Notes on Just Advocacy

Notes on Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation Edited by Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol


Visual rhetorics of rescue rely on now-familiar narrative dualism of tradition and modernity to champion human rights within the framework of Western liberation (1).

Domesticity reinforces national hierarchies in which the US embraces “families” in need of rescue (Klein) (3).

JA – interested in transnational feminist theories and practices that offer new ways to understand the prominence and often paradoxical nature of rights within the context of war, national security, and international militarized judicial institutions (4).

In contrast to the hegemonic political and media discourse on Western liberation of the Third World, feminists often attempt to address women’s human rights from the vantage point of the women themselves. These feminist representational practices need interrogation as well (7-8).

Hesford and Kozol caution feminists to resist seeking “experience” or “truth” outside of discourse, a claim often found in women’s rights as human rights scholarship. The challenge is to listen and learn from testimonials, visual evidence, and other markers of human rights abuses without presuming that the evidence is transparent (8-9).

Studying visual rhetorics of rights is so important because photographs participate in constructing a feminist visual poetics about women’s resistance, strength, and courage (11).

Feminist representations must include historical context of oppression and opposition (11).

H and K say we must recognize women’s human rights through the dialogic processes of looking and being seen, of providing and witnessing testimonials, of reading and writing practices. This dialogic process is also a transnational and transcultural process whereby reading or seeing human rights violations locates the viewer, the reader, and the witness within the local and global communities. Pedagogically speaking, we might ask whether or how representations prompt self reflexivity about the politics of viewers’ historical, cultural, and social locations? (11)

In representing women, we must present images that complicate a simpolistic spectacle of victimization by visualizing a post-traumatic space of public dissonance in which gender, violence, and recovery rub up against each other in discomforting ways. In other words, images must ask feminists to critically engage with our desires to hear the voices and see the faces suffering. Feminists must avoid reproducing the spectacle of victimization while also not erasing the materiality of violence and trauma, and recognizing the interdependence of material and discursive realms (13).

JA considers connections between globalization, patriarchies, and nationalism, as they intersect with and shape discourses about women’s human rights, national and international security, and transnational feminist intervention (14).
JA examines how human rights discourses negotiate the terrain of national, international, and transnational political and social contexts, looking variously at how states deploy rights claims, how citizen-subjects invoke the national to (re)establish identity within shifting geopolitical contexts, and how activists challenge or resecure national and transnational terrains (15).

JA attempts to recognize how local and global are constituted through each other, and following Grewal and Kaplan, to avoid the essentialist configuration of the local “as the space of oppositional consciousness and the global…as an oppressive network of dominant power strucutures” (19).

It is important to explore how non-Western feminists appropriate Western narratives of social justice without being themselves merely tools of Westernization (19).

Key question:

How can we recognize the many acts of violence done against women and mobilize the power of rights discourse while avoiding the reinscription of Western imperial gazes? (20)

Advocacy itself needs to be analyzed as a participant in a contested transnational activism (21).

The war on terrorism is a recent manifestation of how the globalization of economic and cultural practices has trespassed on individual, social, and political subjectivities while promoting a universalist juridical notion of human rights (22).

How visual and textual rhetorics mobilize human rights claims—how experiences of violation and suffering are represented, by whom, in what venues, and for which audiences—is profoundly important in the politics of advocacy. We need to pay attention to how certain genres and media maintain the authority to “speak” about human rights and violations. Visual culture such as photographs and videos, like testimonials, contain the authority to speak about women’s suffering because of its promises of authenticity. The human voice, especially, carries with it the promise of access to “real” experiences or to the truth about what happened. Similarly, documentaries, photo reportage, and other news practices operate effectifively because of their credibility as truth-gathering mechanisms. The camera always promises to show us the faces of women’s suffering (22).

Stated goal of JA: foster reflection about the possibilities and limitations of using a rights discourse to promote social justice for women considering the politics of cultural advocacy and to examine the myriad and troubling ways in which women’s experiences of oppression and the calls for women’s human rights are mobilized by state governments to support military interventions and repressive political ends (26).

“Kairos and the Geopolitical Rhetorics of Global Sex Work and Video Advocacy” Wendy H.

Human rights is an empowering and disciplining discourse; for instance, the exposure of human rights violations can threaten nation-states and governments with sanctions deployed for political purposes (147)

The identification of women as passive and naïve victims lured and tricked into sex work and therefore in need of rescue is a prominent narrative in international human rights campaigns, including some feminist anti-trafficking campaigns, and the public media representations of the global sex trade (147).

What cultural and poltical forces contribute to the acceptability and public readiness for such rescue narratives? For whom and in what contexts are such narratives and identifications persuasive? (147)

Kairos is a multidimensional term that refers to a situational understanding of space and/or time and the material circumstances—namely the cultural climate—of rhetorical situations (148).

To emply Kairos as part of a transnational feminist methodology is to engage kairos wit the problem of identification as it operates across a range of discourses and to examine the experiences and narratives with which particular acts of identification are entangled or associated (148).

We need to become more attuned to advocates’ strategic and effective mobilization of victimization narratives, as well as the uncritical uses of such narratives in ways that may re-victimize women and support repressive cultural and political agendas (148).

We need to account for the geopolitical structures and technological developments—nationally and internationally—which affect the mobility and marketability of certain identifications associated with female bodies and more broadly sexuality (149).

Transnationality—movments across space, time, and discourses and to disrupt totalizing top-down views of globalization (149).

To place identification practices and identity claims within the drama of kairos is to understand human agency as a rhetorical-geopolitical practice and identification, or for that matter, disidentification, as a means of rhetorical invention and embodied action. In other words, identifications are both rhetorical and material (149).

H. call is to shift our focus from the identity categories of victim and agent to consider material-rhetorical processes of identification and their mobalization within action-defined contexts. Such a shift opens up important new ground for thinking through the complexities and particularities of women’s agency and processes of identification that define the terms of transnational feminist scholarship and advocacy (149).

New methodologies must be developed to enable a contextual rhetorical understanding of identity categories and identification practices as forms of commodity and symbolic exchange. The interrogation of cultural and political practices of rhetorical identification leads us to question the contexts created for and by such identifications. The rhetorical, namely, kairotic, dimensions of identification remain under-theorized in trans. F. studies and advocacy (150).

The rhetorical appeal of the transnational identity of women as victims of oppression is persuasive, Margart E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink suggest, because the issue of “bodily harm resonates with the ideological traditions of Western liberal countries like the US and Western Europe and with basic ideas of human dignity common to most cultures….Issues of bodily harm also lends themselves to dramatic portrayal and personal testimony that are such an important part of on network tactics (150).

Victim’s testimonies are employed in human rights campaigns to persuade audiences to remember, to establish historical consciousness, and to encourage target audiences and institutional venues to act (165).

Patriarchy often frames context for human rights abuses. The commonplace that sex workers or consumers of commercial sex are passive victims of patriarchy assumes a static notion of gender identity attached to victimization—an injury or wound—and ignores the myriad forces and range of identifications (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc) that shape human agency and subjectivity (151).

Stereotypes of prostitutes as social deviants or as helpless victims maintain their rhetorical appeal because they keep the focus on the “other”, and thereby deflect attention from the national and international policies, economic and sociopolitical forces, and cultural traditions that contribute to the material conditions that drive many women to work in the sex industry (152).

The rhetorical appeal to a sense of common humanity, and to women as a unified group, has been a fundamental strategy of women’s human rights campaigns, which anchor their call to action in the experiences of individual victims (156).

We must cultivate the ear of a rhetorical listener, which requires us to become more attuned to the strategic mobilization of normative identity narratives, cultural myths, and the rhetorical commonplaces by advocates on all sides of the debate (157).

Cultural cosmopolitanism: cultural and virtual tourism, self-invention, and discursive mobility and to highlight the risks that such movements pose in the name of critical advocacy (162).

We need to look beyond the academic transmission of new conceptions to consider how “social movements appropriate and transform global meanings, and materialize them in local practices”, so too do we need to understand how identities and identification practices are enabled and constrained by kairos (163).

To link kairos as a critical methodology with transnational feminist studies and advocacy is to understand identification and identity claims as dynamic moments of action that are at once rhetorical and material, individual and social, local and global. Placed against the geopolitical backdrop of the early 21st century, the classical figure of Kairos therefore emerges not so much as an accommodative figure of balance but as a critical subject negotiating the contradictions of transnationality. Finally, a kairotic understanding of indentification is one that recvognizes the colonial and imperial histories that shape the terms of indentification associated with global sex work and feminist advocacy and the identification practices that transform women into subjected others in increasingly transnational and cosmpolitan public spheres (163-164).

Misrepresentations of Missing Women in the US Press: The Rhetorical Uses of Disgust, Pity, and Compassion by Arabella Lyon

US popular media representations of women’s rights allow the nation-state to manipulate the divide between a universal standard or rights and a relativist acceptance of the cultures, both patriarch norms, to promote the model that benefits their alliances with a variety of regimes (174).

Media should ideally help citizens to bridge the ethical spheres between nations and to define what obligations and responsibilities the citizens and governments in the developed world have. In doing so, the media could work to move audiences from spectators to advocates, represent human rights in a context of human needs, and show fewer surface images and more complex portrayals of women in other cultures (174).

In interpreting a violation or protection of women’s rights, activists, citizens, and scholars hould understand the role of persuasion and rhetorical deliberation in representing and responding to the acts. …Sophisticated observers may not fully grasp to what degree constructing and interpreting human rights is a rhetorical act, pregnant with collection and deivision, on the brink of proposed action or inaction. ..Scholars do not know enough about what audiences to with images of human rights violations or how the images might lead to deliberation and future action (174).

Long before globalization and mass media, emotion was understood as useful for political manipulation (175).

Currently rather than educate emotions to identify (with) the conditions of others, the press repeatedly offers voyeuristic representations that foster sentimentality and charity at best, but more often simply perceptions of abject and debased women, not people worthy of engagement. The popular press rarely represents someone in similitude (likeness), but rather symbolizes her for consumption by a bread-and-circus audience. We are offered a spectacle of misery, not a politics of pity, let alone a path to just action. (176).

In revealing the media’s persuasive or rhetorical effects on readers and viewers, I show how US citizens are taught to understand China and its women. China’s missing women become a focus of American fears, fears of the potential power of China’s centralized government, of the values of a different religious and philosophical tradition, and its huge and potentially world-dominating population, all of whose planning policies are a symptom. The focus on China’s so-called one-child policy has served US politicians to separate us from China….By not representing women as fully developed subjects, but rather symbols of nation-states, the press, in essence, focuses on US politics and policy and not on women’s rights. Hence, missing women in other Asian countries rarely appear in the American press because their deaths are not caused by state-sponsored birth control, but rather by what is characterized as family decision-making. ….Women’s bodies are the site of patriarchal and national struggle, but neither the needs of those bodies nor their humanity are represented. In fact the women are rarely represented. (177).

If citizens of US are unfamiliar with the choices other nations make as they distribute goods and if they have never experienced different local, material conditions not considered a continuum of rights practices, they cannot make reasonable assessments of foreign governments nor understand the relationship between material well being and commitments to peace (177).

The move to differentiate China’s family size from the “normal” creates a more authoritarian Chinese governement and a more oppressed Chinese people, and yet, paradoxically, it reduces concern about the abortion, abandonment, and neglect of daughters (179).

News stories of one-child policy and missing women offer little to help us understand the lives of women beyond their failed and repelling bodies. The subjective distance created, in effect, isolates citizens from a position of compassion with or without political engagement. A spectator may well be dismayed, but the images of women offer her no political connection—pity, compassion, communitarian—to the women’s lives, the Chinese, and their traditions of human rights and decision making . In assistance, the press leaves the US citizens without a frame for becoming involved in the scene of the tragedy (180).

These new stories fail to represent Chinese women with the kind of consciousness that would encourage Americans to imagine their participation in the formation of a world more just to women (181).

Suffering is often offered as entertainment (181)… and US citizen is set on safe ground of moral indignation (182).

There is nothing in these pieces to prompt self-reflexivity or critical exploration of international human rights discourse….To understand the material conditions of other women’s lives and the place of rights, citizens need studies of multiple patriarchies, international economic conditions, and sufficient connection for compassionate action (184).

Rather than respresentations of bodies (exteriors), audiences should hear the discourses of and from these women, what we might shorthand as their interiority, their personhood (184).

Rather than insist on a universal standard, the US Press could more responsibly show how nations negotiate relationships to a standard of human decency (184)

Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im argues it is necessary “to explore the possibilities of cultural reinterpretation and reconstruction through internal cultural discourse and cross cultural dialogue.” That is, to understand the violations of human rights, sometimes we need to understand individual rights, communal rights, and economic capabilities within a particular culture (185).


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