HM - June 2017 - Williams
The History File
Globalization and Human Rights:
What Historians Have to Say
Beth Ann Williams
University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana
Stories about globalization and human rights are deeply embedded and naturalized in the minds of today’s students, politicians, farmers, and scholars alike. We think we understand what these terms mean, but when you scratch the surface both of these themes are more complicated and contingent than they seem at first glance. What do historians offer in trying to understand our current global and rights-oriented context? What unique perspectives should we encourage in students living in a saturated, often sensationalist media and online environment? Thinking historically should lead to a commitment to critically interrogate the development of ideas that seem obvious but often are accompanied by unintentional or outright self-defeating tendencies. This takes place, in part, by exploring concrete, specific examples and consequences of historical processes over time. Below I explore these two themes in more detail and provide examples from scholarship that history teachers interested in these particular topics can reference.
First, it seems commonsensical, even silly, to say that historians contribute to our understanding of the world by showing the historical roots of things. But basic historical understandings about current laws, systems, and ideas are far too often missing from our conversations and news. As history teachers we ask our students to think and read critically when confronting historical sources. Under what conditions was this produced? By whom? For what purpose? This same critical eye should be applied when we examine narratives, including globalization and human rights. We need to ask not only what these terms means, but what conditions framed their ascent to their current prominence. Inderpal Grewal argues, for example, that current understandings of “human rights” developed as recently as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This vision was closely tied to a Western-oriented understanding of rights and the perception that non-Western countries were failing to support their women as full, liberal subjects of modern nation-states. This kind of discussion opens room for students to question the unspoken assumptions and implications inhered in ideas that seem straight-forward.
Turning to the global, we might begin with the idea that our world was global long before the internet. The long roots of certain international connections and movements highlights the “lumpiness” of global connections and trends, showing how inequality and power sit at the center of increased global integrations. In fact, you could argue that globalization often looks more like a network than a blanket, with some concentrated nodes of intense connection while other areas remain lightly touched. Global connections have a longer lineage than we may have originally thought, and their development has often been closely entwined with government, business, and religious structures. Once you start situating powerful ideas like human rights and globalization in time students will begin to see them as contingent rather than inevitable or unchanging phenomena.
One easy way to start denaturalizing big ideas is to explore their use and effects through concrete examples. Using specific case studies reveals the ways that human actors, rather than vague systems, drive history. Case studies can surprise, even delight, such as Tonio Andrade’s micro history of a Dutch fort in 17th century Taiwan, which shows the unexpected ways a Chinese farmer, two African boys, and a warlord intersected for a moment in time. They can shake up our understanding of the directionality of global flows. Jeremy Prestholdt, for example, argues that East African consumer desires and aesthetics played a vital role in, among other things, the pre-Civil War cloth industry’s development in Salem, New Hampshire. By showing that history was not inevitable, we require both ourselves and our students to make more responsible choices in our current historical moment. Of course humans are also deeply constrained and influenced by their historical context. Aihwa Ong reminds us of this truth in Flexible Citizenship, arguing that the increased mobility in global business circles, even those of extremely privileged actors like elite Asian businessmen, does not necessarily reflect the diminishing power of nation-states, but rather that states have found new ways to exercise power over people.
Our world is growing increasingly interdependent through our shared environmental context, improved travel and communication systems, and attempts by groups around the world to claim universal relevancy and resources. This does not mean that our current challenges are totally unique or that the past has no insights to offer. Exercising historical habits of the mind and pedagogy can bring unclear and ambiguous notions like human rights and globalization out of the cloud and into reality where students can examine, understand, and learn from them.