World interest in human rights

Global interest in human rights might be associated with the growing influence of the legal system over the political system. This hypothesis is based on the assumption that the moment we speak of human rights we step beyond the nation state, as well as ethnic or regional identities.

If we want to see how interest in human rights is dispersed around the globe, we can try Google Trends. According to Google Trends, the top seven countries showing an interest in human rights from 2004 to the present (based on Google search queries) are all African nations: Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya. Ninth is Ghana. English is an official languages or the mostly common foreign language in these countries. Worldwide, the number of searches has declined from 2004-2011, and since then has held steady.


Of course, these are just searchers for the English term “human rights.” The United Kingdom ranks #18, and the United States is #27.

If we look at the trend for globalization/globalisation, the most interest is again shown in the English-speaking African countries.

Within the United States, there is a strong correlation between liberal states and search interest in human rights. The District of the Columbia is at the top and Mississippi is at the bottom. Exceptions are Montana and Idaho-two conservative-voting states but showing a high interest in human rights. The state with the least interest are Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi–all very conservative states. These are last three also rank among the lowest in percentage of college graduates. Based on the 2016 presidential election, these states voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and they are probably the most hostile to globalization.


If we search other languages, starting with the Spanish derechos humanos, the top five countries searching for this term are Guatemala, Honduras,El Salvador, Mexico, and Ecuador. What’s interesting in the case of Spanish and English is that the poorest countries show far more interest in this search term than do the United States, the United Kingdom, or Spain.

As for German, the trend for menschenrechte looks like this:


For French, the 2004-present trend for droits de l’homme looks like this:



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Love as Passion

These a few notes and reflections on the early chapters of Luhmann’s Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (English translation, 1986).

Marriage based on love, or the love marriage, evolved to solve a particular social problem. It isn’t just a natural given. The love marriage is characteristic of post-17th-century functionally differentiated society. Cultures today that still practice arranged marriage are not functionally differentiated. These are cultures in which everyone’s life is tightly bound to the family. Families remain together in the same place, if possible, and live the same kind of life, if possible, for generation after generation. Family cohesion take precedence over individual happiness or self-determination. The family, as an autopoietic system, must survive generation after generation.


But the great love stories of literatures (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde) are based on passion, and this passion has no regard for family ties or conventional moral norms. Love as passion can tear families apart, as parents disown children who have fallen in love with the wrong person or when a person cares more for their romantic partner than for their family of origin.

In functionally differentiated society, the individual (at least upon reaching adulthood) is cut loose from the family. She/he must make their own way in the world. The more functionally differentiated the society, the more the individual is on her/his own. A major factor is the complex economy of functionally differentiated society, which puts pressure on the traditional, multigenerational family (grown children move away to take jobs). The modern educational system also explicitly comes between parents and children.

For Luhmann, love as passion is a communication medium, and this passion is not really associated with marriage. Passionate love is supposed to happen outside of marriage, or is supposed to lead up to marriage but not last longer thereafter. That’s why most fairy tale romances end at the wedding. Love as passion is a feature of the extramarital affair. Think of Prince Charles and Camilla. Passion is not bound to a moral code, and it has no regard for political, religious, economic norms, or for any other communication system. Passion as a communication medium reproduces itself until it can no longer do so. Passion is excessive and unreasonable.

Love, though not necessarily passion, has evolved to solve the problem of the operative closure of the psychic system. No one can know what another person is thinking or feeling, or how another psychic system processes information. But love is characterized by a willingness or effort to understand what another person is thinking and feeling. In order to truly understand another person, according to Luhmann,

One would have to participate in the other person’s self-referential information processing or at least be able to adequately reconstruct it, in order to be able to ‘understand’ how input works in him as information and how the person in turn reconnects output (what is said, for example) and information processing.

The communicative medium of love functions to make this seemingly improbable step possible. This is what is called ‘understanding’ in everyday parlance, and finds expression as the wish to be understood and–in the form of the complaint one is not sufficiently understood–is pushed beyond the bounds of the technically possible. (Love as Passion, p. 24.)

Love makes unrealistic or unreasonable demands on the other person’s capacity to understand. But love is not about reason.

The understanding issue also applies to close friendship, which is all about being understood and accepted by another person. Deep friendship is not so different than love; it just lacks the sexual aspect. Friendship, if we think of it as communication medium, may have evolved to deal with (not actually solve) the problem of psychic closure, or the sense of aloneness. Communication in general, or society, evolved to solve that problem. Passion is only one kind of love. In addition to intimate friendship, there is,  of course parental love, etc. Each kind of love has its own semantics.

In love, a great deal is left unspoken. Luhmann argues that

love solves its own attendant communicative problems in a completely unique manner. To put it paradoxically, love is able to enhance communication by largely doing without communication. It makes use primarily of indirect communication, relies on anticipation and on having already understood. And love can thus be damaged by explicit communication, by discreet questions and answers, because such openness would indicate that something has not been understood as a matter of course. (25)

Every social system or structure has its own semantics. So there is a semantics of love that we are supposed to learn. These aren’t just internal, subjective experiences. We learn how to recognize the signs of “true love,” and we come to know what is expected.

Although passion breaks all the rules of morality and common sense, it is “nevertheless tolerated as a sort of disease and honored by being assigned a special role” (26).


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Duties & Rights

This post attempts to continue the global brain research.

Under stratified social order, duties are far more important than rights. In stratified society, duties come along with social strata, as the nobility were obligated to protect the peasants, among other duties. Noblesse oblige translates as  “nobility obligates.” It is supposed to balance privilege with responsibility.

Human rights did not become a topic of communication until the 17th century, and the topic did not really take hold until the 18th century. Rights come into play with the functional differentiation of the legal system. Rights gradually increased in importance from the 1840-60s. This English-language Google ngram shows that the rights overtook duties in 1875.


This is also the time when human rights and humanitarianism emerged, thanks to people such as Henry (or Henri) Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross.

If we look at three words (duty, duties, obligation) in comparison with the rights, we get this graph:


The comparison with duties and rights is less clear in other languages. But for German, if just enter two terms for duty (Pflicht+Schuldigkeit), we get


But in French, if we enter devoir+obligation+responsabilité, we don’t get much of a trend:


It terms of international law or the global legal system, it might interesting to compare civil rights and human rights, first in English:

Human rights surpasses civil rights in about 1978. Civil rights are associated with the nation-state, but human rights are global.

In French, if we compare droits civiques and droits de l’homme, we see that droits de l’homme takes off in about 1973. So this is similar to the English graph in terms of the rise of human rights, although droits civiques stays flat.

droits civiques

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Coding/programming & form/content

Levi at Larval Subjects wrote:

I once knew a person who had been raised as a rightwing Christian fundamentalist, a real true believer, and that then became a Marxist atheist in college. The curious thing was that while the content of his beliefs had changed radically, the form seemed to remain the same. He still had a very binary way of thinking organized around the friend/enemy distinction, privileged group allegiance against a “them”, and was incredibly self-righteous and moralistic, filled with a passion to denounce and judge. He just now had a different framework for doing so.  This is why real change, I think, can’t simply be a change in content, but must also be a change in form or structure. The pattern itself must change.  If the form of thinking and practice remains the same, it matters little how we’ve changed the content. . . .

This passage made me think of the systems-theoretical distinction between coding and programming.  In the above example, friend/enemy is a binary code; it forces a decision as the other people one deals with must be classified as friend or enemy. It’s a way of simplifying or reducing the complexity of one’s social relationships. I suppose you can also consider some people neither friends or enemy, but in this case we would likely just ignore those people, sort of like the way the economy ignores morality.

The binary code, in itself, has no content. Programmes are needed to fill in the content. If the code stays the same (is invariant), it doesn’t matter how we changes the programmes; we still end up with friends and enemies–a friend cannot be an enemy, and an enemy cannot be a friend. If a person, or a consciousness system, considers conservative friends and liberal enemies, it can easily switch to considering conservatives enemies and liberals friends. Programmes are changeable, but a system’s code stays the same.; it is invariant. If the code changes, then it’s not the same system anymore. A conditional (If . . . then) programme can be used, such as “If X supports abortion rights, X is an enemy (not  a friend).”

In the Introduction of Luhmann’s Law as as Social System, Nobles and Schiff write,

Law develops structures (conditional programmes) for application of the code. This involves second-order observation. Secondary observation here is the operation of observing coding. The code can be applied to itself, to say whether a previous coding was valid or invalid. As an operation of coding this has no greater meaning, in itself, than the original coding (so all the elements of paradox, tautology, and contradiction remain within this observation). But the observation offers rationality. Why was the earlier coding appropriate (valid or invalid)? Answers to this question create conditional programmes” ‘In the presence of fact X, code Y is legal. In the presence of fact Z, code Y is illegal.’ The programmes also constitute norms: those facts that comply with the system’s norms are labeled legal; those facts that violate the system’s norms are labelled illegal.

These second-order observations cannot answer the question: what is the distinction between legal and illegal. They cannot address the question of whether the distinction between legal and illegal is itself legal. They can only produce relatively stable applications of the code, allowing law to carry out its function of maintaining stable expectations. (18-19)

Legal norms, or laws, are the content of the legal code lawful/not-lawful (or legal/illegal). Laws are clearly changeable, but only through legal means. The political system, for instance, cannot declare a law to be unlawful.

A system that changes its programmes (normative, expectational structure), is to said to have learned. The legal system can change its norms when these norms are deemed inadequate to handle to environmental irritations. Structural coupling, in other words, can lead to changed norms.  But, of course, the system can also refuse to change its normative structure, or not learn.

Since the system alone determines whether to change or not to change its normative structure, or programmes, the relationship of system to environment is asymmetrical. But within the system, the coding or lawful/unlawful is symmetrical, as both are used to continue the system’s autopoiesis. The difference is a unity because both sides of the code are need to produce information. Actually, according to Nobles and Schiff, “the two sides of the code are always applied simultaneously to the same situation” (18). In a dispute between two parties, for example,

The state of affairs which gives rise to a dispute is a single state. If we decide that one party wins the dispute (acted legally) and another party loses (acted illegally) we are not applying the code to two different situations but to one.” (18)

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Unintended Consequences, continued

Here is an interesting case of unintended consequences. In the US, illegal immigrants may file federal tax returns. Apparently about 4.5 million undocumented immigrants do so.

There is an obvious incentive to file: a chance to get a refund. Johnson says another reason is that if a person winds up in immigration court, a record of having filed taxes is considered evidence of “good moral character.”

But now with the fear of deportation, there has been a decline in such tax returns. In a complex society, when the political system tries to solve one problem, or what it defines as a problem, it creates new problems. Here is the story.

We end with a decrease in the moral values (e.g., personal and civic responsibility) and patriotism that the political system was allegedly trying to enhance or protect. Plus the government might end up with lower tax revenue. I say “might” because the IRS can keep the refunds that would have been issued.

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Politics, War, and Law

This research thread is related to the recently published article on “Futures of a distributed memory: A global brain wave measurement (1800–2000)“.

Consider these two Google Books ngrams, which represent the top words associated with the political system and the legal system in English and German:


If these ngrams mean anything, war tends to raise the importance/urgency of politics (the political system) over law (the legal system). Law resolves conflict through legal means, while politics uses the medium of power–the power to make collectively binding decisions. Politics creates the difference between obedience and disobedience, while law creates the difference between legal and illegal. War reflects instability of the political system or environmental irritation of the political system. Because the system is unstable, it receives more attention.

In the above German-language ngram, the Cold War years show a continual ascendency over politics, more so than in the English ngram. This may reflect the partition of Germany after WWII. In the German graph, politics falls steeply after the end of the Cold War and German reunification.

Some people have argued that the war (or perhaps the military) is a function system in its own right. But it seems more reasonable to classify war as a programme of politics, just as laws, regulations, and contracts are programmes of the legal system. Martial law, insofar as it entails the stripping of constitutional rights, would represent the ascendency of politics over law. War, if we call it a programme of politics, is a way of making collectively binding decisions. It is like legislative debate, etc.


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Futures of a distributed memory. A global brain wave measurement (1800–2000)

As Steffen Roth, the lead author, noted on Facebook, the final version of this article with full bibliographic details is now available online and for free on ScienceDirect: (official link expires May 27, 2017; see thereafter).

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