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What Human Rights Means to Millennials Like Me: Expanding the Conversation


August 6, 2018

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.

I had many questions I wanted to address with this blog series: How do my peers view human rights? How does that compare to my own views as well as the views of older generations?  How do generations differ in their opinions? And how do they overlap?

Most importantly, I wanted to understand how people from a variety of ages and backgrounds perceive the future of human rights led by millennials. I found that everyone I spoke with held an optimistic view of the future of human rights – a finding that initially surprised me.

In many ways, the world today is not an impeccable example of the realization of human rights. Outbreaks of warfare, threats by non-state actors, and a rise of authoritarianism to put human rights abuses at the top of every media site. The Syrian Civil War, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the South Sudanese famine and conflict are all examples of this. Even here at home, we are plagued by internal divisions on class, race, religion, identity, and so on. It is understandable why people may feel hopeless about the trend and future of human rights.

Several recent studies, from Freedom House to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) have found that democracy and many of the freedoms it affords are on a downward trend, yet, it was optimism, not hopelessness for a millennial-led future that I found in my interviews. This optimism seemed to be driven by  a general consensus  that human rights, the definition of and applications within society, has augmented. In both generation groups that I talked to, many brought up LGBTQ and women’s rights as examples of this.

Most viewed the expansion of human rights as a positive thing overall. One difference I found between generations was the underlying justification for this evolution.  Older generation members were more likely to tie the rationale of human rights to things like the U.S. Constitution or American values, while younger generation members spoke more broadly of universal morality that transcends nations and cultures.  That isn’t to say that older interviewees didn’t speak of human rights as universal or believe that they aren’t inherent to all humans, but the codification of what a “right” is seemed more important to them than to the younger generation.

In my opinion, I think both groups have something to offer with their relative understandings. If we want human rights to continue their exponential growth, it is important to have a cosmopolitan human rights culture, as conveyed by my peers. I also believe the millennial generation is more likely to look outwards and engage in international human rights issues. At the same time, however, ideas are only ideas, and they must be enshrined into law to give them weight.  A document as promising as the Universal Declaration of Rights still doesn’t create any legally binding precedent for countries.  The Bill of Rights, however, as pointed out by older interviewees, does hold the American government accountable for protecting the individual rights of its citizens.

It seems to me that part of the reason for this division was varying perspectives on history.  Members of the older generation spoke of the importance of a historical paradigm by looking at societal changes as part of a greater trend.  I believe this disconnect to be merely an inevitable byproduct of a difference in age, and therefore in experiences.  While the younger generation has sat through history lessons and can regurgitate facts about the Cold War, it is a very different reality to have actually lived through that time.

For example, American nationalism and pride stood at a peak during the Cold War, allowing the older generation to associate liberal concepts like freedom and democracy purely with American values. By the time members of my generation came along, the ideological war was already viewed as won. The triumph of democracy is something assumed in my education more so than something absorbed through a national culture marked by the belief that freedom is “under threat.” To me, and dare I say other millennials, the personal freedoms afforded to one by liberal democracy are simply morally right; they are an expectation, not a privilege.

I think this difference in historical experiences contributes to other generational disparities I observed. For example, when discussing  whether or not the United States has a duty to protect or promote human rights internationally, members of the younger generation were more resolute in stating a strong “yes” under most circumstances. Overall, the older generation agreed with this, but with more caveats.  They referenced failures of previous U.S. humanitarian  interventions or brought up what they believed should be limits in American foreign policy.

I find these points of views to be complementary rather than contradictory; the past is an extremely useful trove, but it should not hold us back from evolving today, and from aspiring to a very different future. Millennials have much to learn from the first-hand experiences of older generations, and I’m sure that older generations would find creative ideas for the future to be innovative.  (We have been deemed digital natives, after all.) Perhaps the meeting ground between idealism and cynicism lies between younger and older generations.

After all these conversations, I genuinely believe we are all speaking the same language, a language of human rights, and just using different words.  We seem to agree on the most important things 一 the  expansion of human rights, its positive trend into the future 一 we  just envision different routes of getting there.  Building a bridge over the gap will require investment, but I truly believe it possible with time and effort.

So where do we go from here? How do we facilitate a comprehensive and united future approach to human rights, across generations and groups?

In an increasingly acrimonious world, it becomes more crucial each day to protect those who are unable to speak for themselves, and to promote a world order that affords equal opportunity. This requires conversations between those from different backgrounds, ages, and perspectives. It is only through working together, and more importantly, from learning from one another, that we can build a flourishing human rights culture.

We  tend to  only listen to the voices we want to hear. Younger generations may respect the opinions of older generations, but find their  views jaded; older generations may consider the younger generation optimistic, but naive. If both groups are willing to enter a dialogue space where preconceived notions remain outside, and  actually engage in meaningful discussion, I am certain that the outcome would only be positive. These conversations can be as casual as getting coffee with an older or younger colleague, or as crazy as publishing a college intern’s entire blog series on how millennials view human rights. Either way, ideas are exchanged and perspectives are shared.

I listened, without inserting myself, to people talk about their individual views of human rights, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I learned from so many different people. The human rights language is there, we just need to learn how to use it, despite its different syntaxes and dialects.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Publish Date
August 6, 2018