Monthly Archives: June 2012

To an economist, perhaps, there is no difference between activity and inactivity; both have measurable economic effects on commerce. But the distinction between doing something and doing nothing would not have been lost on the Framers, who were “practical statesmen,” not metaphysical philosophers.

–Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, National Federation of Independent Business v Sebelius, 28 June 2012, pg 24

Didn’t expect to LOL at the SCOTUS decision. But calling economists ‘metaphysical philosophers’? Maybe Supreme Court Justice Roberts and I agree on more than I thought…

Also, yay for the Supreme Court deeming it is constitutional for Congress to try to expand health care to virtually all Americans. Seriously having a whatwillItellmykidswhentheyaskmeaboutthisdate moment. Talk about historic, folks.


There is growing recognition of the importance and potential of proximity between NGOs and their audiences, between audiences and beneficiaries, and between NGO professionals and the places and people they seek to help. Survivors and beneficiaries are being seen and heard more often in television appeals and direct mailings, and via new media platforms that potentially enable longer-term, more personal connections between supporters and beneficiaries, and between NGOs and their beneficiaries. The trend is for supporters ultimately to connect directly with recipients of aid, which is challenging the traditional role of the NGO as the gatekeeper.

“Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector,” POLIS, June 2012, pg 19

My friend Josh sent me an amazing paper that combines “99 Problems” with legal analysis of the Fourth Amendment in the US.

Essentially the paper

“… is a line-by-line analysis of the second verse of 99 Problems by Jay-Z, from the perspective of a criminal procedure professor.”

Said professor Caleb Mason specifically discusses the legality of traffic stops, vehicle searches, drug smuggling, probable cause and racial profiling according to Jay-Z’s account in the song.

Some useful take-aways in case you don’t have time to read this awesomeness but want to avoid getting busted for carrying drugs, or bust someone who is:

  • Racial profiling does not give rise to a Fourth Amendment suppression claim if there was objective probable cause for the stop (p 571). That’s what the Fourteenth Amendment is for.
  • You are always better off having drugs found on you in a potentially illegal search than you are fleeing from a potentially illegal search and getting caught (p 572).
  • Locking your trunk does not keep the cops from legally being able to search it. All cops need to search your car is probable cause, not a warrant (in contrast to what Jay-Z raps).  So sans warrant in any vehicle stop, the officers may search the entire car, without consent, if they develop probable cause to believe that car contains, say, drugs (p 581).
  • Basically then, it all comes down to the ‘bitch’, i.e. the canine-unit. Without a dog sniff, there will most likely be no probable cause for a search for drugs in your vehicle if you’ve hidden them well (p 574).
[As an aside, Mason has also footnoted his phone number should anyone have additional queries “on either side of the game”. Points for keeping it old school, sir.]

(Thanks again, Josh!)

For World Refugee Day last week, UNHCR launched a shiny new global advocacy campaign called Dilemmas. According to the strategy documents (full acknowledgement: it is awesome these are public), the new campaign

“compels audiences to consider the same life-or-death decisions a refugee is forced to make when they decide to flee – building empathy for the distinct horrors of refugee flight and the compelling need for protection.”

Revamping the ‘Take Action’ section of the UNHCR website, Dilemmas challenges users to consider what they would do if in the same situation that hypothetical refugees may face (e.g. What would you do: ‘Face death in a war zone?’ or ‘Escape but leave loved ones behind?’) . Each scenario is accompanied by testimonies from refugees and displaced people to give authenticity and humanize stories.

UNHCR has even developed a game for Android and iOS called “My Life as a Refugee.” Players can select one of three characters, based on real life experiences of refugees, and attempt to reach safety, reunite with loved ones and rebuild their lives through a series of tough decisions and chance events.

This is supplemented by glossy, artistically striking images and videos of celebrities like Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Goodwill Ambassadors Khaled Hosseini and Juanes, all primed to be shared online.

Let’s be clear here: this is super sexy advocacy by UNHCR standards. It may not seem that impressive to those outside the NGO world, but I have seriously never seen the concept of refugee protection this amped up.

Yet innovative tech, stunning visuals and beautiful celebrities mean nothing when a campaign message gets twisted.

And honestly, I’m appalled by how twisted the messaging has gotten. Seared into almost every image and repeated by every celebrity is the tagline, “No one chooses to be a refugee,” and the more common and more problematic refrain,Refugees have no choice.

Obviously advocacy requires simplifying messages to some degree. But effective campaigns are not fuelled by stupidity and pity. And these slogans dilute the complexity of migration down to the point of being disempowering and inaccurate—at the cost of a entire, well-conceived strategy.

So let’s break down this trainwreck.

1) Um, refugees do make choices.

Even before getting into the policy and ethical implications of the notion ‘Refugees have no choice” (don’t worry, those are points #2 and #3), this makes no sense. Not just in life (because obviously refugees do make decisions). But it actually makes no sense in the context of the discussion Dilemmas frames, because the campaign starts on the premise that refugees are faced with difficult choices that are outlined for the viewer to consider.

This juncture between the campaign premise to the slogan results in a weird incoherence that permeates throughout the materials. Case in point: in Hosseini’s video clip, he blatantly poses a dilemma faced by a hypothetical refugee (“Would you stay and risk being killed, or would you escape and risk rape, kidnap or worse?”), then concluding with “Refugees have no choice.” Yes, these are both terrible options, but clearly then it is a decision to flee. So why state otherwise? It sounds dumb.

But even outside the context laid out by Dilemmas, people obviously make choices when they leave during a crisis: they decide when to go, where to go, who to go with, whom to trust, what to take, etc, etc. The decision-making ability afforded in each of these choices reveals significant power dynamics that emphasises the problem with lumping ‘refugees’ together—and can even highlight that being able to leave in the first place also reflects a certain amount of privilege. For instance, a wealthy, politically involved family may be able to legally leave before war breaks out to go to London, while a young woman from a poorer, rural area may have to stay in a conflict zone because she can’t afford to go or because her mother is not well enough to make the journey with her. All of this gets masked when with the statement, ‘No one chooses to be a refugee.’

2) By emphasising that “refugees have no choice”, Dilemmas winds up reinforcing the problematic dichotomy there are ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migrants.

I realise, dear reader, you may read point #1 and think I’m quibbling over silly semantics. Alright, maybe I am. But these silly semantics happen to be codified in international law, which provides protection to migrants based on their reason for leaving. Broadly speaking, if that reason is that the migrant was ‘forced’ to leave (i.e. because of political reasons, such as persecution) refugee protection can be granted, whereas if that reason is ‘voluntary’ (i.e. because of economic or social reasons) refugee protection is not.

While this distinction sounds clear on paper, it takes two seconds to get cloudy, because the line between voluntary/forced is actually a spectrum than a tangible divide. Take an example of an Afghan migrant: are you fleeing because a) armed groups are specifically targeting your family due to your political involvement; b) you’re afraid that your town will be affected by violence; or c) the war has made the economy collapse and you can’t make a livelihood? Turns out only A falls under ‘forced’ migration territory while B and C are closer to ‘voluntary’.

What is bizarre is that UNHCR knows these complications intimately. In adjusting to these changing dynamics towards more social/economic pressures, UNHCR’s mandate has had to expand well beyond serving refugees alone to the vague, all encompassing term, ‘other persons of concerns’, which includes internally displaced people, returnees, and other victims of conflict.

In light of the fact that UNHCR provides support to an increasing variety of migrants, it remains puzzling that the Dilemmas campaign would find it useful to reify the idea that refugees, in particular, have no choices. The implicit suggestion that other migrants do have choice doesn’t earn anybody working on broader migration any points.

3) Saying “Refugees have no choice” strips refugees of their agency and garners pity instead of empathy.

It is this last point that is probably the largest offence of Dilemmas in my book.

My skin crawled with every retweet that ‘refugees have no choice’ on World Refugee Day. Coupling that with the line ‘But you do’ felt ethically wrong. The power dynamics are all off in this campaign, ultimately empowering the viewer to feel sorry for refugees beyond anything else.

What’s most disappointing is that I think from what is outlined in UNHCR’s communication strategy for this campaign, the potential for building empathy was immense. The game and gorgeous graphics would have been interesting if put alongside text that (coherently) reflected that refugees make choices like any person would, even if in a difficult context. Basically a few words have undone a well conceived campaign. Honestly, it made me straight up annoyed and angry to see such blatant pity generated by a UN body.

Sadly, the moral of Dilemmas seems to be that the line between building pity and empathy remains razor thin in advocacy–and good strategy means nothing if your slogan is shit.

To mark “International in Support of Victims of Torture Day” today, Amnesty International’s Security with Human Rights campaign has released a short film called ‘Hooded’.

Just two minutes long, “Hooded” uses abstract images and intense sound design to convey the auditory and visual experiences associated with torture.

Disturbing but gripping, it’s definitely worth a watch. Just don’t expect sunshine and kittens. (And while you’re at it, sign your name to some of Amnesty’s actions to tell governments you don’t think torture is ever justified.)

It’s also interesting to watch this film in light of analysis made by Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, which was first published in 1985:

Amnesty International’s ability to bring about the cessation of torture depends centrally on its ability to communicate the reality of physical pain to those who are not themselves in pain. When, for example, one receives a letter from Amnesty in the mail, the words of that letter must somehow convey to the reader the aversiveness being experienced inside the body of someone whose country may be far away, whose name can barely be pronounced, and whose ordinary life & unknown except that it is known that that ordinary life has ceased to exist.

The language of the letter must also resist and overcome the inherent pressures toward tonal instability: that language must at once be characterized by the greatest possible tact (for the most intimate realm of another human being’s body is the implicit or explicit subject) and by the greatest possible immediacy (for the most, crucial fact about pain is its presentness and the most crucial fact about torture is that it is happening). Tact and immediacy ordinarily work against one another; thus the difficulty of sustaining either tone is compounded by the necessity of sustaining both simultaneously. 

The goal of the letter is not simply to make the reader a passive recipient of information about torture but to encourage his or her active assistance in eliminating torture. The “reader of the letter” may now, for example, become the “writer of a letter”

–Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, pg 9 (bolding mine)

Scarry’s observations pre-date ‘Hooded’ by 27 years.  Yet her words still remain relevant at describing how Amnesty drives forward its work on changing public perceptions on torture.

While certainly a wavering balance, ‘Hooded’ succeeds in tactfully marrying the viewer to the victim’s perspective through first-person shots. Immediacy is conveyed through focus on contemporary torture techniques, such as water-boarding and blaring loud sounds, as well as context-setting at the beginning of the clip.

I haven’t read Scarry’s work in detail, but as Amnesty has incorporated more visual and video materials into its advocacy, I’d wager her commentary is even more apt than when simply applied to letter-writing campaigns. After all,  ‘Hooded’ makes it so the viewer becomes the torture victim, literally forced into a hood and exposed to a spectrum of pain.

[As an aside, how did I only just discover this woman?? A textual critic who focuses on the symbolism of pain and how it makes and unmakes bodies in politics and culture? Sounds like Monica all over it.

Not to mention that this interview includes a colleague describing being in a car with her: “She took in each road sign, pondering all their possible meanings. She was being playful but also serious. She feels you’re obliged to read them this way. She feels you need to read the whole world this way.

A woman after my own heart. #academiccrush]

“Is mainstream hip-hop sexist? Absolutely.

But that is not the whole story – there are as many bitches and hos in the Bible as in hip-hop, but you can’t have that conversation with a pastor. In hip-hop patriarchy can be discussed, confronted and laid bare, where others hide behind civil discourse and censure.”

-dream hampton, on there being space within hip-hop to challenge sexism

Agreed on the representations of women in the Bible and agreed that hip-hop offers access for us to discuss and dissect broader patriarchy.

Not sure that hampton is intentionally suggesting it, but it is an interesting query if hip hop artists would be more keen to discuss these issues than perhaps a pastor or other segments of society.  My feeling is probably not. Because outside of us gender nuts and feminists, nobody is reeeeeally that keen to discuss patriarchy.

But I like her point anyway.