Human rights discourses on a global network: rhetorical acts and network actors from humanitarian NGOs, conflict sites, and the fiction market
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As the language and ideology of human rights globalizes, some scholars have revisited pressing questions about the universality and cultural relativity of human rights as theory, discourse, and practice in philosophy, law, and culture. While some view the globalization of human rights negatively as Western cultural imperialism, others see it positively as a means to empower the oppressed. These arguments often reach an impasse because they presume human rights as a fixed entity. This project reconsiders this assumption in the debate about the globalization of human rights by attending to the discursive (and thus changeable and changing) nature of this language and ideology, and the networked system through which it globalizes. By modeling a global discourse network, it examines how a globalizing discourse of human rights might be affected by and be affecting its subjects, especially their individual identity and agency. Thereafter, it tests this model on three actors speaking from different subject positions and through different textual genres – a humanitarian NGO and a speech; a genocide survivor and an autobiography; and a global author and a novel. These case studies suggest that groups and individuals speaking from traditionally less-than-powerful subject positions (like the NGO and crisis survivor) in a typical human rights framework can benefit from the discourse and its network. They gain global presence and influence through the network’s amplifying effects on identity, influence, and conventions, which offer its users the chance of appearing as agents. But there are also instances (as with the author and novel) where the universalist rhetoric of the discourse and the global reach of its network (their power) cannot overcome the force of other more divisive discourses and networks oriented around markers of difference like nationality, ethnicity, class, or religion. This project thus outlines some possibilities and limits of speaking globally through a purportedly universalist discourse in a network situation, and identifies consistent problems of representing human rights crisis and causes as globalized speech acts and from postnational speaking positions, in a still nation-centered world.