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This chapter gives an overview of the current debates regarding the way human rights has been defined and historicized. It argues that understanding these debates is crucial for an understanding of the ways in which human lights matter to literary study. Referencing the works of Johannes Morsink, Paul Gordon Lauren, Lynn Hunt, and Samuel Moyn, the author moves the through the varied points of origin and genealogies of human rights as we understand them today. The chapter shows that this present concept is by no means unambiguous, and argues that literature and its analysis provides us with one of the best ways to investigate the historical and political tensions that exist at its very foundations.
This chapter seeks to recover forgotten ideological and structural causes behind humanitarianism, ones which have been eclipsed by its association which the fraught aid industry, the white saviour syndrome, and the general ineffectiveness of sentimentality when it comes to humanitarian action. Distinguishing between the worlds of “missionary” and “emergency” humanitarian expression (with histories dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, originating separately in discourses of reform and abolition, and that of crises such as natural disaster and war), the authors show how these two strands present widely different narratives and concepts of suffering, innocence, temporality, witnessing, evidence, and so on.
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