Hosted by the University of Pittsburgh - September 30 through October 2, 2010


Conference Theme

Human Rights Rhetoric: Controversies, Conundrums, and Community Actions

Human rights have been asserted, recognized, reaffirmed, and undermined around the globe. Yet what the expression, “human rights,” designates and ought to encompass has been, and will continue to be, the subject of international controversy. At a concrete level, “rights” have a paradoxical quality that renders them contingent on individual, communal, and national commitments and actions.

Rights do not exist outside of their mutual recognition by selves and others, that is, outside of a reconciliation of individual wills in which people freely agree to act according to obligations that they simultaneously expect of others. Once constituted in recognition, human rights may come to compete with other rights that make similar claims to universal status. To take a simple example, as numerous twentieth-century public advocates have argued, the right to freedom of speech may come into conflict with the likewise compelling rights to security of person and equality.

There are other reasons why human rights may be the subject of controversy. The security of any particular right requires sufficient resources for securing its enforcement and actualization. The finitude of resources and the (potential) lack of consensus on how to distribute them means that disputes about which rights are “more important” are sure to erupt. Moreover, material conditions and power arrangements can provide substantial restraints on the rhetorical situations in which rights are asserted. Another reason why human rights engender controversy has to do with the term’s wide scope: in some situations, a narrower focus may be more appropriate. On the scale of a sovereign nation governed by law, for example, we may speak of civil or constitutional rights. A focus on health and safety may warrant advocacy under the rubric of environmental rights, whereas an interest in economic and social welfare may require such rubrics as social, economic, or cultural rights. We may also note the way in which systematic violations of the rights of members of a particular identifiable group may occasion the establishment of rights formally tied to group identity—e.g, ethnic, cultural, or national identity. Finally, we could note the increasing imbrications of the human, non-human, and artificial parts, which raise the question of whether human rights, itself, as a concept, may reach its limit in the face of certain medical technological developments and practices.

The fact that “human rights” is a locus of ongoing controversy is especially evident within the history of public address and rhetoric. We bring specific rights into focus when we talk about them; or more specifically, when we address them before audiences or publics willing to consider, recognize, support, enact, enforce, or undermine and deny them. The theme of the conference invites discussion of how human rights are addressed in political, legal, social, economic, and other contexts. The scope of the discussion will include past, present, and future public address concerning human rights within the United States and internationally, considering both descriptive and critical dimensions. Relevant questions would include how to identify a corpus of human rights rhetoric that should be cultivated, expanded, or revised; what implications the recent online technologies carry for the articulation, defense, or constriction of rights; what changes globalization brings to the discourse of rights; what pressures global economic changes put on workers’ and immigrants’ rights; recent governmental incursions into Constitutionally protected rights in the US; the limits and possibilities of applying one nation’s successful human rights rhetoric to another’s; the place for articulating and defending human rights under the encroaching pressures of corporatization; the questions raised about universality, given differences of race, gender, ethnicity, and more; and what emerging trends should be watched and studied by members of our scholarly community.




Conference Director
Professor Lester Olson

Department of Communication

University of Pittsburgh