Moral Language and Human Rights

The use of language plays a crucial rule in advocacy for genocide and refugees. It’s important to understand which forms of rhetoric are most persuasive and effective. Advocates typically speak for the abused and imprisoned, those whose voices we rarely hear and whose pain we rarely see. It is their duty to educate the world about the struggles of the oppressed and abused.

In the United States, most of the advocacy for refugees and genocide victims is very emotional appeal. We’ve all seen the commercials with the depressing music and horrifying images of starving children in poor living conditions. This approach can be effective to those who are persuaded by pathos, but we must also be cautious when going overboard with an emotional approach. Sometimes the audience can feel like they are being guilt-tripped into action or made to feel ignorant because they don’t understand the issues.

Our reading for today discussed two different types of moral vernaculars that deal with human right. The first is a thin from in which human rights are transformed from a discrete set of moral principles to a discourse, known as human rights talk. It asserts that human rights are open to interpretation and continual revision. The second type is a thick form that is a mode of resistance and a critique of power. I will be focusing more on the thick form as a method for resolving conflicts associated with refugees and genocide.

When advocating for human rights, we often focus our talk about the specific cases of abuse and violence that occur. It’s all about sympathizing with the victim influencing agency and participation in the conflict. This reflects the ideals of a Western culture that believes in the universalism of human rights. This is the belief that the basic human rights should be granted to all individuals, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or other characteristics. It argues that sovereign states have a moral obligation to protect the rights of all humans and to fight those who attempt to deny these rights to individuals.

This idea of universal human rights makes sense theoretically because our culture believes that everyone should be entitled life, liberty, and the ability to pursue their dreams. All of us would prefer to live in a world that guarantees the protection of these rights, but the thought of a perfect world seems very idealistic and abstract. Moral universalism has the tendency to favor Western-culture over others, which leads us to force our beliefs on people who may think differently. The opposition to moral universalism is moral particularism, which asserts that although most societies have a concept of rights, they do not have a concept of human rights. Human dignity does not refer to an inherent right to respect, but rather something that is granted at birth or by inclusion into a community.

With various perspectives and cultures involved, the challenge of human rights talk is to translate meaningful ideas from one frame to another. One must be able to generate arguments that cross ideological boundaries and uncover alternative political and social relations. This is where the presence of a leader who has a strong voice in human rights would be beneficial. There is a need for someone in the Third World to stand up and present a message to be heard, not only by their peers but others across the globe. Someone like Nelson Mandela comes to mind, a person who has experienced the violence firsthand and can relate to the oppressed, as well as someone who understands the ideals of moral universalism.

This leads to the conclusion that a thick moral vernacular provides a path to hope and promise. Its not about the principles of human rights, but their implied virtues and vices. This rhetoric publicizes the plight of the oppressed by translating it into cultural frames that calls for the world to respond. A thick moral vernacular is a critique of power and seeks to change the current system. It empowers the abused to disrupt the regime of power imposed by their oppressors.


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