Speaking Rights To Power

Speaking Rights To Power

by Alison BryskUniversity of California Santa Barbara

In troubled times, the role of a political scientist should be as it has always been: to speak rights to power. Knowledge is power and an antidote to the politics of fear. The social responsibility of the academy—especially in public institutions—meets our duties as citizens to protect and empower our civil society and to safeguard democratic institutions and freedoms. Human rights are nonpartisan but not apolitical; they mandate that power holders respect, protect, and fulfill the liberties, enabling life conditions, and identity of all members of society. Human rights are at the same time an ethos of governance, an international regime, a toolbox of political strategies, a worldwide social movement, and an academic field of inquiry.

This article outlines how lessons drawn from a generation of human-rights scholarship can inform policy guidance, social-movement campaigns, and civic education in an increasingly illiberal and conflicted world. There are three ways that scholars of social science can and must speak: analyzing and disseminating the lessons of global history, fostering communicative action by and for democratic movements, and deepening civic education—within and beyond the academy.

We are all dual citizens—of our country and of the republic of letters. As such, we stand on the shoulders of a historic global community of engaged social scientists who analyzed the requisites and meaning of political action to resist tyranny—from Hannah Arendt to Zygmunt Bauman. We face now the specter of a populist leader who seeks to curtail the rights of refugees, racial and religious minorities, women, terrorism suspects, and poor people. Trump’s systematic attacks on America’s international commitments, constitutional norms, and political culture are characterized by the flagship organization Human Rights Watch as illustrative of a “profound threat to human rights” in the rise of demagogues across powerful and conflicted democracies (Human Rights Watch 2017).

Read the full symposium from the October issue of PS.

PS: Political Science & Politics, Volume 50, Issue 4 / October 2017 , pp. 1008-1010