Human Rights on the U.S.-Mexico Border: The Work of Cultivating Imagined Empathy
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
AbstractAs thousands of undocumented migrants continue to die and disappear in the borderlands of the U.S., human rights NGOs are struggling to mobilize a socially and geographically distant American audience to see this crisis as a human rights matter and act upon it with according urgency and gravity. But why, in the face of immense human suffering on the border, have we not recognized this as a human rights crisis? Furthermore, how can human rights NGOs working on the border address this debilitating challenge? This thesis draws on the historical development of human rights concepts in 18th century Europe as well as on contemporary discourse around ethical humanitarian communication to argue that suffering is only seen as a human rights issue when feelings of imagined empathy are cultivated within distant audiences. Imagined empathy is cultivated through particular practices of representing suffering, practices that focus on the individual autonomy and emotion of the subject, enabling viewers to see themselves in community with the otherwise distant "other". The work of human rights NGOs trying to use human rights to affect social and political change is to, in their positions as witnesses and partners with primary communities, represent suffering to cultivate imagined empathy. The question then remains, what are the specific practices of representation that cultivate imagined empathy and why are they so fundamental to human rights NGO communication?