Human Rights Philosophy in My Line of Work

About a month ago, I was at home reading a book, basically enjoying the summer break, when I suddenly startled my poor husband when I put the book down and proceed to cry. Of course, he asked me what just happened. However, he wasn’t shocked, behaving as if it was not the first time he saw me frustratingly putting a book down and crying. I was reading a book titled The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine. The book is a memoir of Somaly Mam, a survivor of sexual slavery during her childhood in Cambodia. In addition to being a memoir, she also talked in a great length on the second part of the book about the problem of childhood sexual slavery in Cambodia and her fight to put a stop into the industry. And let me emphasize on the problem, it is childhood sexual slavery, not prostitution. The author was sold by her family into a vast network of predators working in a sex industry. This problem runs rampant in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and a few other neighboring countries, which was the focus of the book. The same problem, however, exists in many other countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and even in North and South America. The area that is the focus on this book has been well known, however, for using very young children. The younger the child, the more money the pimp will receive. Hopefully by now you understand why I cried. But when I said my husband wasn’t quite surprised, it’s because he’s seen me doing it before, with plenty of other books.
What I read in these books usually brought out in me a strong emotional reaction. To say that I was upset is probably an understatement. I was angry, furious, mad, enrage! I felt all of those feeling, even though I don’t know any of the people featured in these books. But do I really need to know them in order to feel their pain? For a moment while I was crying, I felt helpless and guilty. I felt helpless because I didn’t think I was able to do anything to help them, and I felt guilty because of feeling helpless. It’s like a domino effect; I feel one, therefore, the other.

Every time my husband saw me crying, he always asked me why would I then continue to read these books. For a while I couldn’t answer him because I didn’t have one, which was probably why he kept asking me every time he saw me getting frustrated. It wasn’t until Somaly Mam’s book I read last month that the answer finally came to me. I think deep inside me I knew the answer all along; I was just never quite able to put everything together into an answer. I said to my husband that I read these books because I was a witness to these people’s stories, and these are the kind of stories that will always demand audience, listeners, witnesses. It is in the telling of these stories that hope remains, or hope is the reason why they tell their stories. Which one comes first, hope or narratives, is besides the point. If people stop reading these books, then it silences the victims and survivors’ voices. What’s the use of speaking out and telling your stories when nobody’s listening? I read these books in order to maintain their hope. To borrow Paulo Freire’s expression on hope, “Hopelessness is a form of silence, of denying the world and fleeing from it”. To ignore these stories of violence, pain and suffering, survival, fight for justice, recovery and healing, means to give up on hope.

While it is true that not everyone can be expected to read through books like these, I can and, therefore, feel obligated to do it. And to be honest, I feel intrigued to read them. So, why not continue?

As a psychologist in training and a previous mental health counselor at a shelter for undocumented and unaccompanied immigrant youth, I’ve heard many horrendous stories, and I’m positive worse stories will be crossing my path in the future. There is just no way of avoiding them in my line of work. Even though I prepare myself by reading many of what I would call difficult books, my tolerance level continues to be challenged on a regular basis. It’s the horrific details of the stories that continue to challenge my deepest sense of humanity. Instead of crying the way I cry at home, I found myself crying inside while at work. I realize that there’s very little difference between what I’ve heard directly from my clients and read from those books. Evil, ugly wrongdoings happen in my city, in other parts of this country, or somewhere else in this world.

Just recently I came across a situation that may prove to be the biggest challenge so far in my line of work. I will be taking a case where it will allow me to work with, to borrow Paulo Freire’s term again, an oppressor. I can’t say more about the case due to confidentiality, but this really marks my introduction to working with somebody from the oppressor group. I usually work with and fight with people from the other side, the oppressed. I even read books that are typically telling the stories of the oppressed.

Why is this issue a big deal for me to encourage a discussion in this blog? As part of the preparation of me taking the case, I’ve been warned ahead of time that others (my colleagues) may view my action to take the case critically, if not negatively. I may be asked why would I want to take the case? Worse, some may be forming a question in their head about what kind of person who would want to work with this person?

I wrestled inside too with that question, and it dawned on me that the answer is within the same line as the answer I already gave to my husband earlier. The element of witnessing, of listening, is still there. I’ll still be witnessing stories, and furthermore, this time I’ll have the advantage of looking at the stories from the other side. How often do we in this line of work really have this opportunity? Furthermore, by listening to stories from both sides, hopefully it will give me a better perspective into my roles and responsibilities as a mechanism of change.

Another philosophy that I have found to be of tremendous help is the human rights philosophy. It is called human rights for a reason, that all humans have rights. Otherwise, it should be labeled as group rights. Continuing to bring in Paulo Freire’s work from his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was also heavy in human rights thinking, I do believe that my line of work should be available to people on both sides (the oppressor and the oppressed), but with different things to keep in mind for each side. When working with the oppressed group, the key is to understand that those of us in this line of work should not force these people to follow our agenda, but to know what they need and where they are in their level of readiness to change. When working with the oppressor, the challenge is to understand the origin or past of many of the members. Freire talks a great deal about the line between the oppressed group and the oppressor, which at times, can be a very thin line. It means that those from the oppressed side can easily switch to the other side if they fail to include reflection in their action of liberating themselves (Freire believes in the element of reflection and action, which is what he refers to as praxis).

Thus, based on Freire’s point above, who exactly are these people that we labeled oppressor? Using what I know about psychology theory, particularly the theory on attachment during childhood, it’s fair to say that many of these oppressors were probably at some point in their past (possibly during childhood) fell under the oppressed side. But even if we’re not necessarily talking about childhood and even putting aside psychological theories, I believe these adult oppressors are also victims themselves within the whole system and environment that promotes the use of oppression. They become the tools of oppression because of failure to reflect on their action. Because of that understanding and based on my belief in human rights principles, they also deserve psychological help from people like me. The only one caution that I would add here is that I can only facilitate help, change or healing only for those who are ready to change. People presumably seek help because of the insurmountable pain and a somewhat readiness to change, although the latter may vary greatly from one person to another. If they seek help because they’re ready to change, then who am I to judge him or her and say…no.

Just as much as I don’t like to be judged, I try not to judge others too, even though it is within our nature as a human being to constantly build judgments in our head. On the same token, I do sometimes wish that I’m not being judged for continuing to read emotionally difficult books. I’m drawn to them because they keep me grounded, humbled, reminding me always to be thankful for what I have, my family, childhood, opportunities, and so on. The list is open and unending…. I use these stories and my new experience from work to strengthen my core self in order to be able to keep going, no matter how hard it is at times. And for those who voice a critical opinion of my choices, I’ll consider the moment as an opportunity to dialogue.


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