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Embracing the Joy in Human Rights: An Interview with William Simmons

By Shayna Plaut

In 2015, I organized a panel on “Teaching Human Rights Inside and Outside the Classroom” at the Social Practice for Human Rights Conference in Dayton, Ohio. William (Bill) Simmons, author of the forthcoming book, Joyful Human Rights, was on the panel as well as Praxis Center’s Lisa Brock and Alice Kim. That is where we met and we have continued collaborating ever since.

Given the current state of human rights in the world which requires a healthy dose of hope, creativity and ingenuity, as well as my own passion for focusing on possible human rights strategies, I was particularly interested in Bill’s journey to Joyful Human Rights. Bill is a professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Arizona and the founding director of the first online Masters of Arts in Human Rights Practice in North America where I serve as a member of the international advisory panel.

Joyful Human Rights book cover. Image credit: William Simmons

Shayna: Why joy?

William: It came out of conversations with my friend Devorah Wainer from Australia. For a long time, I have been noticing that my students, human rights workers, and human rights professors seem to dwell in the negative. We teach and we talk about genocide, torture, sexual violence, abuse of migrants, etc., and it seems like we were only telling half the story. My experience with human rights activists weren’t always negative. They were some amazingly positive experiences. And as I started thinking about it, it seemed like it was kind of indicative of the whole discipline of human rights. We avoid the positives and seem to dwell in negative for whatever reason.

SP: Why do you think we do that?

WS: Well I have several ideas on that. I think that there is a certain feeling of importance if we are dwelling on the negative. We see our work as important. It must be valuable to do this because people are in need, and we are righting the world’s wrongs. This seems to resonate with a lot of human rights scholars especially.

SP: And who is this we?

WS: Mostly human rights scholars. And some scholar activists as well. But I find when we talk with folks on the ground we don’t find the same kind of dwelling on the negative. This ties into my previous book, Human Rights and the Marginalized Other, where I explore how we can learn from those marginalized from society.

SP: I believe it was in your introduction you mentioned the “sacred cows” within human rights. Can you elaborate? Who holds these cows? And to whom or what do they serve?

WS: There are sacred cows that come out of the Holocaust and World War II. We must take human rights gravely seriously. The abuses were so horrible that there can be no humor about it, no sense of lightness in discussing the actions during WWII or anything remotely similar. So, there is that historical reason.

But there is also the philosophical reasoning that stems from liberalism and how it developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Liberalism is for reasonable individuals, those who can control their passions. And joy is one of those passions that can’t be harnessed very easily by rationality. And so according to those founders of liberalism, we need to keep joyful people in check. And the government has a duty to ensure that those people with strong emotions are kept out of government and decision making.

Audre Lorde, 1980, Austin, TX. Image credit: K. Kendall, licensed under CC BY 2.0

SP: In Chapter 2 you start with discussing anger, and I am wondering what you see as the connection between joy and anger.

WS: I was really pleased that connection came out in the drafting of the book. Anger, in liberalism’s founding, is something that needs to be controlled. If we allow anger to take over our selves then we are no longer rational. There can’t be unfettered anger. And yet Audre Lorde writes so beautifully about anger and about how anger taps into the erotics. And I see her erotics as very close to what I see as joy. So, anger has a very useful function in human rights and politics. And it can be very closely tied to joy. When we are angry we are connected with something deep within us. Something that tells us that the current situation is unacceptable and we must do something to change it. But that is not an anger that leads to vengeance. For Lorde it leads to connection to other likeminded individuals that feel this indignation that we must change things. So, through anger we discover ourselves, just like joy that lets us discover ourselves.

SP: Is there a fear of joy?

WS: Yeah. I think so. There is a fear of the emotions getting carried away – the passions. A fear of extreme affect. I think scholars of affect theory need to place more emphasis on communal affect. Because joy has the potential to move us to a new trajectory. It has the power to move us outside what Lacan calls the symbolic realm – the current customs, laws, and norms that are governing us and determine who we are. Joy has the potential to break us from this cycle and these kinds of structural violences. And so, I think there is a fear of joy on both the individual and political level.

SP: Who has this fear?

WS: I think those who are in power, but I also think any of us who is caught up in the symbolic realm. When we see someone who does something that is joyful, it has the potential to break down what we think of ourselves and what we think about society as a whole. We see that and we feel threatened. Our identities are threatened. We see that in reactions to BLM. When we see people protesting in the street, it threatens the status quo.

SP: What is the connection between joy and humor?

WS: It is not a direct correlation. I see humor as a way of maintaining lightness in the face of some pretty serious situations. Humor allows us to distance ourselves to not be caught up in the tragedies of the moment. But humor is such a complex topic – it can be something that maintains the status quo but it can also break down the status quo. Humor can also serve as resistance. But it so complex. We can see this in the book with Archbishop Romero. The more he gave himself to the peasants the more he developed a sense of humor and a sense of lightness.

SP: There are two concepts that you talk about in the book that I’d like you define. The first term is the social erotic.

WS: The social erotic is a term being used by several critical scholars recently. It is drawing on Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic – the sense of tapping into communal feeling that’s deep within us that resists the current conditions. And so, it is a bonding in that way but it is also a way of protesting together and building community together. Through us working communally to say the situation is not acceptable, we can also further tap into something deep within us. And that is very scary for those in power.

SP: The second concept that you discussed that I would love for you to define is that of Post Traumatic Growth. Can you elaborate on post traumatic growth?

WS: Yeah that was a nice find for me, the last find for the book. I was working on the last chapter, “Human Rights Winners,” and I was looking at some critical scholarship on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And as I explained in the book, PTSD has become this ubiquitous discourse. And so human rights scholars are always looking for signs of PTSD and I saw this as one of the ways we further marginalize or silence those who suffered human rights abuses. We were only looking for trauma or the sequalae of trauma.

Post Traumatic Growth is a new term in psychology that came up about 15-20 years ago. Scholars noticed that when they were interviewing individuals who were suffering tragedies that not only did they suffer traumatic symptoms but they were also finding signs of growth through their experiences. And when scholars looked at this more we noticed that post traumatic growth happens alongside post-traumatic stress disorder. People who suffer negative consequence and also finding positive consequences. What most interests me is how post traumatic growth is connected to joy – they both move us off our current trajectory. This is opposed to the resilience discourse which states we must move ourselves back to the same trajectory we were on before the traumatic event but serious trauma has the power to allow us to re-create our world. To have more control over it.

SP: And now what? Not the academic “so what” but the the activist and pedological ‘now what.’

WS: It’s really shifted how I approach human rights work. Michelle Téllez and I did this major qualitative study on sexual violence against migrant women. And like any good human rights researchers we asked about the abuses and trauma that migrants suffered in their journey up to the United States. How was it affecting them? The physical, emotional, psychological sequalae to their abuses. But now we both have come to this place of focusing on positives as well as negatives. And so, we both came through separate journeys to wondering why we didn’t ask: who helped them on the journey? What were their hopes and aspirations? What were they looking forward to? What was the best time they had on their journey?

Like many scholars, by only focusing on the negative, we only focused on one aspect of their experience; clearly an important aspect of their experience but not the only one. We wish we would have done the research differently. And so, it has really changed my research to focus on the positive as we well as the negative.

And for teaching it has made me more aware of the onslaught of negative experiences that we feed students when we are human rights professors. We need to balance that out and show the positive sides of all this as well. Especially as students undergo traumatic experiences of their own, we can set a model of finding positive within tragedy as well.

SP: At the end of the excerpt you sent you do mention agency a bit. When I read what you wrote, and in talking to you now, it seems that the human rights survivors, human rights victims, human rights winners can define themselves – and understanding that their definition, self-definition, may change.

WS: Yes. And what we often do when we talk to human rights victims or survivors is that we define them by a specific experience at a specific time and we expect them to understand that experience in the same way over time. We tend to cut off the potential for them to grow and become someone who is not defined by their experiences of tragedy. We are dwelling on the abuses. And yet humans not only experience new things but their perspectives on old experiences also change over time.

Click here to read an excerpt from Joyful Human Rights by William Simmons


William Paul Simmons is Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and Director of the online graduate programs in Human Rights Practice at the University of Arizona. His research is highly interdisciplinary; using theoretical, legal, and empirical approaches to advance human rights for marginalized populations around the globe. His books include Human Rights Law and the Marginalized Other (Cambridge UP, 2011), An-archy and Justice: An Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas’ Political Thought (Lexington, 2003), and the forthcoming Joyful Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press). With Carol Mueller he edited Binational Human Rights: The U.S.-Mexico Experience published by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2014). He has served as a consultant on human rights issues in The Gambia, Niger, Nigeria, China, Mexico, and the United States. 

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