Making Rhetoric Matter: Human Rights at Home

How do we understand this way of being bound up with one another, of being implicated in each other’s lives, a mode of interdependency that is hardly chosen and never precisely easy?

-Judith Butler, “Queer Bonds”

Course Description

‘Human rights’ often sounds like it needs defending in far-off places: in distant public squares where soldiers menace gatherings of citizens, in dark jails where prisoners are tortured for political reasons, in streets where gender inequality has brutal consequences. And it’s true that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises that all humans have rights to liberty, security, equal pay for equal work, education, freedom of thought and assembly, and many others—rights that are violated on a daily basis all over the globe. In this paradox, how can rhetorical analysis help us to understand what human rights mean?

Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer fighting for social and racial justice in the courts and jails of Alabama, proposes that we try ‘proximity’: that we get close to the injustices that are already close to us. This class thus takes human rights as a local issue, focusing on how terms like ‘human’ and ‘rights’ are interpreted on our campus, neighborhoods, cities, and state. Who gets the rights to personhood, and in which terms? Whose faces are seen, whose names are spoken, and whose bodies are recognized? And what kinds of activist counter-rhetorics—writing, acting, speaking, moving, engaging—can we develop to challenge the assumption that some lives matter more than others?

Instead of a traditional human rights policy framework, we’ll use the lens of intersectional ethics to explore specific rhetorical issues in gender politics, citizenship, mass incarceration, and a fourth topic to be decided by the class itself. Drawing on theories of embodiment and ethical speech developed by Judith Butler and Gayle Salamon, as well as anti-racist histories by Michelle Alexander, Jennifer Eberhardt, and Rebecca Solnit, we’ll engage with the work of people currently struggling for their own human rights, like the undocumented undergraduate ‘DREAMers’ and members of the #PrisonRenaissance at San Quentin. In this class, you will have the chance to think intersectionally and to write, speak, and move across genres; you will build on your research and writing skills from PWR 1 as well as on your work presenting and ‘translating’ across modes from PWR 2. Assignments that “make rhetoric matter” in this class include writing letters to someone who is incarcerated, creating a workshop on how to embody human rights on campus, co-leading one discussion about a reading, ‘translating’ one of our guest speaker’s ideas for a different audience, annotating the visual rhetoric of films and photographs, collaboratively researching the fourth topic, and writing an op-ed piece for the target audience of your choice.

Annotated List of Major Assignments

  • Inside Letters: In this assignment, you respond to the writing and performance of members of the Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison by writing a series of two letters to an incarcerated individual. In these letters, you should synthesize what you’ve learned from theories of mass incarceration (Stevenson, Alexander, Spade, Dowling) and apply this framework of intersectional ethics to the specific questions and ideas that the writing and performance raise for you.
  • Embodied Workshop: Drawing on the models of interactive workshops with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and trans choreographer Sean Dorsey, collaborate with your group to develop an embodied workshop for other undergraduates. The goal of this workshop is to actively engage other students in the process of embodying human rights on campus: you will need to decide together what that means for you, consider what you’ve learned about tactics for intersectional activist outreach, and stage the workshop effectively for your live audience. This assignment includes one written reflection on your own group’s workshop and one oral reflection on another group’s workshop.
  • Translating Towards: Home Choosing a medium, genre, register, and tone that is most appropriate for an audience you know well (one of your ‘home’ audiences), translate one of our guest speaker’s ideas into a creative new form. This could take the shape of a short video, a children’s book, an original song, a game whose rules you devise, an autobiographical imagining, a new app, etc. Does someone in your family need an animated YouTube video about gender pronouns? Could a series of photographs show your old high school that people shouldn’t be categorized ‘illegal’ or ‘aliens’? A written translator’s statement explaining how your choices address this rhetorical situation should accompany this assignment.
  • Op-Ed: Speaking Outwards Using the research you’ve done throughout the quarter, choose a local human rights topic that you want to create a persuasive editorial piece about. The topic may come from one of our four areas (e.g. the school-to-prison pipeline, gender-neutral facilities on campus, police reform after the case of Alex Nieto), or you may decide to apply the framework of intersectional ethics to a related issue (e.g. the politics of refugee resettlement in Sacramento, the economics of urban food deserts, criminalizing homelessness in San Francisco). Determine your target audience for this issue, research modes of reaching that audience, and then create an op-ed—written, spoken, visually presented, etc.—designed to persuade your chosen audience about this human rights issue. Students are encouraged but not required to submit op-eds for publication at the end of the quarter.