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What Human Rights Means to Millennials Like Me: Understanding the Views of My Peers


July 24, 2018

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

The first thing that struck me when starting a conversation amongst my fellow interns at the McCain Institute about human rights was how willing they were to talk. Not only did they all have clearly developed opinions on both human rights as a concept as well as on specific rights, but they were eager to engage in discussions about them with me and one another. In a group interview, my prepared list of questions became increasingly unnecessary as my peers organically rolled from topics like the roots of human rights to religious discrimination to countering genocide.

The seven interns I spoke with at the Institute are all in their late teens or early twenties and come from extremely different places and backgrounds. One goes to school in Scotland, another is from Kurdistan, and another lives in Kenya; all, however, as their summer internships at a DC “do-tank” implies, have an inclination towards civic engagement or international affairs. Between them, they represented almost all of the programs at the Institue: Combatting Human Trafficking, International Rule of Law and Security, Leadership Programs, and Communications.

It was important to me that these interviews – and this blog series as a whole – be anecdotal and natural. In no way am I attempting to produce statistically significant results, or assert that my findings from a limited number of politically inclined college students speaks for my generation as a whole. Instead, I wanted to sample the thoughts of my peers on human rights and compare how they aligned with my own views of human rights.

I was pleasantly surprised when my interviewees almost immediately appeared to share my definition of human rights. When asked what she thought of when she heard the words “human rights,” one, a recent graduate and future law student answered, “I view human rights as not being conditional, not dependent on race, sexuality, religion, etc. They’re inherent to all human beings.” Another added, “I think that to me, human rights summarizes the process of expanding the idea that a bunch of guys smarter than me a hundred years ago had: that all humans deserve or are entitled to rights simply for being alive, and expanding that to everyone, not just a specific country, group, whatever.”

This idea of expansion of rights was quick to emerge amongst my peers. They often used words like “broadened” or “incorporated” when talking about how human rights has changed over time. Multiple people brought up LGBTQ rights as an example of how human rights have progressed to include more groups and liberties.

Past simply providing definitions, the interns brought up ethics and debates surrounding human rights. One intern pointed out how sometimes our generation’s focus on all things rights can be problematic: “I think at universities…there’s an expectation almost that people are familiar with human rights issues, to be a social justice activist…almost to a fault. It’s so much. Maybe I’m a little too cynical, but there’s so much false caring.” Others agreed but found this better than the alternative of millennials not caring at all.

They also all generally viewed human rights as a partisan issue. Discourse about human rights, they agreed, were inclined to turn political, or critical of the “other side.” One voiced, “The conversation needs to be grounded on the issues. The one thing I’ve noticed that’s really dangerous, and you see this on both sides – this isn’t just a liberal or a conservative thing – is that if you don’t agree with me, you’re a bad person; not you don’t agree with me, therefore, you have a bad idea, which is a very different argument.” Although they all believed human rights as a concept to be universal and above politics or groups, they generally found the current conversation about rights to be divisive and unproductive.

This quickly led to discussions about the role of the United States specifically in promoting human rights around the world. While they fell in varying spots on the spectrum in their views of isolationism versus interventionism, most of my peers seemed to agree that the United States ought to take the lead on the realization of global human rights.

“I see America as uniquely placed to do the greatest amount of good in the greatest area. I mean no one is more powerful than the United States, no one as powerful as we are has the same values that we do,” one stated. Others agreed but voiced concern over ways to garner national support for human rights internationally. When asked what they thought the best way to do so was, one, from the Communications team, answered, “I think you have the personalize it. Like in the case of some of these things, you just think, ‘Oh, people are dying. It’s just a number to me.’ But if you give them faces, you give them stories… it makes it less distant, more personable.”

Overall, I was surprised by how greatly morality was intertwined in my peers’ perceptions of human rights. They more or less believed it to be the responsibility of the United States, and themselves as capable individuals, to be global leaders in the fight for rights. Of course, they brought up logistical counterpoints, such as funding problems, the diplomatic difficulties of getting involved in other countries, and so on, but all tied human rights to the stated ideals of the United States. One summed this up: “I think we need a return to at least some semblance of ideological leadership in the world. It can’t just be pragmatic.”

It’s clear that the group of millennials I spoke to personally is probably more knowledgeable and inclined towards human rights than some 20-something-year-olds I might randomly poll on the street. In a way, I think this is better, as one of the main goals of this blog series is to explore what a millennial-led human rights future will look like, and students well-versed in human rights most likely have a better visualization of that. Ultimately, I found that my peers do share my views on human rights, and even take them in new twists and turns that I myself had never considered – seems like a pretty promising future, if you ask me.

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
July 24, 2018