The Human Life Exchange Rate Mechanism: Hypocrisy, Human Rights and the West’s ‘Liberal’ Media Representations of the Rest

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation

Description of Activity

Webinar as part of the University's Global Week. As part of the University of Portsmouth’s Global Week 2021, Dr Tom Sykes and Dr Matthew Alford reflect on the hypocrisy and double standards that have long characterised Western attitudes to and media representations of non-Western conflicts and crises. These representations mystify or ignore the complicity of Western policy in such problems (war and instability in the Middle East, for example) and propose inconsistent moral and legal principles.

Undergirding such discourse is a chilling moral calculus that implies certain lives (predominantly white ones located in the developed world) matter more than others (non-white ones in the developing world). Drawing on arguments from Tom’s new book, Imagining Manila: Literature, Empire and Orientalism (Bloomsbury/I.B. Tauris), Matthew’s books Union Jackboot and Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, and on the insights of scholars including Kehinde Andrews, Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Noam Chomsky and M.G.E. Kelly, the presenters explore the (often subtle) deployment of this ‘Human Life Exchange Rate Mechanism’ (HLERM) in Western, allegedly liberal discourses on foreign affairs topics including economics, autocracy, the climate emergency and US/UK-led wars. In addition, Tom provides historical context for the trope, citing precedents from Shakespeare to Christopher Columbus. He will also examine how the HLERM intersects with issues such as Covid-19 and causes like Black Lives Matter.

In this joint presentation, Tom and Matthew argue that the HLERM reveals deep contradictions at the heart of Western liberal perspectives on the non-Western world, chief amongst them the ostensible upholding of universal human rights versus the forms of inequality, exploitation and oppression in the ‘periphery’ produced by that same liberal capitalist global order.
Period15 Mar 2021
Event titleGlobal Week 2021
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • foreign policy
  • human rights
  • media representations
  • Ethics
  • war
  • conflict