The popular movements that have erupted around the globe, from Tahrir Square to the demonstrations in the Eurozone to the Occupy movements, are simultaneously movements for social justice and movements for democratic reform. Popular protest has stimulated a renewed – and now, more than ever, a truly global - public sphere that consciously links failures of democratic legitimacy on the national scale with failures of economic justice on the global scale. At the same time, the global economic crisis hastens the unraveling of the social welfare state whose stability has been the presupposition of our most powerful theories of social justice. Those theories, though enriched and deepened through the critiques from difference that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, may rest on Westphalian assumptions about the boundaries of justice that are difficult to sustain in the context of neoliberal globalization. Looking to the practices and rhetoric of those who are acting on behalf of "globalization from below," the lecture will explore alternative political imaginaries for linking aspirations to justice and claims for democratic rights in our dynamic and interconnected world.
Melissa Williams’ lecture focused on getting beyond what she called the “standard view” of human rights and social justice in contemporary political theory. In the standard view, human rights are understood as universal rules embodied in moral commands or laws. Social justice is seen as a contextual, practical matter linked with particular social situations and institutions. However, this standard view has been subject to many criticisms. The conception of human rights as universal runs into paradoxes about being enforced by the state when rights are supposed to be a limit on state power; the “universality” of rights is sometimes used selectively to bolster the power of more powerful interests and states, leading to cultural imperialism, and the emphasis on human rights as universal over against “particular” social justice has the effect of privileging negative rights. Williams suggested that it might be productive to try “reversing the polarities” such that human rights are seen as contextual, and social justice as universal. Human rights as contextual would move struggles for rights from the realm of the philosopher-legislator to the activist citizen, and would recognize that, as in some contemporary settings, struggles for human rights are not always cast in the language of human rights. Social justice as universal would mean beginning from the situation of globalization. Williams is not merely abandoning the standard view, but going beyond it. For her, a proper understanding of both human rights and social justice would see that each is both universal and linked to particular contexts.
The open discussion included concerns about what it would mean to contextualize human rights discourse, For example, in the case of aboriginal people in Canada, the government might want to “contextualize” human rights in a way that would lessen their obligations. A similar point was made with respect to the global issue of women’s rights: any contextualization cannot have normative force with the universalist impulse. Williams largely agreed with these concerns, which is why she ended with a position affirming both the universal and contextual polarities. Others saw Williams’ account of the translation of norms into different practical contexts as helpful for understanding how, as in the case of disability rights, vocabularies of rights and justice are “co-created.”