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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy

Narratives, Privilege, and the Pain of Other People

Joan Didion underscores the anthropological and moral importance of stories in her assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”137 We make sense of our experiences by telling them. This is true for both written and oral cultures. Stories show us how to live by helping us formulate ethical dispositions to the world. Stories make us aware of the dignity of others and the necessity to accord them their rights as humans. Underlining the importance of stories in human rights, James Dawes states that:

After years spent interacting with human rights and humanitarian fieldwor- kers, I have come to believe that human rights work is, at its heart, a matter of storytelling... Indeed, for those in need of rescue and care, the hope of being able to tell the story is sometimes the only hope. How do you make your case? Get someone to believe you? Get someone to speak for you?138

As I have suggested above in my discussion of Judith Butler, narratives provide us with characters whose mere existence challenges us to ask the important question: Who are you? Their presence on the pages of our book provides answers to that question. These answers urge a recognition, a relation. Stories do not make categorical ethical statements; indeed, stories and their interpretations are not fixed as are rules of logic.139 Stories do not tell one what to do in any given circumstance. However, as Arthur W. Frank argues, they:

get under people’s skin. Once stories are under people’s skin, they affect the terms in which people think, know, and perceive. Stories teach people what to look for and what can be ignored; they teach what to value and what to hold in contempt.140

Frank talks specifically about how stories impart values. They do this effectively because they operate without our being conscious of their action. It is obvious that much of what we know about the world is received and shaped by our culture, and stories are one of the most fundamental ways that cultures function. We are literally what we tell ourselves about ourselves. Stories impart knowledge and shape people’s views of the world. One of the ways that narratives appeal to us is by placing other people’s vulnerabilities squarely before us and having them challenge us. Stories were central to the evolution of human rights in eighteenth-century European thought.141 Even before Immanuel Kant formulated his famous conceptions of human rights, philosophers and writers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Samuel Richardson revealed instances of others in pain, and these revelations challenged people’s sense of common decency. Narratives in general and those of eighteenth-century writers in particular encouraged introspection and respect toward one’s fellow humans. In their most private moments, people began to reflect that others, after all, felt pain just as they, the readers, did. Lynn Hunt lays particular emphasis on the role of co-feeling in the formulation of human rights. Might this be what the contemporary African women writers hope to achieve with their narratives of women’s pain? In telling stories of specific women, do they seek to shed light on the patriarchal privileges that made such pain possible in the hope that fellow members of their ubuntu community would respond?

Male privilege in most patriarchal societies in Africa is comparable to that of whites in racist Western societies. To fully understand this parallel, I use Shannon Sullivan’s discussion of white privilege.142 Sullivan describes white privilege as the “mental and physical patterns of engagement with the world that operate without conscious attention or reflection.”143 White privilege is manifested in the ways in which a white person thinks and occupies the world in the presence of others of disadvantaged ethnic background. Being white is a privilege to the extent that the difference in phenotypes and socio-cultural backgrounds grants the white person certain advantages over those others. With regard to whites in South Africa, who occupy privileged positions because of their race, Samantha Vice argues that an appropriate emotion for them to experience in the face of massive social and economic inequality in that country is one of agent-regret. By agent-regret she refers to the moral agency of the individual who acknowledges his guilt for having participated in, or benefited from, the unfairness of a system. Having acknowledged his guilt, the person feels shame. The feeling of shame, in turn, urges that person to action.144 Agent-regret is therefore an active moral stance in the world.

Men enjoy certain privileges that derive solely from their gender, the most obvious of which is the unquestioned control over their own bodies, especially with regard to sexual functions. Ideas articulated by Sullivan and Vice express the positions of male members of African patriarchal cultures about which the contemporary African women writers write. When presented in narratives, the inequities in their traditional societies should awaken a sense of moral conscience in men so that they acquire a capacity for shame and agent-regret regarding their unmerited advantage over the female members of their society.

The foregoing reflection raises important questions for our inquiry about human rights. Why do sexist and patriarchal societies refuse to recognize the rights of women, that is, the right to own their bodies as men do theirs? Why do men in such societies not relate to women on the basis dictated by the question, “Who are you?” but rather on the basis of cultural and traditional ideologies? Why are women not allowed to play active roles in human flourishing in most African societies? Human flourishing is an extension of the Greek notion of Eudaimonia, “eu” (“good”) and daimon (“spirit”). It occupies a central place in Aristotle’s philosophy and refers to the highest human virtue, a condition for living a life of enduring happiness and fulfillment. It also refers to the condition in which every individual achieves optimal well-being in freedom. It equates to a happy life. Human flourishing is also a condition of belonging to communities, helping others, and benefiting from others.145

Adam Newton argues that ethics, transmitted through literature, “signifies recursive, contingent, and interactive drama ofencounter and recognition, the sort which prose fiction both crystallizes and recirculates in acts of interpretive engagement.”146 Of particular importance in Newton’s discussion is his phrase, “drama of encounter and recognition.” This is in alignment with Judith Butler’s fruitful interpretation of Adriana Cavarero’s question: Who are you? Narrative as ethics traces its provenance to Aristotle’s Poetics. There are certain elements in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy to which every understanding of narrative as ethics returns directly or indirectly: “imitation of an action” that “arouses pity and fear” affecting through that a “katharsis of such emotions.”147 Thus stories, which are recreations of people’s actions or encounters, are told to arouse emotional responses in the listener/reader. Aristotle suggests that the need for stories is born of the need to imitate.148 Humans raise imitation to the level of culture, to a thing that can be made (poesis), and that can be orchestrated for leisure and educational (moral) purposes. This is where he places tragedy, defined as:

an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts, performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.149

Narrative involves individuals (characters) to whom we relate. Stephen Halliwell states that pity and fear refer specifically to the “capacity to sympathize with the sufferer. ” He emphasizes that “Aristotle does not derive this sympathy from an undifferentiated sense of humanity: instead, he takes it to be rooted in a felt or perceived affinity between the subject and the object of the emotion.” In that regard, tragic characters “have to be within the reach of an audience’s compassion.”150 What Halliwell calls sympathy, Suzanne Keen identifies as empathy. She describes the factors that might evoke a reader’s empathy. These include dispositional or existential experience, or simply literary taste. She argues that the link between feelings for fictional characters and acting on behalf of real people is tenuous.151 It is difficult to measure how literature produces empathy. It is also not a given that readers will identify or empathize with characters. Indeed, some will resist identification. What is undeniable is the contact, the meeting between the reader and text. In that meeting, something happens in the reader’s imagination. I assume that the reader’s world is influenced in part because they have identified with (or rejected), fully or partially, the aspects of the narrated world.

One central idea connects Aristotle, Adam Smith, and Martha Nussbaum: their emphasis on situations that cause discomfort. Our feelings of pity (Aristotle), sympathy (Smith), or empathy (Nussbaum) are possible because we imagine ourselves experiencing (the same) like situations as the agents (characters). Aristotle is emphatic that imitation is not of agents, but of actions. Fiction, to the degree that it causes us to suspend disbelief, presents those like situations to us.

Paul Ricoeur elaborates on Aristotle’s notion of imitation in his concept of emplotment, which is a recreation of like situations.152 For him, narrative understanding is the most basic form of understanding; people make sense of their lives through narration. We narrate in order to relate to what we have been and what we ought to become; we narrate in order to relate to others, and we do so by experiencing what others have experienced via like situations. The point of narrative as ethics is to make explicit the Socratic idea that only an examined life is worth living.153 Ricoeur distinguishes between two forms of understanding of human nature: the Greek, phronesis (prudentia in Latin, wisdom in English) and the Latin, scientia, meaning scientific understanding. Narratives provide the former, while the various disciplines in science provide the latter.154 The understanding provided by narrative is rooted in our imaginative reconstruction of people’s experiences. Ethics is activated at the moment the reader puts himself in the situation the character is experiencing. Without this perspective-switching, literature would be less effective as an ethical tool. Literature is about relations; the relation of the reader to the text, and by implication, the reader’s relation to people. Literature is also, and chiefly, about the reader’s relation to themselves.

While literature delivers others to us, it also presents us to ourselves; as we relate to the characters in the text, we reflexively interrogate ourselves. I consider thoughts about human (women’s) rights as a product of our intensive engagement with the pain of the other. As Lynn Hunt makes clear in her discussion of the evolution of human rights in the West, people began to articulate ideas of human rights in eighteenth-century Europe when they read stories of others in pain.155

What does one African body mean to other Africans in general, and in particular, what does the female African body mean to African males? Feminism, which, for these women writers, equals fairness, necessarily calls for the adoption of attitudes that urge people, men especially, to see those of the opposite sex not as objects or as means to society’s (men’s) ends, but as ends in themselves. Another way to understand the issue is to consider the difference between seeing women, in a relational way, as people and seeing them as instrumental. Feminist concepts motivate a person (man) to treat every woman as he would like to be treated: with respect and dignity. Seen as such, feminism is not only useful to women; it also benefits those men who are conscious of the moral quality of their relationship to other people, especially women. Feminism is ethics.156 To the degree that it is ethics, it is about the rights and dignities of female members of society; it is about human rights.

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