Today I Spoke to some High School Students

I spoke to some local high school students this morning.  It was an honors society that wanted me to come in and speak about human rights, from 11:16 to 11:54.  So I did.

I planned to provide, off the cuff, a sketch of my undergraduate course in International Human Rights.  Then Amanda Murdie helped me out by posting, over at the Duck, the analogy comparing virginity pledges and human rights treaties.  I have three major problems I need to confront when I teach undergraduate students about international human rights.

1. They know little about law

2. They know less about norms

3. Few are accustomed to thinking about tying hands via audience costs

Perhaps I will post another time about how I address points 1 and 2 (the latter of which explains why Mike Ward asked, on FB, whether I wore a dress when I posted today that I was off to speak to HS students about human rights), but this is about point 3.

I have been using, for a number of years, marriage vows to get students to think about tying hands via audience costs.  I like examples that are germane to their lives that also permit me to demonstrate that we can speak analytically and intelligently about taboo topics (in this case, infidelity).  But for high school student the virginity pledge is much better.  So I went with it.

I started by explaining that while the state produces loads of things that make modern life wonderful (I like to focus on sewage systems, which drastically reduce infant mortality), but that states are also the most deadly institution humans have ever created (quickly reviewing deprivation of property, liberty and life).  This creates the question: how do folks like us constrain Leviathan? I then explained that most every country has signed the Convention Against Torture, and showed them this video from the ITT project:

So public pledges aren’t necessarily respected.  I wanted to know how many of them knew what a virginity pledge was, and then why is it the case that we do not have similar public pledge movements for not cutting off one’s left arm.  That setup the point that pledge systems do not exist for activities that are contrary to self interest, and permitted a brief riff on short run v long run interests (including a side reference to 2 minutes, or 2o minutes, or whatever, of pleasure, which got a nice chuckle).  I asked them to rewind the clock 1,000 years (stripping away modern contraception and the welfare state) and consider a small village without much excess food stock where everyone knows one another.  That permitted a quick tour of the origin of the social practices of honor killings, the Burkha, and the rules that surround them.

With that background I took them back to interstate contracts, and briefly walked through why elected officials would negotiate trade agreements.  That permits the question: when one government pledges to another that it will not abuse its people if the other agrees not to abuse its people, do we expect those governments to honor their pledge?

I then asked them to think about elections, and specifically whether countries that held elections would, on average, exhibit greater or lesser respect for human rights?  One kid raised his hand and provided a high school student’s version of BdM et al’s selectorate theory: it depends on level of participation (mixing theories, and appealing to Dahl’s Polyarchy).  Give that kid a gold star!  I then explained that most victims of torture are criminals, dissidents, and members of marginalized groups, none of whom vote effectively in blocks.

What of constitutional courts, I wanted to know.  I was told I had 4 more minutes, and they were stumped.  So I reminded them that constitutional courts have to rule against executives and legislatures, the institutions that can enforce things and provide budgets.  What is curious, then, is that there are any constitutional courts that are able to rule independently of what executives and legislatures want, and then find that the executive / legislature by and large complies with adverse rulings.  When that happens, I observed, then we might have cause for optimism about constraining Leviathan.

I then told them about a new result that Courtenay Conrad and I have not yet presented: elections are associated with increased scarring torture (and less stealth) and powerful courts are associated with increased stealth torture (and decreased scarring).  I explained the distinction between the two types, that stealth techniques originated in US police departments, and several kids nodded in recognition of my reference to the scene in the movie Chicago where the judge throws out the case because they defendant was clearly abused prior to his confession.  And I closed with a reference to majoritarian institutions (elections) and anti-majoritarian institutions (courts), briefly noting the cases before the US Supremes today, and beseeched them to read at least Federalist 10, if they do not read the whole thing.

Oh, and last night Charli Carpenter tweeted the Out of Sight, Out of Mind video representation of US drone strikes in Pakistan.  I started that video after showing the ITT one, explaining that they should never give a presentation during which they provide distracting background that they never address (Professional driver on closed course.  Don’t try this at home!).  If you have not seen it, watch it.

I’m not too sure whether the teacher liked my presentation.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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