By: Jane’a Johnson
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was created 70 years ago today, on December 10th, 1948. The document was drafted in response to the catastrophic global violence and destruction of World War Two.
We know the declaration is not perfect. In fact, it has been characterized as arrogantly perpetuating Western European values to the rest of the world without a hint of irony, since the history of colonialism and evangelism once denied many of these rights—like the freedom to change religion or to have access to information—to a large swath of the peoples it was trying to get to ratify the articles. For all its pretensions, in the end, the UDHR failed spectacularly at condemning militarism, environmental degradation, and it completely ignored the specific nature of sexual violence.
Nevertheless, the document has become a rallying cry for human rights, an important terrain on which rights can be contested and negotiated. The universal aspirations of the document can easily be dismissed by arguing that different societies have different values. This is true. But it is also true that we live in a world with endless variations in values, since values can vary even within what seem like homogenous societies. It does not seem too much to ask that we as members of the same species attempt to hash out how we might live peacefully with one another when our values conflict.
It is in that spirit that I read Article 19 of the declaration:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Part of the reason why Article 19 is so important is that it is clearly and undeniably transnational. The phrase “regardless of frontiers”, means that we as human beings have the right to share information with any other person—the country we come from is immaterial to that right. The free press is supposed to report facts out to the world, intellectuals are supposed to share the truth with the world, irrespective of where it comes from, or how uncomfortable it might make them. Scholars often live lives where they are constantly traveling physically, if not mentally, through study. Ideas transcend the State. Borders are no match for ideas or ideals, which is why a tyrant’s first order of business the world over is to attack the free press and intellectuals.
A corrupt liberal democracy controls the free press by subjecting them to commercial interference. It controls the intellectual freedom of its people not by burning books, but by promoting works that leave out inconvenient details, by marginalizing uncomfortable facts and restricting access to materials. It puts professors on “watch lists” and “no fly” databases because they visit “enemy countries”. Very little of this is done illegally. Rather, it is done with the law as its accomplice; the laws are merely a reflection of the corruption and decayed morality. This is much subtler, but perhaps even more effective than the way tyrannical strong-man dictatorships violate Article 19, though we are looking at a world in which those two strategies are becoming more and more unified.
One of the most important parts of seeking information, or more accurately, knowledge, is to know what question to ask. If in 1948 governments sought mainly to curtail the answer, 70 years later, governments and corporations, which are sometimes indistinguishable, are trying to stop the question all together. Our favorite media, with all its shiny bits and ego-stroking push button glamour, are no exception to this rule.
At a time when United States policy is marginalizing the UN and looking inward, we might think about Article 19, and remember not just what it meant in 1948, but what it could mean in 2018.
Jane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.