the United States as well as ex-felons who are denied the right to vote. Living in a society that does not allow them equal standing to shape that society’s direction is flatly undemocratic and inhumane. [Insert discussion of the figure of the migrant; refer to the argument in the book of this name and point out that the migrant is a figure much broader than the refugee, something much more widespread, and for whom the right to politics is increasingly endangered.]

This way of putting the matter only deepens the Arendtian paradox. Qua refugee, a living being has no humanity and no political opportunity. To the extent that human rights are rights that humans can have, the refugee is not the kind of subject we can fathom as having any rights at all — unless, that is, we see the performative and relational dimensions of humanity. Unless we performatively recognize and treat the refugee as human with full political rights, we are all stripped of our own humanity.

A fundamental human right that is insufficiently enshrined in international law is, as I will explain shortly, the right to politics, a right that under neoliberalism is under attack even for full-fledged citizens of democratic nation-states, but is completely denied to refugees, those in asylum, and even those with full resident status.

On the Meaning of Humane

I would like to attempt to solve the Arendtian paradox by focusing on the meaning of “human” in both the phrase “universal human rights” and in the history of philosophy. While the term human has been used horribly, often to exclude those rendered less than human, there is in the word a germ of possibility, especially if we think of human as an achievement, a kind of activity and disposition, and not as a being with given attributes. That is, human is not a category of beings but a way of being. The distinction is similar to Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological. I am not interested in the ontic understanding of the human being but of an ontological understanding of what it means to be human.

The word “humane” helps; for in it we can hear its relational and dispositional meaning in three ways. First, one is not humane by oneself but always in relation to some other creature. One might be humane one moment and inhumane the next. It is not a static category or anything remotely like an essential attribute. I want to argue that being human is like that. If we find out that someone we know takes pleasure in torturing puppy dogs, our estimation of that person will certainly change: from human to monster. Our humanity is an achievement that can be sundered by our failure to act humanely.

Second, we treat others humanely when we think that they have some kind of dignity, even if it’s the dignity of a pet gerbil. We treat some creature humanely when we realize that it is not just a thing for our own pleasure but a creature that should in some way, however meager, live for itself. So our own humanity is relational, dependent on extending humanity to others.

So, third, intrinsic to the idea of what is humane is the Kantian notion that others are ends in themselves and for themselves and that they should decide their own ends.

Behaving humanely toward another is a way of acknowledging the dignity of the object of our attentions; but more so it speaks volumes about our own humanity. We think of those who treat other creature inhumanely as less than human themselves. The sociopath is a strangely inhuman creature, lacking the ethical sensibility that seems so central to others. So I venture to say that to be human is to acknowledge the humanity of others. And to be in a world in which all are acting humanely is to be given the special gift to be an end for oneself and to decide one’s own ends. (I think this is what Kant meant by a kingdom of ends.) Political communities that acknowledge all its members their rights of collective self-determination humanely treat people as human. Political communities that deny any of its members the prerogative of self-determination are forgoing the humanity of some of their members as well as their own humanity.

[1] Footnote essays by Albena Azmanova.

… to be continued in a future book….

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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