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MONTHLY BLOG 126, Does classifying people in terms of their ‘Identity’ have parallels with racist thought? Answer: No; Yes; and ultimately, No.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Specimen HC1
© Michael Mapes (2013)

It’s impossible to think without employing some elements of generalisation. (Is it? Yes: pure mental pointillisme, cogitating in fragmentary details, would not work. Thoughts have to be organised). And summary statements about fellow human beings always entail some element of classification. (Do they? Yes, individuals are more than the sum of their bits of flesh and bones. Each one is a person, with a personality, a consciousness, a name, perhaps a national identity number – all different ways of summarising a living being). Generalisations are therefore invaluable, whilst always open to challenge.

Yet are all forms of classification the same? Is aggregative thought not only inevitable but similarly patterned, whatever the chosen criteria? Or, to take a more precise example from interpersonal relationships, does classifying a person by their own chosen ethnic identity entail the same thought processes as classifying them in terms of oppressive racial hierarchies?

Immediately the answer to the core question (are all forms of classification the same?) is No. If individuals chose to embrace an ethnic identity, that process can be strong and empowering. Instead of being labelled by others, perhaps with pejorative connotations, then people can reject an old-style racial hierarchy that places (say) one skin-colour at the top of the social heap, and another at the foot. They can simply say: ‘Yes: that is who I am; and I exult in the fact. My life – and the life of all others like me – matters.’  It is a great antidote to years of racial hatred and oppressions.

At the same time, however, there are risks in that approach. One is the obvious one, which is often noted. White supremacists can use the same formula, claiming their group superiority. And they can then campaign aggressively against all who look ‘different’ and are deemed (by them) be in ‘inferior’. In other words, oppressors can use the same appeal to the validity of group affiliation as can their victims.

There are other difficulties too. So reverting to the core question (how similar are systems of classification?) it can be argued that: yes, assessing people by ethnic identity often turns out, in practice, to be based upon superficial judgments, founded not upon people’s actual ethnic history (often very complex) but upon their looks and, especially, their skin colours. External looks are taken as shorthand for much more. As a result, assumptions about identities can be as over-simplified as those that allocate people into separate ‘races’. Moreover, reliance upon looks can lead to hurtful situations. Sometimes individuals who believe themselves to have one particular ethnic affinity can be disconcerted by finding that others decline to accept them into one particular ‘tribe’, purely because their looks don’t approximate to required visual stereotype. For example, some who self-identify as ‘black’ are rejected as ‘not black enough’.

Finally, however, again reverting to the core question: No. Identity politics are not as socially pernicious and scientifically wrong-headed as are racial politics.1 ‘Identities’ are fluid and can be multiple. They are organised around many varied criteria: religion, politics, culture, gender, sexuality, nationality, sporting loyalties, and so forth. People have a choice as to whether they associate with any particular affinity group – and, having chosen, they can also regulate the strength of their loyalties. These things are not set in stone. Again, taking an example from biological inheritance, people with dark skins do not have to self-identify as ‘black’. They may have some other, overriding loyalty, such as to a given religion or nationality, which takes precedence in their consciousness.

But there is a more fundamental point, as well. Identities are not ideologically organised into the equivalent of racial hierarchies, whereby one group is taken as perennially ‘superior’ to another. Some individuals may believe that they and their fellows are the ‘top dogs’. And group identities can encourage tribal rivalries. But such tensions are not the same as an inflexible racial hierarchy. Instead, diverse and self-chosen ‘identities’ are a step towards rejecting old-style racism. They move society away from in-built hierarchies towards a plurality of equal roles.

It is important to be clear, however, that there is a risk that classifications of people in terms of identity might become as schematic, superficial and, at times, hurtful as are classifications in terms of so-called ‘race’. Individuals may like to choose; but society makes assumptions too.

The general moral is that classifications are unavoidable. But they always need to be checked and rechecked for plausibility. Too many exceptions at the margins suggest that the core categories are too porous to be convincing. Moreover, classification systems are not made by individuals in isolation. Communication is a social art. Society therefore joins in human classification. Which means that the process of identifying others always requires vigilance, to ensure that, while old inequalities are removed, new ones aren’t accidentally generated instead. Building human siblinghood among Planet Earth’s 7.9 billion people (the estimated 2021 head-count) is a mighty challenge but a good – and essential – one.

ENDNOTES:

1 For the huge literature on the intrinsic instability of racial classifications, see K.F. Dyer, The Biology of Racial Integration (Bristol, 1974); and A. Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 2001 edn). It is worth noting, however, that beliefs in separate races within the one human race are highly tenacious: see also A. Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). For further PJC meditations on these themes, see also within PJC website: Global Themes/ 4,4,1 ‘It’s Time to Update the Language of “Race”’, BLOG/36 (Dec. 2013); and 4.4.4 ‘Why is the Language of “Race” holding on for so long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science?’ BLOG/ 38 (Feb. 2014).

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MONTHLY BLOG 125, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A WHOLE PERSON? WHY WE SHOULD ALL BE ARTY-SMARTY.

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Fig:1 Specimens
© Michael Mapes 2021

Having declared my wish to be appreciated as a whole person,1 I got a mix of replies – some testy, some curious – asking what personal ‘wholeness’ actually means. It’s a fair question. Referring to a ‘whole person’ certainly sounds a bit ‘arty’ – or, for more severe critics, dangerously ‘arty-farty’. The terminology, sometimes dignified as ‘holistic’, commonly appears in handbooks to alternative medicine, which may range from sound sense to the wilder shores of snake-oil healthcare. So … is being a whole person somehow a concept which is abstruse or ‘fringe’ – or perhaps simply redundant?

My answer is emphatically: No. Being understood as a whole person is a positive need, which is the quintessence of humanity. It expresses how individuals should properly relate together, both individually and collectively.

On the way to that conclusion, however, it’s necessary to accept the parallel need for generalisations, abstract statistics and collective identifications. For certain purposes, overviews are essential. When talking about global population pressures, it would take far, far too long to itemise and salute the full personality of every one of the 7.8 billion living individuals who inhabit Planet Earth, according to the latest estimates for December 2020.2

To take but one example of collective analysis, many medical research programmes work by investigating generic patterns among thousands of case-histories. In that way, linkages between genetic heritage and specific maladies can be tested – and at times proven or (bearing in mind the role of trial and error) at other times refuted. Similarly, treatments and palliatives can be assessed by group trials. My own gluten allergy, known as coeliac disease (sometimes spelt as ‘celiac’), turns out to be partially, though not automatically, heritable.3 When I first got that information, years ago, I checked my family history and worked out, from corroborative evidence, that the weak link was being transmitted via my father’s mother’s branch. I then conveyed the news to every relevant relative, to much initial bemusement and some derision. Over the years, however, as many siblings and cousins have been diagnosed as coeliacs, they universally tell me that they are glad to be forewarned. It’s an excellent example of how aggregative analysis can help individual understanding.

There are also countless other instances. Targeted advertising works by identifying people with specific consumer profiles. So does political blitzing. In some cases, such as social class, the personal identifications are usually (though not invariably) made by others. But in other circumstances, individuals are invited to classify themselves. On bureaucratic forms, for example, there are often questions about age, gender; ethnic identification; religion; or any combination of those factors.

It’s true that responding truthfully can be tricky, if people don’t accept the options provided. Traditionally, British army recruits who self-defined as ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ were entered as members of the established Anglican church, because there was then no space on the form for non-believers. But, for many purposes, the people, who are processing the data, want broad aggregates, not individual vagaries. They don’t mind a few exceptions and mistaken classifications. And often big, general groupings will suffice – though not for projects attempting to make fine-grained investigations into (say) people’s real religious beliefs, which furthermore may fluctuate during a lifetime.

The upshot is that, for some – even for many – purposes, individuals are statistics. However, just as it is often necessary to generalise, so at other times it’s crucial to go beyond generic categories and impersonal labels to encounter living humans, in all their often glorious and sometimes maddening diversity.

In medical treatment, for example (as opposed to aggregative medical research), there is now a simmering debate about the need for holistic medicine.4 That approach entails understanding the mix of mental and physical factors in human wellbeing. It moves beyond concentrating simply on the immediate cause of any malaise; and asks about the cause of the cause (or, in other words, the underlying root cause). In the case of undiagnosed coeliacs, they suffer from disturbed guts, aching bones, exhaustion and (often) depression. Yet they don’t need a soothing bromide. They need a biopsy or blood-test to get a full medical diagnosis and help in adopting a gluten-free diet.

Taking a holistic approach also means that clinicians should ensure that their own practices are humanised. In other words, the prevalent medical system should not make doctors unhappy, as they strive to heal their patients.5 Other areas where holistic approaches are actively proposed include many forms of therapy and social care.6 Help for people with mental health issues is also claimed to benefit from a whole-person approach7 – rather than just palliative medication. And similar hopes apply to assistance for individuals recovering from trauma.8 Indeed, ‘holistic’ interventions are credited with improvements in many diverse fields: from sports coaching;9 to sexual therapies;10 to business management;11 right through to cyber-security.12

Needless to say, invoking the concept of ‘holism’ doesn’t guarantee its effective use. Nonetheless, these usages indicate an interest in considering issues ‘in the round’. Picking on just one symptom; one solution; one approach; is unhelpful when dealing with the greatest intricacies of life. Practical people will snort that it’s best, at least, to get on with one big remedy, without having to wait to figure out the whole. But single interventions so often have unintended consequences, unless the big picture has been properly configured and understood.

Above all, it’s in child-rearing and education where it’s particularly crucial to assist all individuals to develop as a whole and rounded people.13 No-one should be pre-categorised by prior labels. And especially not so, if the labels carry pejorative meanings. No children should be simply dismissed or excluded as ‘difficult’. Such terminology makes tricky situations worse.14 (And equally children can also be over-praised, giving them a false impression of the world and their own abilities).

Being typecast negatively is particularly damaging. For example, women often used to be dismissed as ‘feather-brained’ air-heads. As a result, many did not trouble to activate their talents, especially in public view. Worse too, some clever women used voluntarily to play the game of ‘Oh it’s only silly little me!’ Then later, when, they wanted to be taken seriously, they found that they were trapped in the role of ‘dumb bimbos’. Their subsequent struggles to break free often proved to be very destructive – breaking up family relationships, which were founded upon false identities.

Quite a few people do, in practice, manage either to avoid or to ignore being stereotyped. But no youngsters should have to face being typecast, whether by gender, sexual preferences, ethnic heritage, religion, accent, appearance, social class, bodily abilities/disabilities. or any other category that humans can invoke.

Instead, all should, from very young, have a chance to develop their personalities and talents to the full. They should be not only properly fed but also warmly loved, to give them inner confidence. They should be given reasonable framework rules, but also great encouragement to innovate. Every person should also have a chance, when young, to explore the entire range of special human skills: including not only literacy and numeracy but also art, chess, drama, handicrafts, music, riding, all forms of sport and swimming. (And please add any skills that I have temporarily overlooked). Not that everyone will become a superstar. That’s not the point. It is that all should have a chance to find and develop their talents to the full – to have a lifetime of nurtured learning to become rounded and fulfilled personalities.

Needless to say, such a humanist project is expensive in terms of human labour and money. Classes should be small; and individual attention paid to each learner.15 But, from another point of view, the costs can be justified on many grounds – not least by providing work for people whose jobs have been automated. Education for the ‘whole person’ should not be an optional extra. Instead, it’s a supreme economic as well as social, political and cultural good.

Planet Earth does not need ‘partial’ and undeveloped minds and bodies. It needs the fully-charged brain-power and person-power of 7.8 billion people. There are enough global problems, many of our own making, for us all to resolve.

To repeat, the aim is not to turn everyone into a prize-winner. But behind every summary statistic, there should be a human being who is supremely well in mind and body: in other words, a whole person. Effective knowledge entails both aggregation/generalisation and disaggregation/particularisation. One early reader of this BLOG sniffed that this line of argument is indeed ‘very arty-farty’. Yet enlightened scientists are today calling for a rounded education, adding balance and creativity from the Arts and Humanities to the necessary scientific specialisation and technical knowhow.16 To live well and to safeguard Planet Earth, humans need to be not arty-farty – but really arty-smarty.

ENDNOTES:

1 See PJC, ‘Being Assessed as a Whole Person: A Critique of Identity Politics’, BLOG 121 (Jan. 2021) – pdf/58 in PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.com; also published in Academic Letters (Dec. 2020): see https://www.academia.edu.

2 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-projections/ [accessed 4 May 2021].

3 For the latest updates, see variously https://www.nature.com/subjects/coeliac-disease [accessed 4 May 2021] and reports from the American Celiac Disease Foundation in https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/future-therapies-for-celiac-disease/ [accessed 4 May 2021]. There are also numerous personal guidebooks, gluten-free cookery books, and clinical textbooks on the condition.

4 See e.g. A.C. Hastings, J. Fadiman, J.S. Gordon, Health for the Whole Person: The Complete Guide to Holistic Medicine (New York, 2018).

5 E.K. Ledermann, Medicine for the Whole Person: A Critique of Scientific Medicine (Shaftesbury, 1997); D.R. Kopacz, Re-Humanising Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Yourself, Your Practice and the Culture of Medicine (2014).

6 See e.g. A. Burnham (ed.), Together: A Vision of Whole Person Care for a Twenty-First Century Health and Care Service (2013).

7 C.L. Fracasso and others (eds), Holistic Treatment in Mental Health: A Handbook of Practitioners’ Perspectives (Jefferson, NC, 2020).

8 L.A. Prock (ed.), Holistic Perspectives on Trauma: Implications for Social Workers and Health Care Professionals (Toronto, 2015).

9 E.g. R. Light and others, Advances in Rugby Coaching: A Holistic Approach (2014).

10 J. Adams, Explore, Dream, Discover: Working with Holistic Models of Sexual Health and Sexuality, Self Esteem and Mental Health (Sheffield, 2004).

11 C-H.C. Law, Managing Enterprise, Resource Planning … and Business Processes: A Holistic Approach (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019).

12 D. Chatterjee, Cybersecurity Readiness: A Holistic and High-Performance Approach (Los Angeles, 2021).

13 C. Mayes, Developing the Whole Student: Bew Horizons for Holistic Education (2020).

14 M. Jewell, Are Difficult Children Difficult or Just Different? What if We Can Change to Help Them? (2019).

15 See e.g. C. Mayes, Developing the Whole Student: New Horizons for Holistic Education (2020); J.P. Miller and others (eds), International Handbook of Holistic Education (2018); and D.W. Crowley (ed.), Educating the Whole Person: Towards a Total View of Lifelong Learning (Canberra, 1975).

16 J. Horgan, ‘Why STEM Students [i.e. studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] Need Humanities Courses’, Scientific American (16 August 2018): https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/why-stem-students-need-humanities-courses/ [accessed 7 May 2021].

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MONTHLY BLOG 104, Is it Time to Look beyond Separate Identities to Find Personhood?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Collectively, the 15th International Congress on the Enlightenment (ICE), focusing upon Enlightenment Identities, was a huge triumph. For five days in Edinburgh in July 2019 some 2000 international participants rushed from event to event. There were not only 477 learned panel presentations and five great plenaries but also sundry conducted walks, coach tours to special venues, a grand reception, a superb concert, a pub quiz, and an evening of energetic Highland dancing. So much was happening that heads spun, and not just from the jovial Edinburgh hospitality.

By way of introduction, I began the first plenary session, with its global array of speakers, by offering some basic definitions. The grand themes of the Congress were Enlightenment and Identities: Lumières et Identités. Powerful concepts, which are both much contested. Needless to say, the Congress organisers did not insist on single definitions of these grand themes, which were chosen precisely to promote debate.

In that spirit, the Congress logo displayed two iconic figures from the eighteenth century. Both are shown as questioning, as they flank the silhouette of the classic monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to the philosopher Dugald Stewart. These two iconic figures may be considered as the Adam and Eve of the Congress, venturing out into the world to lead the collective intellectual journey.

The young woman was named Dido Belle Lindsay. She was aged 18 at the date in 1778-9, when her portrait was painted alongside her fair-skinned cousin. By heritage, Dido Belle was an illegitimate African-Caribbean-Scot. Yet she was given a resonant first name which evoked the celebrated Queen of Carthage. And by life experiences, Dido Belle Lindsay had a protected and affluent upbringing in the household of her great-uncle, an eminent London lawyer. She later married a Frenchman and lived quietly in England with her family.

Meanwhile, the man, who drew his own brooding self-portrait at the age of 40, was a German Swiss named Heinrich Füssli.3 He had travelled to Italy, where he Italianised his surname to Fuseli and then made a successful career as an artist in London. There he married an Englishwoman. Both these individuals embodied the flexibility and fluidity of eighteenth-century identities. Neither their social milieux nor their individual life-histories were static.

As educated people, the Congress’s Adam and Eve might well have encountered, in their reading and conversations, various catch-phrases like ‘It’s an Age of Light’ or ‘This Age of Reason and Science’. Specifically, too, Fuseli as a German-speaking Swiss could have read in the original Immanuel Kant’s celebrated enquiry, published in 1784, Was Ist Aufklarung? What is Enlightenment?

Moreover, Dido Belle Lindsay, the free daughter of a formerly enslaved African woman, would no doubt have appreciated the public appeal made by the leading African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. He urged that slavery had no place in an age of ‘Light, Liberty, and Science’. He was thereby invoking the sense of a new Zeitgeist and new forms of knowledge. By contrast, the slave traders had custom and practice in their support, as well as financial vested interests. But, tellingly, the slave traders did NOT justify their business by saying ‘It’s an Age of Slave-Trading’, even though that was factually true. On this issue, the abolitionists were ‘seizing the narrative’, to put the point into twenty-first-century terminology.5

Nonetheless, the Congress’s Adam and Eve would not have thought about their era as one of fixity. They both lived long enough to see the emergence of conscious anti-Enlightenment thought, from the later eighteenth century onwards. Fuseli specifically contributed to Romanticism in his art, and expressed scepticism about the claims of cold rationality. So neither figure would have been surprised to learn that the concept of Enlightenment remains contested among historians, political theorists and social philosophers.

Responses today range from appreciation and appropriation through to rejection and outright denial. Scholars analyse national and regional variations; and they debate differences between mainstream and radical Enlightenments. Meanwhile, in the later twentieth century, hostile postmodernist critics attacked appeals to rationalist reforms, which they identified as a single and oppressive ‘Enlightenment Project’.8   Yet rival sceptics denied the existence of any cohesive movement at all. Plenty to debate.

To those complexities, moreover, may be added the further complications of ‘Identities’. The terminology is warm and positive. But its impact is not simple. Viewed schematically, the rise of identity studies in the last thirty years has matched the decline of research interest into historical class, and the rise of ‘identity politics’ in the wider world.10  This fashionable approach is personal, individualistic. It rejects economic determinism. Instead, the factors that influence identity are seen as endlessly fluid and flexible. They may include gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and yes, social class; but they extend to religion, nationality, region, language, politics, culture, brainpower – and the power of physical appearances.

Certainly the Congress’s Adam and Eve would have known about identity issues, although they would not have described them in such terms. Dido Belle Lindsay lived with her great-uncle, the liberal judge William Mansfield. It was he in 1772 who heard the famous test case, when the captive African James Somersett sued for his freedom from the hold of an English ship in an English port. The case was an individual one. But the judge, when granting Somersett’s plea for liberty, pronounced publicly that the state of slavery was ‘odious’.11  Dido Belle Lindsay would surely have approved. As a result, Somersett gained the legal identity of a free man and judicial disapproval was directed at the entire system of personal enslavement. The case became a landmark in the long (and still continuing) struggle to abolish unfree personal servitude in its many different guises.

However, there are criticisms to be made of identity histories, as there are of identity politics. There is a danger that personal classifications may be interpreted too rigidly. In reality, people then and now may have multiple and overlapping identities. They may move between them as they prefer: an eighteenth-century gentleman livening in Northumbria might define himself as an Englishman when teasing a Scot from north of the border; but both might define themselves as Britons when opposing the French.

It’s also vital to recognise that identities are not always soft, liberal and inclusive. Group identities especially can become aggressive, bellicose, and coercive, formed in contra-distinction to ‘other’ groups. So identity politics may lead not to shared pluralism but to harsh conflict and polarisation. In sum, these big organising concepts may contain light – but also darkness.

Today it is surely time to look beyond the sub-divisions, not in blind denial but in awareness that there are also universals alongside diversities. In gender history, there is also a concept of personhood, beyond the rivalries of men and women.12  In terms of polymorphous human sexualities, there’s a potential for agreed boundaries of non-exploitative behaviour, beyond the rhetoric of individual sexual gratification. In the context of historical ‘racism’, there’s also significant movement towards a non-racialised understanding that all people are members of one human race.13  And, legally and politically, there is scope for a renewed endorsement of universalist human rights, as triumphantly if controversially expounded in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, applying not to one section of the globe but to all – and applying in practice as well as in theory.14

These communal issues are becoming especially highlighted in the light of the global climate emergency.15  They make a huge agenda but a very human one, to be pursued with a spirit of unity which underlies diversity: avec l’esprit de l’unité, qui sous-tend la diversité …

ENDNOTES:

1 Edited text of presentation given to Edinburgh Congress Enlightenment Identities, on Monday 15 July 2019, introducing first Global Plenary. My esteemed colleagues on the panel were, in order of speaking, Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne); Sébastien Charles (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada); Tatiana Artemyeva (Herzen State University of Russia); Sutapa Dutta (Gargi College, University of Delhi, India); and Toshio Kusamitsu (University of Tokyo, Japan).

2 For Dido Belle Lindsay (1761-1804), see P. Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014); and an intriguing outreach film Belle (dir. A. Asante, 2018).

3 For Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), see M. Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli Blake and the Romantic Imagination (2016).

4 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: And Other Writings, ed. V. Carretta (1995), p. 233.

5 For a huge literature, follow leads in B. Carey and others (eds), Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Basingstoke, 2004); and R.S. Newman, Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018).

6 See e.g. R. Porter and M. Teich (eds), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

7 See e.g. J.I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001) and ensuing debates.

8 S-E. Liedman, The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment (Amsterdam, 1997); G. Sauer-Thompson and J. Wayne Smith, The Unreasonable Silence of the World: Universal Reason and the Wreck of the Enlightenment Project (2019).

9 G. Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (2004).

10 See e.g. critiques like W. Egginton, The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses (New York, 2018).

11 For the complexities of the case, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_v_Stewart.

12 See e.g. commentary in P.J. Corfield, ‘Enlightenment Womanhood, Manhood, Sexualities and Personhood: Thematic Overview’, in L. Andries and M-A. Bernier (eds), L’Avenir des Lumières: The Future of Enlightenment (Pars, 2019), pp. 89-105; L. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept (Lewiston, 2014).

13 For the shared genetic history of humankind, see L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diaspora: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, MA, 1995).

14 Consult A. Brysk, The Future of Human Rights (Cambridge, 2018).

15 See calls for more urgent responses as in D. Spratt and P. Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Victoria, Australia, 2008); and many other publications.

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