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      Disseminating Human Rights through Emotional Narrative:                                    An Overview of Kathryn Abrams Research                         

Disseminating Human Rights through Emotional Narrative:                                    An Overview of Kathryn Abrams Research

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Mr Krishnaveer Abhishek Challa                                                                                                                                                                        PhD Research Scholar,

                                 Dept of Linguistics, Andhra University                                                                                                                                                                         Soft Skills Trainer,

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A Narrative is certainly the most influential tool. Many a times, a Narrative has influenced the Contemporary Society and affected Policy Making. Emotional Narrative that advocate the plight of Oppressed People is one of the main channel of protest for the underprivileged, who are devoid of their basic human rights. In this paper, we would like to delve upon the role of Emotional Narrative in Disseminating Human Rights.

Keywords: Human Rights, Emotional Narrative Bama Faustina, Kathryn Abrams


What is the relation between emotions and rights? It is not a question for which answers spring readily to mind. Rights may be conceived as inhering in, or being conferred upon, a post Enlightenment, rationalist subject, who is hardly a creature brimming with affect. They may be associated, for some, with abstract claims of entitlement, and, for others, with intricate Hohfeldian frameworks that connect them with state or private obligations: neither association brings emotions to mind. Moreover, the literatures which explore the meaning, mobilization, recognition, and constitutive effects of rights provide little more guidance. Few acknowledge the emotions; those that do often neglect the diverse contexts of rights assertion, and the differentiation or social formation of emotions. Emotion is intertwined with rights claiming in many different ways. Kathryn Abrams (2010).

“Naming, Blaming, Claiming,” rights assertion begins with the recognition of an injury. A present injury, or the discovery that one has been injured in the past, constitutes what sociologists of protest call a “moral shock”: a startling and significant event that has the potential to reorient us to our environment and the other actors who populate it. Apprehending this shock—understanding that one has sustained an injury—may be the initial stage of this reorientation; but this perception is followed by an equally important phase of interpretation. The affected individual must perceive the effect as something that is not an inevitable state of affairs, but is rather a development to which she might productively respond. Although many accounts characterize this progression as a predominantly cognitive process, a range of emotions—which I understand to be entwined with cognitive judgments—may help prospective claimants achieve these perceptions and understandings. James M. Jasper (1998).

Some of these emotions are individual responses. Experiencing a moral shock may itself trigger a range of emotions that vary with the nature of the shock and the person receiving it: from grief or shock (at a devastating change in life circumstances) to fear (about the present or future effects of such a change) to anger (at suffering or seeing another suffer poor treatment) to shame (at being subjected to such treatment). Whether these initial emotions lead to the conclusion that the moral shock or injury is the product of a wrongful act that should be addressed (or redressed), rather than an inevitable state of affairs, may depend on still other emotions or affective dispositions: dispositions toward the self and the relation of the self to the world it inhabits. For example, the emotion of self-respect—the sense of oneself as a person who is entitled to some basic level of decent treatment by others, or to better than the injurious treatment that she has received—provides a potent affective backdrop to the prospective claimant’s efforts to respond to the perception of injury. It may determine whether the person perceiving an injury is able to move from fear or shame, both of which tend to immobilize or turn the injured party inward, into outrage or indignation, which can fuel outward-directed efforts to stop the injury or to seek some form of redress. Also implicated is the emotion of hope—a future different from the present—which may be difficult, though not impossible, to achieve. Without this capacity, it becomes likely that those suffering a wrong or injury will perceive even highly undesirable states of affairs as natural, inevitable, or at least dauntingly difficult to change. Kathryn Abrams (2010).

But response to a moral shock—regardless of whether it is created by an injury warranting some response—is not conditioned entirely by individual emotions. It may also be shaped by emotions shared with others or emotions fostered by one’s connection to others. Affective connections with others, for example, may permit individuals to perceive patterns of injury that they would have been unable to identify on their own. One woman may mention to another an uncomfortable experience in the workplace, and learn that other people had experienced similar incidents. This communication might help her to see her experience as part of a pattern of unequal or sexualized treatment, and it might shape her individual, affective response to it. Affective connections among people may also condition responses at a more collective level. “Emotion norms” or “emotion cultures”—i.e., shared understandings regarding appropriate affective response among members of a family, group, community, or culture—may powerfully condition reaction to a moral shock. Kathryn Abrams (2010).

The recognition that one has sustained an injury which may transform one’s life circumstances can be an affectively isolating event. A feeling of grief may make it difficult to relate to others, or even to conduct oneself conventionally in the presence of others. A feeling of shame about this mark of difference, or anxiety about whether one is somehow responsible for this suffering, may lead the person who has experienced a moral shock to withdraw from others. But in many cases the sense of impending isolation produced by a reorienting event or injury may have precisely the opposite effect: it may cause people to reach out to others. In the first instance, those who have sustained an injury may reach out to their family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers, who may help them to regain their affective balance in the midst of an unfamiliar circumstance, or to strategize about possible ways of responding. Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2007).

Sometimes, however, an injury may create a sense of separation from one’s familiar or accustomed communities; the resulting feeling of loneliness may cause an injured party to seek out others who are similarly situated. Parents whose child has been diagnosed with a life-limiting disease may suddenly feel distant from their usual circle of friends and neighbors, and may seek out other parents whose children have been similarly afflicted. Often this outreach stems from a simple need to know that one is not alone in a particular form of suffering, or from a desire for the access to information or emotional support that can arise from shared, challenging circumstances. In other cases, those who have suffered a moral shock reach out in order better to understand their predicament. This dynamic, for example, was central to the early stages of the second-wave feminist movement. Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2007).

This desire to reach out to others may also be mediated by those who might be described as “emotional entrepreneurs”: those who identify or even seek to foster particular feelings in a group of people that has suffered a moral shock in order to bring them together. This effort may be primarily other-oriented or altruistic, such as the work of a non-profit organization that seeks to bring together cancer survivors for mutual support, sharing of information and strategy, and the sense of commitment to a collective effort. Or this entrepreneurship may be undertaken by those who seek to harness shared feelings of loss, anger, distrust, or indignation to fuel some form of legal or political action that they view as individually or collectively advantageous. Kathryn Abrams (2007).

Groups that coalesce in response to a specific moral shock, or the feelings that arise from it, frequently aim to explain that shock as a first step toward responding to it. This explanation may relate the events producing the shock to other historical or contemporaneous developments. But such explanations more frequently have the goal of attribution: ascribing responsibility for the shock and its material and emotional effects to a particular actor or institutions. But the process of ascribing responsibility for a particular injury is often strongly mediated by emotion. Anger may provide the energy necessary to track the lines of causation to a responsible party, as well as the motivation to hold a responsible party accountable. Conversely, an overwhelming feeling of grief in the wake of a loss or injury, for example, may render the focus on a responsible party irrelevant. Kathryn Abrams (2007).

Emotions may also influence which actors are likely to be held responsible for an injury or other moral shock. In an affectively infused search for a perpetrator—a search which is often articulated in the register of blame rather than the more neutral register of responsibility—“we want [the wrong] to be the result of a choice to act by someone capable of reasoning.” This may make it easier for rights claimants to mobilize in response to acts attributable to individual choice, and harder for them to mobilize in response to acts attributable to governmental inaction, inattention, or neglect. It may also, as Bandes argues, cause those claiming a wrong to anthropomorphize governmental action, which can lead to distortions in claims for and adjudication of governmental responsibility. Efforts by leaders to mobilize members of social movements may also shape and even distort ascriptions of responsibility. As William Gamson has argued, “injustice frames”—narratives which describe an injury as a wrong perpetrated by some identifiable actor against others—help prospective claimants respond to their injuries with outrage or indignation rather than sadness or resignation. They fuel the “fire in the belly and steel in the soul” that enables those injured to press their claims. Gamson notes, however, that social movement leaders often point to ostensibly responsible actors, even in the face of ambiguity about their causal role, because this identification produces a galvanizing emotional response. Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2010).

Ascription of responsibility may also be affected by the “emotion cultures” of the groups to which individuals turn for support. These norms may encourage or discourage the search for responsible actors in general. For example, an emotion culture that values fearlessness in speaking of truth to power, or defiance in calling wrongdoers to account, may bolster the process of looking for a responsible or remedial actor. But a group that is committed to helping its members to “move on,” or to achieve emotional healing, after an accident or natural disaster may be deeply ambivalent about becoming mired in the process of assigning blame. Moreover, some emotion cultures may tend to attribute responsibility to particular kinds of actors. The identification of a responsible party may itself fuel emotional responses that affect the ability of those who have suffered an injury to contemplate mobilizing a right. “Injustice frames”—which point to a wrong perpetrated by some identifiable actor—can inspire the outrage and indignation that motivate action. Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2010).

Identifying a responsible actor, or one who can intervene to prevent future injury, is a necessary but not a sufficient step toward the mobilization of rights claims. It locates the possible targets of action, but does not entail a claim that some social or legal entitlement has been violated, or that some remedy or response is required. The decisions to articulate one’s injury as a violation of rights and to press for greater visibility, remediation, or prevention are distinct parts of the trajectory that we examine here. Although they are importantly structured by cognitive judgments—actors might ask, for example, whether there is a law or broader social understanding that prohibits the actions in question—they are also shaped by a variety of affective responses. Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2010).

The ability to mobilize a claim framed in the language of rights— whether it be a legal right or a declaration that “no one has the right to treat us like that!”—itself requires certain emotions. The rights claimant, as Jeremy Waldron has argued, is “aware and vigorously conscious of what [she] is entitled to demand from others”; she has “or can develop the capacity and virtue to stand bravely witness to, and indomitably defiant of, assaults on [her] dignity as [a] person[ ].” Although Waldron’s vision evokes an ideal type, it captures emotions that may undergird rights claiming, even when it is less formal or more ambivalent. Rights claiming requires a feeling of self-respect or dignity: a feeling that one is worthy both of decent treatment by others and of commanding their attention when one does not receive it. It is sometimes the tension between this feeling of self-respect or entitlement, and the conspicuous lack of respect in the way that one is being treated by others, that motivates the move to action. Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2010).

Among the choices that individuals or groups must make is selecting the strategy through which claims of right might be mobilized, and violations publicized, remedied, or prevented. Claimants may engage in some form of public statement, protest, or movement that involves similarly motivated others. This form of political action articulates a claim of right, but may or may not have specifically legal goals. Claimants might also make a claim of legal right: this kind of claim, which may emerge from political protest or may be framed independently, may be addressed to a court, to a legislature, or to other governmental regulators. Kathryn Abrams (2010); Susan A. Bandes (2009).


Human Rights & Dalit Emotional Narrative:

Dalits have history of being excluded from social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights. Dalits are marginalized on the basis of traditional Indian Brahminical caste system. Earlier they were called as “shudras” but of late they have been given the title of Dalits. Dalit forms a kind of umbrella term which apart from “shudras” or “untouchables” includes all other below poverty line people. Women in general are always marginalized by patriarchy, so Dalit women are more marginalized than Dalit men; they are facing humiliation due to upper caste people as well as due to their own men folk. The plight of Dalit women is more depressing than Dalit men. Dalit women started resisting against oppression with the help of their writings. They wanted to make their plight known to whole world, but mostly due to lack of proper education their works were written in regional languages, but in late 20th century many of the works of Dalit women were being translated. Dalit feminism falls under one of the lowest rungs of the feminism ladder. With its fingers pointed towards the subaltern classes in the third world countries, subaltern feminism takes into its embrace the Blacks, Dalits, Adivasi, various suppressed tribes, outcast immigrants etc. Its concerns lie with the suppressed group of the third world where women are further suppressed in the system. Dalit Feminism is a budding social movement in the Indian terrain struggling to raise its voice to be heard beyond India. Along with the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes, the unidentified tribes of various hilly regions, the Adivasi clan and other oppressed groups of the nation come under Dalits. While the Dalits are outcast and oppressed by the third world, the women within the Dalits are oppressed and brutally suppressed by the Dalit men. Rao, S.N & Reddy, S.P. (2013).


Bama is a Tamil Dalit writer who is one of the first Dalit women to publish their books in English. Bama is a celebrated Dalit feminist writer who has concerned herself with the predicament of Dalit women and how they can freed from the callous system of male domination. She explains how the Dalit men who after facing so much discrimination by the society finally vent their anger and frustration on the women at home. Her narration of few radical incidents where the women are mentally suppressed by the society show how ignorance can push one into darkness that can be avoided with one single step out of the arena. Literature, over the years, has played a major role in Social Awakening. Narrative was considered as the best way of Emotional Dissemination. As a Narrative is interesting and interactive, it succeeds in sustaining the emotions of people. Narratives are filled with all kinds of emotions like love, hatred, melancholy, disgust, etc. Reading a given narrative makes us emotionally connect with the characters of that fiction/non-fiction. Therefore, emotional narratives manifest emotions in the common man and thereby make them realize the human rights violation. Singh, A. (2016).


Autobiographical Memoirs and Non-fictions are the best way to provide this emotional communication as they are realistic. Emotion naturally affects the way autobiographic memories are encoded. Emotional episodes are remembered better and have more attention drawn to them. Through remembering past, achievements and failures, the autobiographer’s memories directly affect how he perceives and feels about himself. Narratives that focus on plights of downtrodden can be considered as the best bets as emotional narratives. The novels of Bama Faustina, a dalit feminist writer, can also be included in emotional narratives as she focused more on hope and emotional resistance. It is very essential to touch the emotions inorder to propel rights. Bama’s writings provide that social context which is culturally suitable to the reader’s mental perception and which can invoke emotions in the reader through its melancholic and protest voice and thereby it successfully connects with people. Through her autobiographical novels, Bama successfully portrayed how the human rights of Dalit Women were compromised. Thereby, it can be concluded that Literature has a given the suppressed women a great deal of strength in talking about their rights. This literature is rather emotional and that evokes more effect on narratives that delve upon on rights. Singh, A. (2016).



We can infer that Emotional Narrative is the best way to disseminate Human Rights. Bama Faustina through her realistic memoirs has instigated emotions in all her readers by portraying the plight of Dalit Women and through this she successfully communicated human rights violation in the case of lower caste women. She achieved her purpose as he was able to move the people and government in giving Dalit Women the rights they truly deserve.



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Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2007). Law in the Cultivation of Hope, 95 CALIF. L. REV. 319, 324

Kathryn Abrams (2007). Women and Anti-War Protest: Rearticulating Gender and Citizenship, 87 B.U. L. REV. 849, 865

Kathryn Abrams (2010). Dean’s Lecture: Empathy and Experience in the Sotomayor Hearings, 36 OHIO N.U. L. REV. 263, 280

Kathryn Abrams & Hila Keren (2010). Who’s Afraid of Law and the Emotions?, 94 MINN. L. REV. 1997, 2034–40, 2068–73

Kathryn Abrams (2010). Emotions in the Mobilization of Rights , Berkeley Law Faculty Retreat, and the Mindful Lawyer Conference at UC Berkeley School of Law, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review

Rao, S.N & Reddy, S.P. (2013). Fourth World Literature: An Introduction, Online International Interdisciplinary Research Journal, Vol-III, Special Issue.

Singh, A. (2016). Bama’s Sangati and Karukku, Muse India, 1-9

Susan A. Bandes (2009). Victims, “Closure,” and the Sociology of Emotion, 72 LAW & CONTEMP. PROBS. 1, 5