This blog post is part of a series from the perspective of Human Rights and Democracy Intern Stephanie Mayle, a rising junior at Duke University. To read the first post, click here. 

When beginning to interview older team members at the Institute about their views on human rights, I was unsure what direction our conversations would go. While I’d had many in-depth conversations with older generations about politics and the ever-changing world order, rarely had I gotten the opportunity to ask such pointed questions about individual beliefs and perceptions. 

Now, the senior staff members at the McCain Institute are definitely not representative of a random sample of Baby Boomers or Generation X. Indeed, many of my interviewees are former State Department employees, retired U.S. military, or have held some sort of government position during their career. I’d argue that they are more politically informed than most, which no doubt shaped their answers to my questions. As with the interns I’d interviewed, I also believe this allowed them to better form and articulate personal views on the issues relating to human rights.  

I started each of my interviews with the same question I had posed to my peers: What do you think of when you hear the words “human rights?” The responses were varied. “For me, it’s about first of all, what is a ‘right’? That isn’t something someone has to earn, and that isn’t something that’s given to people,” one person stated. Several used the word “inherent” in their definitions, as well as “dignity.” Interestingly, and perhaps as a result of the backgrounds of this sampling, many almost immediately connected human rights with founding American documents and principles. 

Another responded that human rights were “the ability to exercise basic civic freedoms: speech, assembly, religion, thought – to exercise political rights. That’s basic human rights to me.”  It appeared that some felt human rights were very much rooted in political and civil rights. While most proffered that they did believe human rights to be universal, they also implied that the essence of rights comes from their incorporation into governing law and doctrines. “I firmly believe that America’s… been given this unique gift [of democracy]. I’m a Christian man, so I believe from the Lord, but also from our founding fathers and our traditions and our system of government.”  

This was something that hadn’t really come up in my intern interviews. While the interns had discussed America’s uniqueness in terms of national values and global capability, none had tied that to their conception of human rights. My interviewees from previous generations seemed more inclined to view human rights as a constitutional precedent rather than a moral obligation of humanity.  

When asked whether they thought human rights had changed as a concept over time, everyone answered yes, but for slightly different reasons. Again, many related this to America’s history and the expansion of rights to increasingly diverse groups. “I think we have a much more sophisticated and broad understanding of human rights today than back in the days when some of our critical founding documents were written… We talked about all men are created equal and have inalienable rights, but they were all actually white and male and landowners. That didn’t include women and nonwhites.” Another spoke similarly: “I think it was narrowed back in history: who had rights? Kings, presidents, dictators, the ruling elite, the economic elite, the educated elite; they had rights. It was against the law to teach a slave. That’s incomprehensible to me in 2018. But these were societal, traditional norms.”

History was a critical part of my interviewees’ understanding of human rights. Some argued this to be a perspective lacking in younger generations. “I would say that my perception of people in their early twenties now is that they are much better educated and they have much more international exposure and experience than my generation did at that age, but they don’t have the context in which to put things together and understand – this is what this means.”

Many referenced anecdotal examples of how different things were when they were younger compared to now. “I’ve seen it in my own life, women were not in the Army when I went to West Point in 1971, they were in the Women’s Army, which was separate. And while I was serving as General, one of my friends became the first woman to be a four-star general in the Army – quite a journey in 35 years [of my career].” By nature of being younger, millennials can’t speak to this experience of first-hand societal evolution. 

Despite this, I found that while many older staff members shared this emphasis of the importance of historical context, they still felt hopeful about a human rights future led by millennials. They described millennials’ approach to human rights as “no nonsense”, more willing to “call out hypocrisy”, and as “extending the dialogue.” Some maintained that they felt sometimes overwhelmed by the fast-changing nature of social issues, but wanted to understand and be involved.  “I guess I am getting older, and I read some studies that worry me a little, and you know, what the heck, socialism? Let’s try it. Or, what’s wrong with this form of democracy? Maybe there are other ways. I could entertain us thinking about us moving to a parliamentary system, seriously! So, I don’t think big ideas are uncalled for.”   

It was clear that the members of older generations I interviewed are just as engaged and willing to discuss human rights issues as the interns were. They generally expressed similar feelings of optimism towards the future of human rights, but with slightly different reasons for their hope. After interviewing these two groups, I better understand why there is sometimes a disconnect in discourse between the older and younger generations, but also believe that the gap is not nearly too wide to bridge.