Monday, April 18, 2016

Diana Tietjens Meyers's "Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights"

Diana Tietjens Meyers is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut. Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights, which she edited, came out in 2014.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights, and reported the following:
From page 99:
I propose that a victim’s story that successfully represents a moral void together with an implicit moral imperative that has been systematically ignored achieves this alternative kind of moral closure. Such a victim’s narrative fully expresses a moral demand.

Such an appeal to conscience consists in nothing more than a compelling articulation of what the narrator has endured. Now, it might seem that the moral demand is a consequence of a formal defect in the victim’s story – namely, the absence of a morally gratifying ending. On this view, narrative moral closure depends on real-world moral closure to supply an ending and complete the story. To adopt this approach, however, is just to insist that White’s full-fledged narratives and Amsterdam and Bruner’s problem-solving narratives exhaust the category of morally complete narratives. But confining the concept of moral closure to these formats does an injustice to many storytellers and arbitrarily excludes some orthodox narrative forms. Consider parables and allegories – narratives that are complete in themselves and that express moral meaning without explicitly stating it. That these literary forms require interpretation to discern their normative significance is no reason to deny that they can achieve moral closure, and, in my view, the same goes for hybrid victims’ stories.
This passage comes at the end of chapter 2, which begins with discussion of the problems victims of human rights abuse encounter when they try to couch their stories in the beginning-middle-ending form that Hayden White, Jerome Bruner, and Anthony Amsterdam endorse. Aiming to provide a more victim-friendly conception of the relations between narrative and moral norms, chapter 2 presents a conception of hybrid narratives that takes into consideration the trauma that victims of human rights undergo and the testimonial disturbances that can result from it. Page 99 affirms that this nonstandard narrative form doesn’t prevent victims from conveying a moral point – namely, that people of conscience have an obligation to do what they can to prevent future abuse.

In an important way, this passage is representative of the whole book. Discussions of human rights abuse often focus on the perpetrators – the wrongs they commit and their responsibility for what they’ve done. When the focus is on victims of human rights abuse, discussions typically highlight narrative as an aid to surviving their ordeals. Without denying the value of inquiries centered on perpetrators or victims’ recovery, Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights centers the reception of the stories victims tell and the moral significance of those stories.

A prevalent conception of victims links victimization to degradation and dehumanization, thereby underwriting victim blaming and indifference to their plight. The book counteracts these tendencies by demonstrating that victims retain their agency – their full humanity. It then explains how emotional intelligence helps us grasp the moral norms embedded in victims’ stories and how empathy with victims’ stories discloses the complex meanings of human rights abuse in human lives. The aim is to show that attention to victims’ stories can make a vital contribution to building a culture of human rights. Finally, the book provides ethical guidelines for journalists, scholars, activists, and legal officials who interview victims and use their testimony. Securing informed consent and preventing re-victimization are key. Effective human rights advocacy must rest on treating victims ethically.

Throughout the book, arguments are illustrated with victims’ autobiographical stories of diverse kinds of abuse: torture at the Guantánamo prison, slavery in the US, genocide in Rwanda, forced service as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, mass sexual violence against women in Berlin at the end of World War II.
Learn more about the book and author at Diana Tietjens Meyers's website.

--Marshal Zeringue