What might we gain from greater literacy in the language of human rights?
In Canberra last Wednesday, 24 August, our CEO, Padma Raman PSM, delivered the 2022 Alice Tay lecture to a packed audience at ANU.
Focusing on how a greater national literacy in the language of human rights could help us understand how best to respond to the “terrorism” of violence against women and children in Australia, Ms Raman delivered an address around the core question: “If we can’t speak the language of human rights, how do we ensure that human rights are protected?”
Drawing on Australia’s historical participation in the human rights movement, Ms Raman acknowledged we are yet to experience what a complete national human rights framework – informed by an awareness of the central truth of the compounding and intersecting nature of oppression – could mean for our communities.
She spoke to the national conversation currently taking place about the potential criminalisation of coercive control. Tying the role of language to this “critical concept”, she said:
Language not only articulates or reveals something of our understanding. It also shapes it … Governments are eager to incorporate [coercive control] into their current domestic and family violence frameworks. This often results in its inclusion as a subcategory of violence … This is a problem. Language and thought are built on schemas: to see coercive control as a type, a single form of abuse, is to seriously misrepresent its power.
Perpetrators develop a language of control that victims and survivors – including children – are “intimately fluent” in, but that resists easy interpretation by those outside of these relationships. Ms Raman reinforced calls to see coercive control as the “governing logic” of violence against women, while also acknowledging the need for a “consistent, coherent and community-wide language” to discuss wider issues of power and control that drive violence. Without this, there is a risk that mainstream responses to violence in First Nations communities will contribute to the perpetuation of historical injustices.
Ms Raman’s address ended with an invocation to respond to bell hooks’s invitation to “imagine living in a world … where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction”. She asked us to imagine this world, and understand its complexity, and called us to take action in whatever way we can to end violence against women and children.
Alice Erh-Soon Tay, a recognised champion of human rights, was President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from 1998 to 2003. The Alice Tay lecture has been given in her memory annually since 2005, and is organised by the Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry, part of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at ANU.
Ms Raman will be developing the themes contained in last week’s lecture in a series of public addresses taking place through the remainder of 2022. Keep an eye out on our social media for information about where, when and how you can participate in these events. In the meantime, please enjoy the 2022 Alice Tay lecture.
August bulletin for ANROWS Notepad subscribers