Technology and the Fight for Human Rights

Round Table Conversations on World-Changing Ideas

Edited and condensed by Katherine Reece MFA '12, Photos by Chris Taggart

Under Discussion
For Brian MacMillan (visual arts), the motivation behind his work with technology is twofold: to help victims of human rights abuses and to catch “the bad guys.” MacMillan is a consultant and researcher for a treatment center in New York City that aids survivors of torture.

From collecting evidence for use in trials alleging crimes against humanity to building a Google map with data points that serve to validate stories of torture victims, MacMillan is finding technological means to improve both human rights advocacy and clinical trauma work.

MacMillan brought that work to Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2015, when he taught a course titled “The Role of Technology in Trauma Care.” Part of the College’s new tech third initiative, the interdisciplinary course taught students about clinical psychology, software application development, data visualization, user-experience design, and communications. Students analyzed the operations of the treatment center with which MacMillan works and considered how technology might be used to improve the process for interviewing clients.

They also worked on their own real-world research projects, ranging from perceptions of voluntary sex workers to the source and health benefits of food brought into one student’s family’s restaurant. MacMillan’s underlying intent was to give students the technological and research tools to actually make change or take action related to human rights issues—and to ask big questions of those issues.

Leah Pinault ’18 researched the practice of female genital mutilation, or cutting, asking questions about whether the practice’s prevalence in various parts of the world has to do with factors such as sex education or socioeconomic status. The following conversation is excerpted from her final presentation.

Pinault: Whatever you call it [mutilation or cutting] depends on your perception. Most Western perspectives and the UN deem it a crime against humanity, so they call it mutilation. But if you look at the cultures that actually are practicing, it has more of the connotation of male circumcision or coming-of-age ceremonies into adulthood. … The more I researched, the more I realized how nuanced these cultures are and how nuanced this issue is. You can’t just look at it as a crime against humanity, because saying that is saying that every single mother who had their child cut is somehow abusing her child, when that’s not the perspective of people who are doing it. …

The question I want to throw out to you guys is: Do you think it’s morally right for us to try to end this? Are we denying someone the expression of their culture? …

MaShaela Mackenzie ’18: Ultimately, I think culture is important, but since this practice is so harmful, there really needs to be some kind of law to stop it.

Alexandra Suresky ‘15: Because there are specific medical risks to [female genital mutilation], I think there is a gray area there, where it really is morally wrong of us not to stop it. …

Nicholas Rademaker ’17: From my experience, a lot of African cultures have a huge stigma against Western influences on their sexual lives. It’s one reason there’s very slow progress on getting rid of HIV in a lot of places, just because it’s seen as the West … [and] white people trying to manage their lives again and impose authority over what they think is sovereign. …

Pinault: Right. … Why would these women want to tell Westerners their own experiences? What makes us think we can ask someone about their sexuality for our benefit, or to stop what they’re doing? …

Brian MacMillan: That raises an issue, which is: Have you found any evidence about the efficacy of locally originated campaigns versus Westerners coming in? Are there people in Egypt or in North Africa fighting this?

Pinault: It’s hard to separate the two. On one hand, a lot of Western groups have come in and changed the minds of one generation. And then they left, and that generation became advocates within their own community. But it’s hard to say whether they would truly believe [what they believe] without having that Western influence.

MacMillan: But you didn’t find any evidence of distinct campaigns?

Pinault: … I have found that different groups within a country have different perspectives on it—and that had nothing to do with Western perspectives. [For example], some believe it’s unclean, some believe it’s clean … but I haven’t found anything that would indicate whether [those differences] result in advocacy. …

Aneri Barvalia ’18: In Nigeria, I think it was women’s rights activists and public health groups that paved the way for the legislation that was passed in 2015 that banned female genital mutilation—but they have a stronger political infrastructure than the nations you mentioned where there’s high prevalence. I think political infrastructure has a lot to do with it.

Pinault: Yeah. … I haven’t been able to make a conclusive answer on who is truly fighting against this, because it’s hard to see where the idea that it is wrong really stemmed from—whether that was a purely Western concept being imposed on other countries, or if it developed years and years before we recognized it was happening. There is just so little information out there.

Barvalia: The best thing that you said is that either you support local grassroots organizations that have championed the cause in their country or you go in and find out the perceived benefits [of female genital cutting] and if there is an alternative we can pose and a better way to do it. I think that’s the best way to do it. …

MacMillan: … I find this whole question of Western meddling really interesting. It touches on an important question in philosophy, which is [whether you] can universalize moral prescriptions, as in, can you tell other people what to do? I wonder, where does the class stand? Is there anyone here who thinks we should back off and just let them work it out on their own, or is everyone so disgusted by this practice that they want to see it end? What do you think we should do? …

Rademaker: We do need this globalization of morality, because these inconsistencies are going to constantly bring us into conflict with each other as sovereign nations. What I do think is important to take away from that isn’t that we shouldn’t look at globalization as something one country or even one conglomerate should impose on other countries, but rather, we should consider every narrative of everyone that there is, and get an amalgamation of what we agree on and work from there.

The faculty committee overseeing the grant program funding the Media Innovation Program, of which this course was part, includes Jerrilynn Dodds (art history), Angela Ferraiolo (visual arts), Michael Siff (computer science), and Robin Starbuck (visual arts).