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The Tragedy of Human Rights: Liberalism and the Loss of Belonging


We argue here that human rights are as much the problem as they are the solution to the contemporary challenge of constructing civil society, observing that the seemingly inherent long-term social and political consequences of close to half a century of advocating human rights to the exclusion of other components of human good and fulfillment have been at the expense of any sense of shared belonging. Delineating between rights and belonging, we show how the extreme right has latched on to a tangible argument for belonging while the left has responded by continuing to advocate for abstract, universal, and unencumbered human rights to the detriment of its efforts to build civil society.

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    We are fully aware of how much this categorization recalls the classical distinctions drawn by Tönnies between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Our quibble is with the notion that one historically came to replace the other; we believe that both continue to exist concomitantly, that in fact in some sense one even produces the other.

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    Our work with CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion is described at length in Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, and David W. Montgomery. 2015. Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Correspondence to Adam B. Seligman.

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Seligman, A.B., Montgomery, D.W. The Tragedy of Human Rights: Liberalism and the Loss of Belonging. Soc 56, 203–209 (2019).

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  • Belonging
  • Community
  • Trust
  • Confidence
  • Human rights
  • Difference