Human Rights Learning: Pedagogies and Politics of Peace

With Janet Gerson and Tony Jenkins in the DMZ-Korea, during IIPE 2003. Source Personal photo collection of the author

Considering the distinctions I perceive between the largely content-based general practice of human rights education and human rights learning that puts equal emphasis on an engaged pedagogy, provides an arena of discourse on the purposes and processes of social education in general and peace education in particular. We need to enter this arena to grapple with the limits to learning inherent in the information transfer form of education as an obstacle to the ultimate social purpose of peace education, transformation toward a culture of peace through the de-legitimization of violence as a political tool and the development of a social commitment to nonviolent societies, striving to realize universal human dignity in institutions, relationships, and customs. The separations and limits of traditional pedagogies imposed by the fragmentation and reductionism of divided subject matter are characteristic of the “political realism” that still dominates current politics-including issues of human rights and peace. The rationalization and tolerance of various forms of economic and political violence as unavoidable in the face of concerns deemed more significant to order and stability is a given in public discourse. In the names of more urgent public priorities such as national security, human rights fall by the policy wayside. Issues continue to be discussed and decisions made without regard to the essential interrelationships among them. So, too, the ethical and normative dimensions and consequences of public policies are screened out in favor of what is argued to be pragmatism and practicality. Neither do ethical dimensions play much of a role in standard information based education…

11.2 Proposition 2: Human Rights Learning Is a Contemporary Form of Freirean Political Pedagogy

This proposition is… not necessarily new, but I believe it has renewed currency in 2009, the International Year of Human Rights Learning. The basic argument is a call for the fulfillment of the Freirean promise of education as a means to the realization of human rights through that form of human rights learning defined as conscientization-awakening to awareness of the realities of our lives and societies and the interrelationship between these two realms of human experience. It is exactly Freire’s focus on the capacity of the inner dynamic of the learning process to illuminate the outer social and political structures that forms the essence of human rights learning as advocated by… the communally based approaches to learning… [that acknowledge] the political nature and purpose of peace education. By political I do not mean the politics of existing political systems, nor the contentions among the categories of political positions ossified into political parties, reifying the dualistic thinking that in the American system plays out in a two-party politics. I mean rather politics in a more profound and basic sense of public deliberation on the aims and purposes of society; the decisions about means to achieve those purposes by sustainably producing and fairly expending the fruits of a peoples’ labors, resources and talents. I mean a politics of peace infused with a common commitment to the general public good, a just distribution and equitable enjoyment of benefits and resources; in short a politics of human rights. This is a politics far from the present power contestations of political realism, the win-lose process that obscures and poses obstacles to the learning required to devise and develop a politics of peace. Without an effective politics of peace, peace cannot be achieved. Without an effective political education there can be no politics of peace. I would submit that human rights learning is the most promising vehicle for an effective education for a politics of peace. For it has been devised through such a politics in the places where it has been put into practice as grass roots activism for community change…

11.3 Proposition 3: The Violence and Vulnerabilities of the Global System Frame Ethical Issues for Human Rights Learning and a Politics of Peace

What Freire confronted as oppression of the poor, I would identify as a symptom of a system of social and economic violence, similar to, but not synonymous with what peace research refers to as structural violence. It seems to me that the concept of structural violence is a general abstraction that can obscure the ethical and moral dimension and the individual personal responsibility at play in of this category of violence.

Granted, it is accepted that social and economic structures restrict the opportunities for human fulfillment and access to social benefits available to the poor, and the concept of structural violence enables us to discern the institutional and political causes of, and possible alternatives to, these unjust conditions. However, the degree to which personal behaviors and choices conditioned by social values determine the actual processes of deprivation within the structures call for normative reflection that makes ethics and values a significant factor in peace learning and peace politics. Justice and injustice may be mediated through structures but they are not synonymous with nor necessarily determined by structures. Indeed, I would argue that peace and human rights learning and action are not only often inspired by unjust structures, but that they can take place within them. It is this fact that makes peace education possible within our present politics and education systems. It also makes it incumbent upon peace education, especially when it takes the form of human rights learning to pose issues and develop skills for the exercise and application of ethics and morality.

Both ethics and morality may have a place in peace learning and peace politics, but their respective places are distinct and different. They are not synonymous and cannot substitute one for the other. It is not the role of peace education or human rights learning to moralize, that is to teach by moral precept. But they have a responsibility to guide learners in discerning when moralizing is introduced into political discourse as it was so frequently in the last American administration-most lamentably in the case of depicting the war against Iraq as a crusade and the shocking and frightening habit of the then Secretary of Defense of introducing strategic directives with Biblical quotations. In addition to being an egregious violation of the constitutional requirement of separation of church (meaning for legal and political purposes all religions) and state, the habit was a prejudgment on public matters of national security that denied the citizens the right to form and argue for their own positions. Ethical reflection and analysis, on the other hand should be an integral component of peace learning and peace politics. The development of ethical skills can derive from applying global society’s agreed principles of justice and equity-such as those that are enshrined in law, pertaining to all no matter what moral system they may live by—to the assessment of political issues and choices. The development and application of ethical principles is a process of engagement similar to my sculpting in clay metaphor. It is a peace education and human rights learning process consistent with Freirean pedagogy…


Accepting Teachers College, Columbia University Distinguished Alumna Award 2004. Source Personal photo collection of the author

The differences between ethics and morality most relevant to the transformative learning toward which we are striving are the sources from which they come and the thinking that goes into their application. Ethics, derived by persons wrestling with what might be good and true on as wide a basis as possible derives principles that require deeper reflection on the what as well as the how of the substance of principles and the complexity of their application. Morality, based on precepts set forth by authority—usually but not always religious authority—is more in the area of what is permissible. The range of how is often limited when the authority from which the precepts emanate posits prescriptions, instructing in specific behaviors or imposing specific social norms and policies such as those applying to reproductive rights and sexual practices. There is no area in which the distinctions between the two and the consequences of the application of one or the other is more evident than in the controversies over the human rights of women and children. I would submit the issues involved there are not contending moralities, but contentions between moralities and ethical principles many of the latter having been encoded into the international legal standards of the Conventions on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child…

A process of public conscientization will of necessity involve ethical reflection. It seems to me that what I know of human rights education in its traditional education form does not assure that the ethical issues of complicity with the systemic violence and social responsibility for the suffering of the vulnerable will be considered. The assumption that substantive knowledge, per se, is the object of education still infuses the mindset in which the privileged are educated. Knowledge is considered to be a commodity to be acquired, a source of power and of “market advantage.” The uses to which power is put and the ends served by knowledge are not considered as issues subject to ethical assessment. Power and knowledge are bases of individual, corporate, or familial wealth to be used to the advantage of the possessors, only secondarily—if at all—as resources to be put to the betterment of the human condition or for the fulfillment of social responsibility. Peace education has long advocated the cultivation of the skills and capacities of social responsibility as integral to its purpose. Human rights learning, at its core, is the cultivation of ethical reflection and assessment for the exercise of social responsibility. Both sets of capacities, ethical reflection and social responsibility, are essential to the development of transformative thinking. Both are essential to citizen action to overcome the avoidable harm of structural violence. Comprehension of structural and all other forms of violence is crucial to devising the strategies of a politics of peace.

…I identify violence as the central problematic of peace education. All violence degrades and/or denies human dignity. This is why I assert that the substance of the field should comprise an inquiry into violence as a phenomenon and a system, its multiple and pervasive forms, the interrelationships among the various forms, its sources and purposes, how it functions and potential alternatives for achieving the legally sanctioned, socially accepted, or politically tolerated purposes commonly pursued through violence. I emphasize these structural forms of economic, social and political violence as I believe them to be more significant to our task than, the non-systemic, aberrant violence of crime, interpersonal conflict, vandalism, etc. that I believe are both rooted in and facilitated by the systemic violence of the institutions that uphold the wider culture of violence. [including] gender violence…

I define violence as intentional, avoidable harm—usually committed to achieve a purpose. By designating it as intentional harm, I intend to indicate that using violence especially to achieve economic or political purposes or to maintain social conditions (such as male dominance) is an act of choice, strategic as well as ethical choice. In most situations there are alternatives courses of action toward the ends sought.

I also distinguish between violence and necessary, legitimate force. When there are no known non-forceful alternatives, we have recourse to legitimate force—peacekeeping and police forces for instance-to be used, keeping in mind in its application that harm should be kept to the lowest possible level. I would categorize what is commonly called police brutality as violence. It is harmful force that exceeds what is necessary to achieve the legitimate social ends to which it is being put. So, too we can say that the use of military when all other avenues to defense against armed attack are closed off under the present system—which lacks sufficient institutional alternatives—is legitimate. It is recognized to be so in Article 8 of the Charter of United Nations… There were and are institutional alternatives to respond to and remedy… acts of violence which are crimes, not acts war.

As we can consider police brutality to be violence, so too, there are clear instances of what Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence (OWAAMV), a Japanese peace organization, have defined as military violence, intentional harm to civilians or avoidable harm inflicted outside combat conditions by military personnel…

My definition of violence derives from the core value of human dignity and respect for the living Earth; and from the concomitant human responsibility to honor them. The values of human dignity and human responsibility are also central to the theories and practices of nonviolence. Nonviolence comprises efforts to pursue goals imbued with an intention to do no harm; and where that may not be possible, to minimize any potential harm—if possible to enlist the consent of those who will suffer some of the harms that sometimes occur in the use of nonviolent strategies. Strikes are a good example here. Those who withhold their labor may have just cause, but all those who suffer the consequence of the strike may not be implicated in the injustice. Such consent was given by large numbers of Black South Africans to the boycotts and sanctions that helped to topple Apartheid in South Africa. These are but two examples of the kinds of human rights issues, the resolution of which involves citizens in consideration of consequences, especially ethical considerations.

Because the values of human dignity and human responsibility from which this concept of violence derives are integral to human rights, human rights issues and human rights learning are excellent lenses through which to seek the requisite clarification about what constitutes violence and how it is implicated in the perpetuation of the vulnerability of the oppressed. Human rights study provides us with tools of definition and diagnosis of what comprises violence, experientially as well as conceptually, and provides opportunities to consider approaches to overcoming vulnerability.

A condition that often produces the impulse to violence is vulnerability. The concept of vulnerability provides another useful analytic tool with which to assess the circumstances that make possible the denial of human dignity to large masses of the human population. Vulnerability,—in particular structural vulnerability—I would define as a chronic disadvantage suffered by person or groups at the lower levels of the prevailing social, economic and political structures, women, the poor, the aged, children and minorities. It is a condition in which the vulnerable are the most likely to suffer harm as a consequence of the prevailing structures and policies, as well as, from the periodic disturbances that shake the structures interrupting their normal operation. Although determined by people’s positions in the social and political structures rather than by any personal quality or action on their parts, given the widespread lack of general recognition of the principle of human dignity, the vulnerable themselves are often held responsible for their own disadvantaged circumstances. Too often unaware of their human rights, they seem powerless to make claims on the society for the assurance of those rights. Those at the top, “the rich and the powerful” are least likely to suffer harm from system wide events and developments (other than in natural disasters) and face few limits to the claims they make to the all the benefits of the society. Those at the bottom are most likely to suffer harm, both on a daily basis and in the case of humanly caused or natural disasters. The vulnerable are one of the present system’s most exploitable resources, providing minimum cost labor, commodities for the human trafficking markets. In political systems that hold elections, votes are often bought for the price of a meal. As violence is the central problematic of peace education, vulnerability is at the center of the problematic of HRE and HRL.

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