Power, Privilege, and Rights: How the Powerful and Powerless Create a Vernacular of Rights
31 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013
Date Written: 2013
For any individual to claim human rights, these rights must be interpreted, internalized, and understood in a manner consistent with an individual’s worldview. It is this question of internalizing international human rights norms that has led scholars to examine how groups adapt and adopt the language and concepts of human rights into local vernacular. Much of this scholarship has focused on how marginalized groups have translated the language and claims of human rights into a vernacular consistent with these groups’ worldviews. For example, Merry (2005) studies how women around the world have begun to translate human rights claims into concepts consistent with local understandings in an effort to protect themselves from violence targeted at women. Similarly, Nilsen (2012) examines how the Adivasis in India engage in a similar process of creating a vernacular of human rights that fits within their culture. These studies, and many like them, examine the process of creating a local vernacular of human rights. I propose a different approach to this topic.
The focus on activists’ use of rights and rights language to advance claims for the disadvantaged provides important insights into how rights are internalized, comprehended, and mobilized. However, the historically disadvantaged are not the only groups to go through this process of creating a vernacular rights language. In this paper I argue that the American Christian Right has undergone a similar process of creating a vernacular rights language. As a group that frequently portrays itself as victims while remaining in a position of relative social power and privilege, this internalization process mirrors the process described by other rights scholars. In both cases groups internalize rights language to argue against a perceived harm.
Studying how a socially and politically powerful group internalizes and mobilizes rights sheds light on the process of rights-internalization in two ways. First, it highlights the similarities in internalization processes, indicating how rights must become part of a vernacular to be employed by most groups. Second, given the American Christian Right’s socio-cultural position, studying them captures a separate aspect of rights. Rather than viewing rights as trumps to be used by the relatively powerless, rights can also be used by those with social and political standing to defend this position of privilege and power. Studying the American Christian Right furthers our understanding of how rights are internalized, interpreted into a local vernacular, and employed as rights claims. Studying the American Christian Right also speaks to the limits of rights as sources of socio-cultural change. By vernacularizing rights, powerful and powerless groups alike change the specifics of the rights being claimed. In the case of the American Christian Right, a socially powerful group uses their own internalized conception of rights to protect their power and privilege. The American Christian Right perceives a loss of their power and privilege, and this perceived wrong motivates their turn to rights and their understanding of rights. Thus, vernacularizing human rights makes rights intelligible to groups while also changing the nature of the rights claimed.
Keywords: Rights, Christian Right, Rights Mobilization
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