Public Rhetoric, Human Nature, and Human Rights

Mathew D. Garcia Scruggs

Natural law and human rights language is directly connected to discussions about human nature. Public rhetoric describing specific communities often shapes our discussions about the way natural law and human rights are applied to those communities. Given the current U.S. presidential administration’s public rhetoric about Latinx and undocumented communities, it is important to examine the ways in which this kind of language impacts normative discussions relating to human nature. Since the announcement of the U.S. State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, there has been growing concern about whether such a commission will uncritically accept frameworks of natural law and human rights that remain tied to the “ethnocentric enlightenment project”. In constructing a historical tradition as a key theme for interpreting the natural law and the rights language that undergirds the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, do such constructions uncritically privilege Eurocentric foundations of what is considered human? Moreover, not only can we question the privileging of enlightenment constructions of human nature that emphasize individualism and autonomy, but we might also ask how public rhetoric about the human nature of marginalized communities affects the application of unalienable human rights.

The writers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence adopted the public rhetoric of human nature that was prevalent in Western Enlightenment circles at that time. It is easy to see John Locke’s contributions to human nature as source material for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke’s preference for “life, liberty, and property” sounds eerily similar to the Declaration of Independence’s “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”. As Linda Hogan observes, while the writers accepted notions of human dignity and equality, they “did not afford equal dignity and rights to women, children or slaves.” An inherent tension exists between philosophical concepts of human nature and the public understanding and rhetoric of what constitutes human nature.

Rather than relying on the rhetoric of the powerful, discussions about human nature, natural law, and unalienable rights should privilege the epistemologies and knowledges of marginalized communities.

With the development of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Human Rights, there is cause for concern regarding public rhetoric used to describe the human nature of marginalized communities and in particular, the language used to degrade the dignity of Latinx and undocumented communities. During his first presidential campaign, President Trump labeled undocumented migrants from Mexico as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.” During a roundtable discussion, he later referred to undocumented migrants saying, “these aren’t people, these are animals.” The President then has used this type of language to justify policies that degrade the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and property” by rendering the Latinx community as nonpersons. By painting migrants as criminals, the President has limited the possibility for migrants to seek asylum, initiated the public charge rule limiting low income migrants, and started detaining undocumented migrants who do not have criminal record. Therefore, an administration that utilizes such language and enacts a zero-tolerance migration policy that separates children from their parents while forcing them to sleep on the floor in overcrowded detention centers without adequate nutrition or medicine causes concern about who is deciding who has unalienable rights or who does not.

Perhaps not coincidentally, domestic terrorists have used rhetoric similar to that which government officials have used to degrade Latinx and undocumented communities and to justify violence. Consider, for example, the August 23, 2019 shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso, the deadliest attack on the Latinx community in U.S. history. The El Paso shooter’s manifesto was filled with familiar rhetoric that presents the Latinx community as a threat to Euroamerican values of individualism and autonomy. Not only does this rhetoric present Euroamerican individualism and autonomy as normative human nature, it racializes Hispanic ethnicity as an aberration. The El Paso shooter’s manifesto presented Hispanic communities as invading Texas. This echoes President Trump’s rhetoric issued in a statement prior to the attack stating the U.S., “has been invaded by hundreds of thousands of people coming through Mexico and entering our country illegally.” Although one cannot establish a causal relationship between Trump’s rhetoric and the El Paso shooters manifesto, it causes one to reflect on the normalization of anti-immigrant rhetoric prevalent in the current administration. Given the normalization of anti-immigrant rhetoric used by the current administration and the same rhetoric used to justify acts of violence, one must ask if the current State Department really is the best place to situate discussions about human nature, natural law, and unalienable rights. Likewise, one might wonder whether it is inherently problematic to discuss human nature from positions of economic, political, and cultural power since it is the ability to express power over another that leads to the greatest human rights abuses?

With the development of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Human Rights, there is cause for concern regarding public rhetoric used to describe the human nature of marginalized communities and in particular, the language used to degrade the dignity of Latinx and undocumented communities.

Rather than relying on the rhetoric of the powerful, discussions about human nature, natural law, and unalienable rights should privilege the epistemologies and knowledges of marginalized communities.There are four reasons that discussion of natural law and human rights should privilege the knowledges of the marginalized. First, the marginalized are the first to experience human rights abuses when the language of what constitutes a right rests with the powerful. If rights-language belongs to the powerful, the marginalized are overlooked. Second, rights themselves are conditioned upon obligations to the most vulnerable of society. This means that the rights of the powerful do not supercede their obligations to ensure the rights of the vulnerable. If one can abrogate their obligation to keep the rights of another due to a position of power, then the intelligibility of rights language itself is dissolved. Third, discussions of justice as giving a person their due requires that those who owe restitution to a mistreated party should not dictate the terms of restitution of that party. In the case of the Latinx community, those who have benefited from exploitative labor practices and discrimination should not dictate what constitutes a just wage for those communities. Finally, giving privilege to the epistemologies of marginalized communities opens the dominant community to indiginous knowledges that provide a more holistic picture of human nature and what can constitute universal rights. If natural law according to Justinian’s Corpus is the Ius Gentium, the law common to all nations, then a necessary part of it’s universal import is the inclusion of communities who have been left out of the conversation. In order for natural law to truly be universal, the epistemological privilege of marginalized communities is necessary for discussions of rights to be truly universal and unalienable.

The president’s rhetoric concerning marginalized communities, and in particular the Latinx community, causes one to question the State Department’s capacity to lead discussions about human rights. If public rhetoric shapes our discussions about human rights and human nature in general, then it is important to critically evaluate the rhetoric used concerning marginalized communities. By privileging the knowledges of the marginalized, one can engage in a more holistic and more critical evaluation of what constitutes unalienable human rights. It would be beneficial to the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights to adopt a listening position from which they draw from grassroots human rights organizations that privilege the epistemologies of marginalized communities. Since the commission serves the U.S. government in solely an advisory capacity, drawing on marginalized voices, and in particular Latinx voices, would serve the government by advising the government’s leaders to change their public rhetoric to better serve the process of discerning unalienable rights.


Mathew D. Garcia Scruggs (@scruggsmathew) is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His research interests are in Latinx Social Ethics, Latinx Theologies, and Natural Law.