In Human Rights, Inc., Joseph Slaughter revises the question in H. G. Wells’s book title, The Rights of Man; or, What Are We Fighting For? (1940) into “The Rights of Man; or What are We [Reading] For?” (317). In doing so, Slaughter draws attention to a growing movement for world peace premised on universal human rights and humanitarianism that is fought with books and by readers. He critiques this movement insofar as it panders to the reading desires of “the White humanitarian reading classes that claim to care”—those “who congratulate themselves for listening to stories about Black abjection that are already foretold” but without “recognition … of their own structural complicity in the systems that reproduce (ready-made images of) Black wretchedness and White humanitarianism” (Slaughter 301). Slaughter’s criticism raises two key questions: (1) What kind of reading philosophy and practice would be more appropriate? and (2) How might we learn to cultivate a more ethical mode of reading about human rights abuses and humanitarian crises?
I consider these two critical questions by analyzing the forms of reading represented in Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage (2005). This novel works well as a test case for exploring alternative theories and practices of ethical reading because although it can be read in the way that Slaughter [End Page 89] criticizes it also troubles that limited mode of reading by representing three other forms of reading praxis: those of Zaw Gyi (the twelve-year-old, illiterate, orphan boy), Teza (the twenty-something-year-old, isolated, university student political prisoner), and Daw Sanda (Teza’s mother who has lost her husband and two sons to the Burmese democracy movement). I argue that these three forms of reading model for us possible ways of reading, not for ourselves (reading about those who are different from us to reassure ourselves in the way that Slaughter finds troubling) but for the Other (reading about people who are different from us in a way that honours them).
Reading for Us (the Self), Reading for Them (the Other)
Before proceeding to analyze these three forms of reading, allow me to clarify some key terms and ideas. The first concept to explain more fully is the kind of reading with which Slaughter finds fault. Analyzing former U.S. President George Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush’s love for Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner,1 and by extension the contemporary American reading public’s voracious appetite for reading novels about children from developing and undemocratic countries, Slaughter argues that “the White humanitarian reading classes that claim to care” are ultimately reading for themselves (301):
What we are fighting for is reading—not only for a world in which young girls will have the opportunity to learn to read (and realize their potential) but also for a world in which the philanthropic readers of the West will be well-supplied with stories about young girls learning to read. Converting readers’ taste into humanitarian expectation, Bush appeals to Americans to identify not with girls kept from reading but with his own paternalistic desires and literary magnanimity for those girls and their stories—with his own “cosmopolitan largess.”(322)2
The implicit cosmopolitan model of reading lurking within George Bush’s statement of great novelistic expectations asks relatively little of our literary, humanitarian imaginations; it invites us to identify not with people unlike us but [End Page 90] with our kind of people—people who “care about the plight of people.” In a world where privileges and rights, as well as literary technologies and juridico-institutional resources, are unequally distributed, such cosmopolitan reading practices often serve to recentre the traditional subjects of history now as the subjects of benevolence, humanitarian interventionist sentimentality, and human rights—the literary agents of an international human rights imaginary.(324)3
As I understand it, Slaughter takes issue with this particular theory and practice of reading in part because it reads novels about the Other, not for the Other (that is, in ways that serve the needs and desires of those different from ourselves) but for...