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human rights lives Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006



Human Rights: Lives and Intersections

Schaffer, Kay and Smith, Sidonie (2004), Human Rights and Narrated Lives:
The Ethics of Recognition.
New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ben Wellings
Australian National University

1. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith's book Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004) examines the intersections between the rise of human rights as the foremost contemporary means of addressing human suffering and the rise in popularity of personal life narratives.   From this initial premise a series of further intersections follow that often pit the individual storyteller against dominant national and historical narratives that makes for compelling, and at times disturbing reading.

2. The book deals with the emergence of human rights and published personal life narratives from the 1990s onwards.   The authors can be applauded for having covered an admirable breadth of geographical, cultural and political case studies to illustrate their main argument.   In the authors' words,

this book is a testimony to the efficacy of stories: stories silenced by and emerging from fear, shame, trauma and repression; stories enlivened by hope, connection, commitment, and affiliation; stories fed by calls for justice and empathy and an ethics of equality and human dignity; stories framed by faith in international covenants calling for dignity, justice and freedom (Schaffer and Smith, 2004: 233).

But in the light of their optimistic conclusion that storytelling is a powerful political tool in the ongoing pursuit of social justice, it might be wise to reflect on just why these campaigns can meet with failure or stalemate as well as success and liberation.

3. The authors deal with the link between personal narratives and human rights in South Africa, Australia, South Korea, the United States of America and China.   The chapter on South Africa deals with the role of personal narratives in the "Truth and Reconciliation" process of the latter part of the 1990s in post-Apartheid South Africa.   The following chapter on Australia examines another process of Reconciliation, this time between settler and indigenous Australians.   The chapter on Korea examines the role of personal narratives in bringing to light the issue of so-called "comfort women"; female prisoners of the Japanese imperial forces during the Pacific War who were forced into prostitution.   The penultimate chapter examines the narratives of prisoners in United States' gaols who portray themselves as "victims", whilst the last chapter analyses emerging personal narratives of post-Tiananmen China.   Despite the, no doubt, profound cathartic value of these narratives, only in one case - South Africa - can these narratives really have been said to have met with political success at the macro level to match the personal (and publishing) success and greater social justice that their advocates hoped to achieve.

4. This is not to say that these narratives are not confronting or challenging: quite the opposite.   In fact, it is the challenge that they pose to existing national narratives that has generally resulted in a sort of political deadlock between the narrators' aims and the desire to suppress their challenges on behalf of the existing power holders.   The authors point this out early on in the book when they argue that 'These acts of remembering test the values that nations profess to live by against the actual experiences and perceptions of the storyteller as witness' (Schaffer and Smith, 2004: 3).   Indeed, as early as the 1880s, French polymath Ernst Renan recognised that the essence of a nation was not only that its individual members must have much in common, but they must have forgotten much in common too.   It is not so much that individual members of a nation don't know their national history, but they have actively forgotten or suppressed parts of it also.   In this sense, the personal narratives are unsettling because they drag out of the past events and attitudes that were known to have taken place or existed, but on which many members of the national community would rather not dwell as they de-legitimise professed national values.   However, this aspect of the link between storytelling, human rights, politics and nationalism is a little underplayed in this account.   Perhaps this is because of the "global flows" alluded to by the authors, which often seem to squeeze out the "national" between the "global" and the "local", even if "local" is often left undefined.   So when the authors speak of political events such as the Tianenmen Square massacre of 1989 and the end of Apartheid between 1990-4 as events which "resonated with international audiences far removed from the home site in ways that then rebounded back onto the local context" (Schaffer and Smith, 2004: 224) it is not clear what "home" and "local" mean.   Inserting "national" back in here, and in particular the role of national narratives in legitimating dominant cultures and régimes, sheds some light on the success or failure of these movements.

5. The authors rightly highlight South Africa as the location where personal narratives have most profoundly influenced the human rights record.   South Africa during the 1990s was the only example cited in this volume where there was a radical re-structuring of power.   Consequently, there was a need to change the dominant national ideology from Apartheid to a novel post-colonial "rainbow nation", where the new power-holders, particularly the African National Congress, could clearly (and easily) show the iniquities of the previous régime to shore up the legitimacy of their new rule.   In this instance, the unsettling narratives of the individuals caught up in the Apartheid era, were fundamental to the change in régime and therefore were welcomed by the new rulers with their interest in generating a new national narrative.   This was not the case elsewhere.

6. Resistance to the challenges to established national narratives from personal testimonies was strong in states where there was no change of government or régime and strongest where there were competing narratives of victimhood.   In Australia, much of the national narrative had previously focused on settlers as victims: victims of a harsh penal culture (the convict era); victims of a harsh climate (the pioneers); and victims of British military incompetence (Gallipoli and Singapore).   The personal narratives that came out of the process of reconciliation generally, and the 1997 Wilson inquiry into the "Stolen Generations" in particular, inverted this notion of victimhood in Australia.   Now it was impossible to see Australians solely as victims of injustice or fate; they had to be understood as perpetrators of iniquities too.   Resistance to this notion was great.   Whilst much was made of the role of Australia's military forebears, the ANZACS, in creating an Australian national character, much distance was placed between contemporary Australians and the perpetrators of forced child removal of mixed-race Aboriginals and the massacres of the nineteenth century.   At the same time, indigenous claims to continuing sovereignty ("we where here first"), were countered with claims of discontinuity from certain sections of the settler community ("I'm not responsible because I wasn't there").   This was the position of the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Reconciliation process was slowed and redirected into debates over service provision rather than about national values and collective historical guilt.

7. Similarly, in the United States, the publication of life stories of prison inmates attempted to invert victimhood narratives, but ran into resistance from both victim support groups and national narratives.   If it is true that the "land of the free" has the world's highest prison population of around two million, it is also true that property rights have long been enshrined in the national psyche.   Recasting prison inmates as "victims of the system" did not meet with popular success.   This chapter posed the hardest questions of what we understand by "victim" and made for some of the most interesting reading.   To what extent can we sympathise with a murderer even if we think the system is unfair and racially biased?   But in a political climate where getting tough on crime is a sure vote-winner, advocates of the inmates' cause made little headway.

8. In China and Korea the notions of victim and perpetrator were much clearer, but resistance was encountered from governments wishing to forget.   In the case of the Korean women forced into wartime prostitution, resistance came from Japanese governments who wished to downplay or change the historical record of their wartime forebears.   The push by these women to have their stories heard, clashed with Japan's own victimhood narrative that empahsised the airborne destruction of major cities, whilst downplaying Japanese massacres, most notably in Nanjin in 1937.   In addition to this "official" resistance, the women had to struggle for many years with the notion that women's human rights were not as important an issue as men's human rights.   In China, resistance came from a reforming régime keen to court western investment but aware that the Tianenmen massacre had slowed this process down during the 1990s.   Most of the personal narratives emerging after the Massacre are to be found on the internet and in this medium such narratives are harder (although not impossible, as Google's self-censorship demonstrates) to control.   Here, memories of the Massacre clash with the official "national" narrative that everyone is content in post-Maoist China.

9. Schaffer and Smith have offered a valuable and widely researched volume.   The breadth of coverage is as admirable as the depth of research for each case study.   The nation was always the stalking horse in this work, but the authors should be congratulated on an arresting piece of work and one which itself bridges the gap between academic research and social action.

Dr. Ben Wellings is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and convenor of its European Studies Program.

© borderlands ejournal 2006



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