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2018-2019 Rights Writers Announced

 

Congratulations to the 2018-2019 Global Human Rights Scholars Program’s Rights Writers.  These undergraduate students were competitively selected to join the third year of the Institute’s “Rights Writers” team, where participants use a shared blog platform to explore in-depth and thoughtful analysis across a range of diverse human rights issues, shaping discussions at Duke and beyond. The project provides a public space for students to offer their insight as well as develop analytical and writing skills, particularly with regards to writing for a general public. Global Scholars blog on a monthly basis about a human rights topic of their choice, read and comment on one another’s draft posts, and meet regularly to discuss. In addition, the Scholars program offers students an opportunity to engage with the work of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and its network of scholars and practitioners.

The Rights Writers will blog January-May 2019.  Visit the blog

 

Chelsea Jubitanachelsea jubitana

Chelsea Jubitana is a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, double majoring in Public Policy and Global Health, and minoring in Psychology. She is interested in a number of human rights issues, but specifically those that impact children and racial/ethnic minorities. As a result, she conducted research over the past year surrounding the socio-economic gap in the United States. This is to be published by the close of the 2018-2019 academic year titled, “Upward Mobility: The Pitfall of the American Dream”. This evaluates the duration of time it will take each race to reach a point in which moving between socioeconomic groups would be equitable. It also evaluates that policy has in determining social mobility. Given that she is interested in issues that impact children and racial minorities, she wishes to do more in-depth research on the human rights implications of mass incarceration in the US in comparative perspective because the issue is equally detrimental to both parties. (Topics:  implications of mass incarceration in the US in comparative human rights perspective)

 

erin mcdermottErin McDermott

Erin McDermott is a junior from Glasgow, Scotland, majoring in Political Science with minors in Economics and Art History. She is passionate about urban policy and the ability of cities in combating global issues. She first got involved in this field after participating in the Governance, Policy, and Society DukeImmerse program, and she currently is in a Bass Connections research team that analyzes the intersections of urban spaces and the creative arts. At Duke, Erin is an International Karsh Scholar, Vice President of the Center for Race Relations, and a podcast producer for Hear at Duke. (Topics:  human rights and urban spaces, especially sustainability, equal protection, and inequality)

 

Kate Watkins kate watkins

Kate Watkins is from Winston-Salem, NC. She is majoring in Biology and History with a concentration in the History of Medicine, Science, and Technology. In addition, she is minoring in Chemistry and writing a thesis based upon vaccine social support research she conducted with Bass Connections in Roatan, Honduras. Her blog posts will focus aging policies in the US and abroad, considering related ethical topics such as elder abuse, the right to die, and patient autonomy. (Topics:  human rights and end of life care in the US in comparative perspective)

 

margo armbrusterMargot Armbruster

Margot Armbruster is a first-year from Wisconsin prospectively studying Political Science or Global Cultural Studies. She’s excited to be writing this semester on rhetoric in the conversation about migration to Germany, focusing on the real consequences that language has in migrants’ lives. In addition to this Kenan Institute Program, Margot is involved on campus in the Classics Collegium, Something Borrowed Something Blue, American Grand Strategy, and the Duke International Relations Association. (Topics:  political rhetoric and migrant outcomes in Germany)

 

Phil Ma phil ma

Phil Ma is a sophomore from Beijing, China, majoring in Political Science and Mathematics. His interests include international human rights law and ethics as a field of philosophy. In addition to writing with the Global Human Rights Scholars Program, Phil is also on the American Grand Strategy Council and works as a research assistant to Professor Bruce Jentleson on the changing dynamics of relations with China in the 21st century. Last summer, he helped with Duke’s interests involving domestic climate policy in DukeEngage D.C. In his free time, Phil likes swimming and watching stand-up comedy. (Topics:  human rights violations in China, and the strategic and economic pressures that limit international responses)

 

sonali mehtaSonali Mehta

Sonali Mehta is a junior studying Public Policy and Human Rights. She is an advocate for the use of restorative justice in university cases of sexual violence. Sonali has been involved with Kenan since participating in Project Change her freshman year, later participating in the Kenan FOCUS and as a member of Team Kenan. She enjoys photography, drinking tea, eating hummus, and re-reading Harry Potter.  (Topics:  comparative human rights approach to sexual violence in the US)

Contract, Consent, and Cannibalism: Victorian literature and the ‘liberal individual’

(English, Ph.D.)
2017-18 Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics

Illustrated London News

In October, with support from the Kenan Institute for Ethics, I attended the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) to present research I completed last year as a Kenan Graduate Fellow in Ethics. This conference represents the largest annual gathering of interdisciplinary scholars working on mid-to-late-nineteenth-century British literature and culture. In addition to enjoying brilliant panels and plenary talks, consulting with a former advisor, and networking with colleagues, I presented a paper to my fellow Victorianists and gathered valuable feedback for use in revising my first dissertation chapter.

My research contests political liberalism’s conventional presumption that a social system organized around contractual relationships among individuals ensures the self-sovereignty of its members. According to an influential nineteenth-century narrative of political progress, societies evolve from a foundation in status-based, group relations to a system based on freely-willed agreements between individuals. This understanding of progress privileges a particular kind of political subject, the “liberal individual,” who is said to exercise rational decision-making procedures to form consensual agreements with others. I argue that while Victorian political theory was conceiving and disseminating this narrative, the Victorian novel was revealing the concept of the liberal individual’s autonomous consent to be a powerful political fiction. In our contemporary society, we remain Victorian in our reliance on a model of individual consent as the underlying justification for our political system; my interest in the Victorian novel thus lies in its ability to reimagine and critique the political conditions that we take for granted today.

My experience as a Kenan Graduate Fellow introduced me to the wider community of Duke graduate students working on the same ethical issues that my dissertation seeks to address, in disciplinary fields only apparently far-removed from literary studies. I met economists, public policy scholars, political scientists, theologians, historians, sociologists, and philosophers, all working from different perspectives on aspects of the ethical implications of constructing our democratic institutions around the concept of the agential rational actor. Learning about my peers’ research on seemingly far-flung issues—abortion rights in Ireland, the psychology of climate change, the interaction of self-help rhetoric and perceptions of inequality, among many others—revealed to me how interconnected our research actually was. By engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue that put into conversation the expertise and perspectives of a diverse set of scholars, I was able to better articulate what I research and why it matters. My experience as a Kenan Graduate Fellow enabled me to contextualize my own work in a wider set of issues while introducing me to a group of smart, engaged, fascinating people with whom I continue to collaborate. The continuing support of KIE made it possible for me to share these insights with my fellow Victorianists at the 2018 NAVSA Conference.

My conference paper, entitled “Contractual Cannibalism in Great Expectations,” discussed an 1884 incident of cannibalism amongst the survivors of the wrecked yacht Mignonette. The “case of the Mignonette,” as it was popularly referred to at the time, caused a sensational public response, much of which centered on the (legally irrelevant) question of whether the men should be held accountable for their failure to observe the “custom of the sea.” This norm sanctioned cannibalism by starving castaways, but also loosely prescribed that the appropriate procedure to follow in determining a victim was to draw lots. The centrality of lot-drawing to the popular understanding of the distinction between licensed survival and illegitimate brutality, I argue, places consent at the center of the determination of who eats whom, rendering an agreement to draw lots a kind of contractual cannibalism. Lotteries make survival cannibalism legible to liberalism by transforming an act performed under extreme duress into the natural consequence of an agreement entered into by willing individuals. I contend that it is the durability of this liberal fiction of consent that the Mignonette Court was invested in maintaining when it found the survivors guilty of murder.

I further argue that more than twenty years before the sinking of the Mignonette, Dickens had anticipated and theorized in Great Expectations (1861) the issues that the law would soon be forced to confront. I contend that in Great Expectations, Dickens employs an association between cannibalism and shipwreck to allude to the era’s preoccupation with castaway criminality and the problems of consent it raises.  Through this historical referent, Dickens suggests that the violent process of individuation that protagonist Pip willingly undergoes in becoming a modern liberal subject resembles a species of self-cannibalism. Pip’s attempts to distinguish himself from the “coarse and common” mass—to exercise individual autonomy under conditions of constraint in order to enter a larger modern civil society—have the outcome of destroying Pip’s agency, apparently by his own consent. In a liberal society, implies Dickens, the act of agreeing to a social contract is an exercise in self-cannibalism, a violence committed against the individual by that same individual. This contractual mechanism resides at the core of civil society in the cases of shipwreck castaways and ordinary citizens alike.

My experiences as a Graduate Fellow in the richly interdisciplinary environment of the Kenan Institute helped me conceptualize how the historical phenomenon of survival cannibalism, the theoretical concept of the social contract, and a literary representation of individual development and social collectivity were in conversation with one another. I’m grateful to my colleagues for their discerning feedback, their ingenious insights, and their lively engagement with the ethical issues that matter in our world today.

Re-Imagining Borders Technologies

Miriam Ticktin

Last week, Professor Miriam Ticktin (Anthropology, New School), shared new research to a packed room as part of the Roots and Routes Series. In her talk, “Re-Imagining Borders Technologies: Designing New Political Forms”, Ticktin shared work from a current collaboration on how reimagining borders enables a new politics.  Her argument highlights the symbolic role of borders, arguing that border walls not only defend but define territories altering categories of natural and human kinds. Describing borders and border walls as technologies of containment, Ticktin illuminated how borders do more than regulate human—they alter our sense of ourselves and of the commons. In contrast to the perspective of borders as either open or closed, working with designers and architects, Ticktin argues for a specultative politics that moves beyond these dichotomies and conceives of borders as permeable, temporary and multilayered. Revisioning borders as welcome lounges or flyaways is an ethical challenge to current conceptions that determine who is allowed to move and who is not.

Next in the Roots and Routes Series is award winning author Valeria Luiselli who will speak about US migration on January 18 at 7pm at the Durham Arts Council. (link)

Commitment Among the Living—To Conversation

“The way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”

(Justice William J. Brennan)

Today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and classes have ended for Duke undergraduates; I’m reading over my notes on the death penalty.

Earlier this week, scholars and practitioners—both local and non—gathered for the last Conversation in Human Rights for this academic year, “The Death Penalty in N.C. and the U.S.” The panel consisted of two law professors, a political scientist-economist, a historian, and a practitioner. The discussion was lively and embodied; Corinna Lain and James Gibson, both from the University of Richmond School of Law, spoke animatedly about their co-authored paper, “Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace”; Seth Kotch, from UNC-CH’s Department of American Studies, rapidly talked us through his research on the case study of Alvin Mansel, an African-American man from Western North Carolina who sat on death row but was eventually commuted and given parole. Isaac Unah, from Political Science at UNC, and Gretchen Engel, who heads up the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, honed the local focus with an overview of recent death penalty cases in North Carolina.

On a general level, I was struck, as I am often in academic panels—or any panel for that matter—by the rapid-fire, real-time bringing together of different types and snippets of knowledge (each panelist was given a total of six minutes to present his or her thesis and ideas). Ideally, in such a scenario, each panelist brings to the table a distinct disciplinary perspective; also ideally, such perspectives can mesh together so that the panel becomes or at least feels to the audience like a conversation, rather than an abstract issuing-forth. And this Conversation indeed felt like a conversation; the panelists were engaging, they played well together, and they played well with the audience. All this despite, or perhaps in light of, the subject matter, which has felt unavoidable in the local and national news lately. And, probably, it should feel that way; comments were made more than once during the discussion that alluded to how little Americans know about the death penalty—we make up part of the remaining 18% of U.N. member countries that still allow it; we source drugs for lethal injections from European pharmaceutical companies, while the EU restricts the death penalty—regardless of whether they choose to support it or not.

To behold a somewhat cheery, dynamic conversation about these issues is disorienting, but moreso compelling, given the manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty are taken up in the national, public sphere: in conjunction with high-profile cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing—first, the facts, then reportage on the emotional response. There was something powerful in Monday’s conversation in the admission of this action happening, it’s inherent to our national and local landscape, and it can be approached in these various ways. Those who research and advocate for issues relating to the death penalty (and/or its abolition in the U.S.) know about things like the Innocence Project, about its mission to a) exonerate and b) reform the system—a proactive effort, and a public-facing and publicly inclusive one at that. Being privy to this week’s conversation made me wonder to what degree these multi-faceted, emphasis-on-knowledge-production-and-question-generation conversations are happening with regard to the issue of the death penalty, and to what extent they increase the accessibility of the issue in the first place. I’d err on the side of to a large extent—that is, when they happen in the first place.

—MD

Story and Sound

Over the holidays I parsed through a lot of film lists—particularly those incorporating the terms “best,” “film,” and “music,”—and film synopses. I was looking for the perfect fit (the perfect picture, you could say) to round out this year’s Ethics Film Series. The title, “Sound Beliefs: Music, Ethics, Identity,” plays with the idea that music can act as a space and as an action at and through which identity is contested, exchanged, and upheld.

But let me back up: One night recently, I found myself watching Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. I’ve been aware of the film for many years now, and aware that I’ve wanted to see it for just about as long. It took scrolling through a Criterion Collection thematic list—“Great Soundtracks”—to bring the film back into my consciousness. And now that it’s there, I can’t remove it—a thumping inkblot, raw and terrifying in its prescience. Lee’s neighborhood street in Bed-Stuy feels microcosmic: a full-spectrum look at the issues that recur for us 25 years later: racism, ignorance, gentrification, violence, competition, pride. (If you’ve seen the film and can identify the climax, you know exactly what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, there’s a particular sequence of scenes involving police brutality and a community response that mirrors events of late, and for which “intense” and “uncanny” feel like trite comparative classifiers). Something similar can be said, I think, about the image we glean of Olympia, Washington and the Pacific Northwest through Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, which profiles the musician Kathleen Hanna and her band, Bikini Kill. In Olympia in 1990 Hanna and her bandmates were working on a zine, also called Bikini Kill, about feminism and punk rock; at their shows Hanna would exclaim, “girls to the front!” as an affront to male-dominated music culture. 24 years later, some things have changed, some more ostensibly than others. Watching Lee’s and Anderson’s films felt at times like a punch in the gut and a call to call out the broken-record tendencies of our present times.

bikini-kill-v-files
Bikini Kill posters. Image courtesy of MTV.com/VFiles.

I wanted to talk and show films about music this year in part because I wanted to piggyback on last year’s theme, “The South,” by choosing a topic that feels—to me, at least—both tactile and deeply complex. I make this statement as someone with no formal training in music, but as someone who has approached music more or less formally, at different times, through literary study, arts journalism, and dance. And I make it as someone who often feels most present when immersed in live art. Throughout the almost six years that I’ve inhabited Duke and Durham, I’ve found safe and elated spaces in live music events, somewhere in the feedback loop between performer and audience, and increasingly in the space where that distinction is tested and blurred. (See a post I wrote around this time last year about another music-related film, Inside Llewyn Davis). I’ve also been in musical spaces where I feel uncomfortable, as a woman; others where I notice, and then can’t stop noticing, that most people in the audience share my skin color. These are not, at least at face-value, condemnations, but they are realizations that happened because I was there in the first place. And I was there presumably because I liked, or thought I’d like, the music.

And yet I frequently find myself in musical spaces where I’m unfamiliar with the language in which the lyrics are voiced, or unfamiliar with the musical language itself, and find myself moving and compelled nonetheless. I use the phrase “find myself” here intentionally because I think the physical response is subterranean and visceral. I start to envision a feedback loop between emotional affect and the structure of sound: it’s fuzzy, and almost wacky, but there’s a pulse there.

I imbue art, and in this case music, with a hopefulness for a better world, and that hopefulness probably looks like a fusion of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language and Radio Raheem’s iconic Love/Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. In other words, like music and like art, it’s not static; it’s nuanced, and tends toward the full-spectrum, so it’s not often easily digestible.

In a similar way, selecting the “perfect picture” or the perfect film series isn’t possible, exactly, but I’ve chosen four films that look to complicate these themes, to place us in, at once, the collective and the individual and idiosyncratic. I hope they offer a spectrum of sound and stories.

—MD

Holiday Behavior

Remember the “Pocahotness” frat party email back in December of 2011? I do. Not because I received it while a student at Duke, but because I saw Nicole Daniels’s Chronicle editorial, replete with the predictable slew of inflammatory comments, the next day. The party in question, she explains, was held by the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity; its theme, which Daniels’s friend “nonchalantly texted her,” was “Pilgrims and Indians.” Daniels goes on to say how she found the theme appalling in its racial insensitivity but decided to go nonetheless, in order to evaluate the event herself. She places herself among her peers, astonished at their willing participation in the theme. She closes with a collective moral indictment: “Everyone who attended this party should feel ashamed. We are students at a prestigious university, and we should know better.”

Appropriate-Appropriation-400
Image from the “Appropriate? Or Appropriation” event.

It’s roughly Halloween as I write this, which made me mis-remember the piece, and the party, as a Halloween event. It was not. It was a pre-Thanksgiving shindig, “intended to celebrate Thanksgiving,” as the Pi Kappa Phi apology letter stated. While I’m not someone who moved through Duke tending to conceive of holidays like Thanksgiving as cause for a rager, I acknowledge that there are, plausibly, student groups that did. And I don’t have a moral indictment for that urge, so long as that urge is pursued conscientiously—and, in the case of this party, I believe it was not. The fraternity’s response letter said as much. The letter is actually remarkable in its defenselessness; the brothers acknowledge that the party offended, and they apologize for that offense. They even went a step further, organizing an event called “Culture Clash,” co-hosted by Pi Kapp and the Native American Student Association. I didn’t attend, but I’m curious about how that went.

I’m curious, especially in these days surrounding and following Halloween, about how we behave on days surrounding and following holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. There are obvious performative differences between the two: one is a one-off involving costumes, transforming into someone else—or at least the outward appearance of someone else—for a night; the other brings friends and family together for gratitude and a shared meal. I say “performative” to call attention to our actions within the 24 hours (and then some) during which we’re called to celebrate. History is complicated; sustaining meaningful dialogue about the ethics of holiday behavior during said holiday (or party) gets in the way of action, especially action involving costume and debauchery. Thus, perhaps, our tendency to do stupid things like throw a party with a racist (or sexist, classist, heterosexist, etc.) theme. Talking about the big stuff is hard. Why not just barely dip into it, with a hastily thrown-together costume, in the name of fun?

There are so many articles and essays that treat the question of “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” (I’m borrowing this phrasing from an upcoming event hosted by Team Kenan and the Forum for Scholars and Publics). One I read recently is from the Walker Art Center’s teen-oriented blog. On dress-up holidays like Halloween, Mason Santos writes, “we get caught up in our own freedom, which unfortunately creates the belief that we are entitled to do what we want…‘I can wear what I want,’ and, ‘I can choose to represent another culture the way I want’ are often phrases that come up when a person is trying to defend their choice of wearing an offensive costume. Rather than thinking about another person’s right to feeling comfortable in their community, we think about our own right to do what we desire.”

Following this line, holidays like Halloween suddenly seem less communal and more liminal. We walk around as half-selves, Picasso-painting-faced, one limb invoking ‘normal’ us, the other invoking Andy Warhol, or a zombie, or Nicki Minaj, or “Pocahotness.” Halloween makes people gravitate together, creating an implausible collection of characters, real and imagined, from different time periods, social spaces, and communities. The oddity of this shared space becomes a given, which makes it difficult to interrogate why we do it in the first place—and thus even more difficult to interrogate the perceived ease of opting into others’ realities via a one-night costume.

In this way I appreciate the “Culture Clash” event, even if I didn’t go, and I appreciate the upcoming “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel. I appreciate, primarily, that these events exist, and that they exist in order to give space to party participants—like me, like you—to appear, sans-costumery, and think about the fictions we adopt on a daily basis. I appreciate that these events exist to propose that these fictions, while sustainable for some, are not sustainable, but rather demeaning and detrimental, for others. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable, even scary, to reckon with. ‘Tis the season for Halloween horror, right?

—MD