Human Rights

Peter L. Berger

[Reprinted from The Center Magazine, published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, November-December 1984]

Modernity has promised to liberate man from the narrow confines of tradition, of clan and tribe, and of restrictive collective codes. To a large extent, modernity has kept these promises. But there has been a price to pay. Gehlen has described this price succinctly in the title of one of his essays -- "Alienation as the Price of Freedom" -- the liberty, naturally, being that of the solitary individual. The demodernizing movements also promise to liberate -- from "abstraction" to "concrete humanity," from anonymity to "true identity," from isolation to community. It follows that liberty is typically, and ironically, the first casualty of that "liberation." Again, I see no reason to dispute in principle that these promises too may be kept. One must only be careful to find out just what it is that, in one case or the other, the promised liberation is all about.

Demodernization, as it manifests itself today in Western societies, is a protest against the "abstract" set of Talcott Parsons' pattern variables. At the same time, it is a protest against the modern dichotomi-zation of life and, ipso facto, a call for what (in the light of the preceding) may be designated either as the privatization of the public sphere or as the politicization of the private sphere. It really doesn't matter. The underlying aspiration is the same in both cases. Once this is understood, a large assortment of phenomena in the contemporary world begin to make sense in a better way.

Modern capitalism and modern democracy, both historical products of the bourgeoisie, liberated the individual from traditional restraints and created social structures based on the isolated individual, his obligations and rights qua individual, and his competition and collaboration with similarly isolated individuals. These same liberations are understood in the demodernizing "mood" as egotism gone rampant and as dehumanizing separation of the individual from meaningful community.

The great hope of the French Revolution that both liberty and fraternity would be realized in the new age increasingly gives way to a polarization of these two ideals. The modern state and its legal system, as well as the modern hope for a universalistic international order, are now confronted with a renascence of virulent nationalisms and other collective particularisms.

It is the particularistic rights of Slovenes, Flamands or Quebecois, of black Americans or of Tamil speakers, rather than the "abstract," individualistic "rights of man" that seem to engender the most passionate commitments today. And often, as in the cases of the black movement in America and of Women's Liberation, the two conceptions of liberation coexist and intersect in great proximity, often with very bewildering effects.

The current controversy in this country over universalistic meritocracy versus particularistic "affirmative action" (to use the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) in favor of minority groups offers a very clear illustration of the alternatives at issue. Other illustrations could be multiplied with ease. The counterculture, most clearly in its communes, represents a specially clear case of rebellion against all the modern patterns cited here, positing its ideal of cooperative Gemein-schajt against the alleged selfishness and callousness of the "system," its particularistic "tribalism" and "familism" against the alleged hypocrisy and anonymity of universalistic values, and its functionally diffuse "life style" (everyone doing his "thing" in vague parallelism with the "things" of others) against what is conceived of as the schizophrenia (R. D. Laing!) of modern functional specificity.