precis Interview: Anat Biletzki

  • Spring 2020
precis Interview: Anat Biletzki

Anat Biletzki is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University. She is a research affiliate at the Center for International Studies and founding co-director of its Human Rights and Technology Fellowship Program. She served as chairperson of B’Tselem―the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (2001–2006) and was nominated among the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize―2005.” Her publications include: Talking Wolves: Thomas Hobbes on the Language of Politics and the Politics of Language, and (Over) Interpreting Wittgenstein. Her most recent book is Philosophy of Human Rights: A Systematic Introduction (Routledge, October 2019).

SPRING 2020 : précis Interview: Anat Biletzki
Anat Biletzki and the halls of justice
May 19, 2020

précis: Can you tell us about the work that the Human Rights and Technology Program does and what it offers to MIT students? 

AB: The program is invested in teaching human rights, but teaching in a very deep sense of the word “teaching.” It is not about classes. It is about actually getting students to engage with human rights. The “work” is getting students to think of their own projects, which can be completed in a semester or a year, that link human rights with technology.

For a brief background: The Center had a human rights and justice program when I first arrived in 2007. That program, unfortunately, became inactive. Years later, John Tirman, Richard Samuels, and I started talking about a new human rights program. We determined that the program should focus on MIT’s strength in technology. Our vision, then, was to add the human rights component and thus explore on a grand scale how technology either aids or hinders human rights.

John Tirman and I co-direct the program. Each fall we send out a request for proposals to MIT students to apply for the annual fellowship. The program started just last year, in 2018-19, with its first cohort of students. 

We've now accepted our second group which involves seven projects and ten students. The projects are amazingly diverse and come from both undergraduate and graduate students across the Institute. 

One student is working on the use of technology in monitoring migrants at the US-Mexico border. Another student is working in Micronesia, looking at Facebook Groups and the issue of labor exploitation of migrant workers. An evolving group project began with looking at how social media promotes activism for workers' rights.  And we have other students working on questions of indigenous knowledge, indigenous culture and indigenous groups, and how access to their own resources is helped or hindered by technology.

précis: What has been the reception to the Program by undergraduate and graduate students?

AB: The reception has been less than I had imagined. I expected we would have 100 applicants for six positions. Last year we accepted something like 50% of applicants. This year it is probably 30% of the applicants. As these things go, it takes a while for students to hear about new research opportunities. It takes a longer while for students to think it is worthwhile to participate in. But what we are seeing, and what gives me great hope, is that the students involved are getting more and more excited. And going forward, I suspect the public relations aspect will be much easier because these students will be sharing their enthusiasm with their peers.

This goes beyond the level of what you need for a resume: It is about the awareness of human rights in the very technological world that we live in. In that sense, the students have said that it has opened their eyes to a different level of engaging with technology. This gives me great gratification because it is always the human rights factor that is in the forefront of my mind.

précis: How do you hope the program will continue to grow in the future? 

AB: Of course, I’d like it to “grow” in the very mundane sense of having more people. For example, if we could have 20 projects a year, we’d have a more vibrant program. What we’re noticing now is how the projects are enriching one another and how the group as a whole is working together. If it’s a bigger group with more projects, it widens the horizons of what we can do.

On a less concrete level, I want the program to be asking deeper questions about whether technology is good or bad for human rights, and grappling with how we deal with the encroachment of technology. In that sense, I see this program as being a great contribution in the way human rights is perceived and done all around the world, not just at MIT.

précis: What has surprised you the most in founding and directing the program?

The biggest surprise to me is how little MIT students—and such brilliant students—know about human rights. They bring with them a certain idea that anybody who wants to do good for humanity is doing human rights. But human rights is a very well-defined area. There is a language, there is terminology, there is human rights law. And you have to know those! On the positive side, I have been amazed at the speed and depth with which these students do their work. Within two weeks of our first meeting, they are human rights “experts.” They read, they investigate, they absorb everything they hear.

précis: You recently wrote a book, Philosophy of Human Rights: A Systematic Introduction. What inspired you to explore human rights through this lens?

AB: There is much work done on human rights in legal studies and just as much in political science. Far less so in philosophy. (Ironically, because it took so long to write the book, there are now many more philosophical works on human rights as well.)

As I was writing the book, however, the critique of human rights became more and more substantive and I realized that the questions we have been raising over the past few decades are very deep interrogations. Alas, I got stuck because I realized how much critique there actually is from the philosophical perspective, which is different from the criticisms of practice. Criticism means you think something is being done wrongly. Critique is asking questions to better understand both what you think you are doing and what you really are doing.

Interestingly, that became the double impetus: the reason I wanted to write the book was to explore the philosophical angle, and the reason it became more convoluted than I wanted was the questioning of everything I was writing.

précis: Can you give us a brief overview of how you thought about systematically approaching a topic as amorphous as human rights?

AB: I am nothing if not systematic. When I do philosophy that is other than human rights, what I do is logic, philosophy of science, philosophy of language. This is called, in philosophical jargon, “analytic philosophy." The original goal was to do analytic philosophy, i.e., to analyze the concepts that invigorate human rights. I then realized that I had to do some historical conceptualization because this is a field that has a history (though many would say not a very long history). Some scholars start it after World War II with the United Nations, others start it with the concept of liberal rights in the 17th century. I thought this should be relayed systematically, so that we understand where we are coming from. Next, I aimed to conceptualize the main terms: what does "human" mean, what are "rights"; the concept of “dignity,” etc―and that also was a systematic part. So I aimed to tell the history, analyze the concepts, and then ask philosophical questions about the practice.

précis: What is the most common misunderstanding that academics and practitioners have about human rights that you sought to dispel in writing this book? 

AB: A leading misconception is the acceptance of the conventional wisdom that human rights are a matter for individuals – that human rights are the rights of individuals against their state. I say that this is a misconception because, even though that is what human rights were or were thought of originally, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, and definitely now in the 21st century, we are witnessing thinkers and practitioners challenging this concept of human rights. 

Human rights needs to be widened to talk about group rights, not just individual rights, and to deal with rights of equality, not just rights of liberty. This is something we have to deliberately teach more of now, because our regular traditional way of teaching human rights was based on the old individualistic, liberal worldview. We have to rethink what we mean by human rights, and such rethinking has to happen even under our smaller umbrella of technology and human rights.