“Beneficiaries as Saviors in a Humanitarian Age”
The way in which mainstream human rights discourse speaks of such evils as the Holocaust, slavery, or apartheid puts them solidly in the past. Its elaborate techniques of “transitional” justice encourage future generations to move forward by creating a false assumption of closure, enabling those who are guilty to elude responsibility. This approach to history, common to late-twentieth-century humanitarianism, doesn’t presuppose that evil ends when justice begins. Rather, it assumes that a time before justice is the moment to put evil in the past.
In this talk, Robert Meister merges examples from literature, history, anthropology, political philosophy and theology to confront the problem of closure and the resolution of historical injustice. He challenges the empty moral logic of “never again” or the theoretical reduction of evil to a cycle of violence and counterviolence, broken only once evil is remembered for what it was. Meister criticizes such methods for their deferral of justice and susceptibility to exploitation.
Robert Meister is professor of social and political thought in the Department of the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. An active participant in California higher education politics, he is director of the Bruce Initiative on Rethinking Capitalism at UCSC and the author of After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights and Political Identity: Thinking Through Marx