by Lynn Hunt; New York, W. W. Norton, 2007, 272 pages, $25.95
Dr. Rakfeldt is professor in the Social Work Department, Southern Connecticut State University, and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." What made these truths so "self evident" when Thomas Jefferson penned these words in 1776? "How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not like them, and in some cases, women too, as equals?" Lynn Hunt, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a former president of the American Historical Association, poses this question and seeks to answer it as she lucidly and eloquently details the emergence of these radical and revolutionary ideas in her book, Inventing Human Rights.
Hunt describes the discovery of human rights through the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and culminating in the United Nations Proclamation. These manifestos contain three required principles that rights must be: natural and inherent in human beings, equal for everyone, and universal for all people everywhere.
Hunt's thesis is that new forms of art, in particular, portraiture and epistolary novels that depicted the lives of ordinary people, led to a greater empathy for the feelings of others, even for those who where quite different in gender, social class, race, and ethnicity. Before this, women of the nobility thought nothing of undressing in front of male servants and slaves because noble women did not consider people of lower classes to have feelings like actual men. Hunt argues that the newfound power of empathy, the sense that the suffering of others is like our own, propelled men like Jefferson to rise above the mores of their time. "New kinds of reading (and viewing and listening) created new individual experiences (empathy), which in turn made possible new social and political concepts (human rights)."
Moreover, this greater empathy led to revulsion for torture and inhuman treatment of others, including criminals and people with mental illnesses. Hunt states that "we are most certain that a human right is at issue when we feel horrified by its violation."
The relevance of Hunt's book for the mental health field is that the social changes she describes may well have led to the emergence of asylums and to more humane "moral treatments" for mental illness during the 19th century. An apparent parallel between the invention of human rights and the current recovery movement in the mental health field may be the central role of an empathic connection to others, even those who appear to be quite different from us. The quintessence of the recovery movement is the assumption that we as human beings are all in recovery of some sort, because we all have faced, are facing, or will face crushing losess and other painful experiences. After events shake the fundamental sense of who we are in the world, the task is to "recover" as much as is possible one's place in the world and a meaningful sense of self. This shared human experience allows us as mental health professionals to connect more deeply and empathically with our clients. This sense of shared humanity in the recovery movement informs our clinical interventions and emphasizes helping clients to build fuller lives based on their hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations, rather than treatments focused merely on the management and amelioration of symptoms.
However, the long list of more recent human rights abuses perpetrated by the Nazis and Soviets, and the recent ones in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, make clear that Hunt's book is more than merely "a history." It begs us to question whether the war on terror should trump human rights, the truths that we hold to be "self evident."
Because of its significance for current events and its pertinence to the essential spirit of the recovery movement in mental health, this lucid book is relevant for, and would be of interest to, the readers of Psychiatric Services.