How Rights Consciousness Could Be Defined Outside of the Legal Context: A Memoir

Fun fact about me: I’m really into slam poetry. This is one that I’ve watched over and over and I kept thinking about during tonight’s class. In it, a young woman struggles to find the courage to stand up to her abuser. She wrestles with the fact that she was raised by women who would have never “let” themselves be abused. She asks how she could not have inherited their strength and prays that “these fists were something they had to grow into, also.”

For me, I can’t help but think what she’s dealing with in this poem is what we were trying to decide in class tonight. Does being a rights-bearing subject come naturally to some people and not others? Are there people out there born with the fiery self-assurance that they are autonomous human beings with certain rights (like the right to not be battered) and the courage to assert those rights? Or does the rights-defined identity come about more organically? I am in agreement with Merry here when I say that I think the identity is established through other means.

For years, I was of the assumption that I just had a naturally ferocious, untamed personality and that that was where my mother and I differed. She was weak. She was fragile. And frail. And hesitant. And powerless. I would never let what happened to her happen to me. I blamed her. But recently, I have started to wonder how much of my fiery personality is actually consequent to what happened to her. How much of it did I develop in spite of her? I heard once that as adults, we try to develop the traits that would have saved our parents.

Merry argues that, “seeing oneself as a rights-bearing subject whose problems are violations of these rights is far from universal.” She maintains that adoption of rights-defined selves depends on encounters with police, prosecutors, judges, and probation officers that reflect back this identity. She believes that how seriously one’s claims are taken helps you see yourself as a rights-bearing subject, and that if your claims are regarded as insignificant, you lose the ability to adopt a rights consciousness. I believe that Merry is missing an element. I believe that it’s not just your interactions with the law and law enforcement agencies that can help/hinder the formation of your rights-defined self, but your interactions with all people.

Many times tonight I reflected on the dynamics between my mother and I’s relationship. How much did her experience shape who I am today? I have a bulletproof since of myself as a rights-bearing subject but how much of that do I owe to her undoing? And (something I feel is just as important to point out) simultaneously, how much did my opinion and view of her inhibit her consciousness? If everyone sees you as powerless and impotent, do you then become even more powerless and even more impotent? I’m not sure, but I think it’s something to keep in mind.

Something that we spent a lot of time on last week (when discussing rape) was the prevalence of victim-blaming, but I feel as though we didn’t give it enough credit when discussing domestic violence. We place a heavy burden on the victim’s to get themselves out of a dangerous situation. Shrugging it off, saying that if it were that bad, they would leave. This, Dunne attributes, to a gross cultural misunderstanding of how violence operates. Far too often, victims feel responsible or are led to feel responsible for what happens to them. In another poem by Anny Miner (the woman in the video) she describes how she had accepted that after years of abusive relationships “something about [her] heart was too forgiving, too soft and easy for a man to form a fist around.” How detrimental our ideas about domestic violence can be on the victims.

Here’s the poem that quote is from, in case anyone is interested:

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5 Responses to How Rights Consciousness Could Be Defined Outside of the Legal Context: A Memoir

  1. abdelrafat says:

    Cindy, amazing post! I had never listened to slam poetry but I did enjoy your clip. As I read your post speaking of the differences between you and your mother, I could not help think about me and my father. As a teenage and in my early twenty’s, I always felt that people would take advantage of my father and it gave me a sense of need. I needed to be a rights bearing/conscious citizen so that no one could further capitalize on my father. As the years past myself and my siblings became, what I had thought to be, my parents protectors. I became more angry and would research different topics of relevance, depending on our situation at the time. I recently have found that my father was very rights conscious, he just always chose to be kind. If someone was to mistake his kindness for weakness he would not retaliate but tried to live a life of peace and happiness. I understand now that a person is able to be rights conscious and choose not to capitalize on it. This may be the reason why the young girl giving the poem did not capitalize on the rights that she was aware she has. She may have a new found appreciation for those rights and is now voicing her opinion to exercise them.

  2. naherresp says:

    It was very brave of you to share your personal story in the blog, thank you. In addition, I believe that being a rights baring subject is different for every individual. For many in western societies, that might have been witness of domestic abuse at an early age, I feel can begin to understand the situation they have been dealing with as they get older. They begin to develop right baring consciousness, through peers, family, teachers, education, television, and all their surroundings. Compare to rural societies, where domestic violence might be seen as the norm and therefore they don’t have the sense of right baring consciousness. There are just so many explicit factors I feel that could establish why some individuals have right baring consciousness and why others don’t seem to portray that. As my mom tells me,” every person is one different world”, we think and act different from the way our personal life has shaped us.

  3. dakotalarson says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Cindy. It was very well thought out and made me think a lot, particularly your comment about the formation of your rights-defined self is not only dependent on one’s interactions with legal officials, but every individual. I would agree with you in that some people would be more inclined to be rights-bearing subjects than others, whether it is from personality traits or personal experiences. I think in your case it was probably a combination of both.

    I would agree with Nancy and say that being a rights-bearing subject differs with each individual. I would also argue that it depends on the situation. Like Merry says, there are many different factors which explains why domestic violence cannot be explicitly defined, and depending on the victim, the perpetrator, and the seriousness/context of the act, one may be more willing to be a rights-bearing subject. In addition, speaking on more general terms, I would say that the formation of one’s rights-defined self can and will fluctuate based on one’s beliefs and experiences.

  4. mbstanton says:

    My god was this a powerful read. I appreciate your submission for a number of reasons. Your memoir element was quite personal and passionately written and it was great that you were willing to openly relate yourself to this topic. Also, I enjoyed the slam poetry readings. Her words are so strong and so moving. Overall, I really respect the time and thoughts you put into this piece. It was thought provoking, analytic, and entertaining. Thank you for your submission.

  5. fallenstar66 says:

    I think you make a very good point with how our sense of self and how it interacts with our rights. People are shaped by their experiences and it is because of these experiences that we shape our future. Like you had mentioned, people will do the exact opposite of what their parents did, because they do not want to end up like them. Especially coming from a broken home, people will react different then their parents because they believe that everything their parents did is what lead them to where they are today. I can understand the idea of being the opposite of my parents, because I am. Scared of ending up as unhappy as they are, I do everything in my power to be the opposite.
    In another regard though, how you are viewed can greatly effect how you act, especially if it is by someone close to you. Though many of us would like to believe that we are not sway by others, the way people respond to use and act towards us, even down to the nonverbal cues given, alter how we act. If someone is viewed as weak and unwanted, it takes a very strong personality to not be altered by that and even if it is not shown not he outside, they feel it. I believe this is one of the worst parts of domestic violence, is that it teaches you that you are worthless. Many of the victims that I have spoken to have told me that they did not leave because they felt they had nowhere else to go. Whether it be because of money problems or no social support, they felt stuck and worthless and that even if they chose to leave, they will be stuck in a world that no one wants them. And so they choose to stay, thinking that the few minutes they get of affection from their abuser is all they are worth. And like you said, many of them are tricked into thinking that it was their fault for the abuse. It is hard for people to understand this thought process and by having these misconceptions that it is the victims fault for staying, only feeds into this insecurity and makes it even harder to leave. How can I reach out for help when society believes I should be able to do it myself? When people look down on me when I continue to walk back through that front door and yet offer so sanctuary, how can they expect change?
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Your thoughts and videos were both powerful and thought provoking and you make very good points that people need to recognize more often.

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