CHRGJ Scholar in Residence Senthorun Raj addresses Emotion in Law for Conflict, Security, and Development Series

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Senthorun-Raj-Photo-244x300Senthorun Raj, CHRGJ Scholar in Residence and advocate with a passion for popular culture, politics, and law, discussed “Feeling Law: Queer Subjects and Reform Agendas,” for the collaborative Conflict, Security, and Development Series, on February 2, 2016.

After law school, Raj worked in policy in the field of same sex family regulation. Through this work he began to consider the significance of emotion in the formation and execution of policy. Emotions connect the narrative of an experience to the issue at hand, which led Raj to pursue study of how emotion is a feature of law and policy-making.

Raj explained that the energy of emotion is often capitalized on by legal reform movements and serves as a currency of law. Emotion is not just an individual experience, it can also be the central object in legal decisions (for example: for asylum seekers, the emotion of “fear” serves as essential proof of the need for fulfilment of the right to asylum.)

Though emotion is often seen as self-evident, it is not static, and law both affects and is affected by emotion.  At the UN, for example, an increasing concern with the experience of injury has led to greater attention to LGTBI issues, which has shifted the view of LGTBI expressions as pathology to a valid expression of the self and of intimacy.

Another example Raj provided is that of asylum based on gender identity and sexual orientation. These forms of asylum raise issues related to authenticating gayness and often result in tests designed to prove genuine need for asylum. These tests however have reproduced troubling emotional dynamics and pressure to conform to stereotypical ideas of what it means to be queer.  For example, gay men may be expected to frequent certain night clubs or to have a certain level of sexual activity and queer women may be questioned as to why they are married or have children.  Not living up to what decision makers consider the stereotypical categorization of what it means to be gay or queer, can de facto endanger their access to asylum, meaning that the very laws that were designed to protect at risk individuals now tend to trap with arbitrary standards. In these cases, emotion serves as the currency of law as those who don’t fit expected narrative convincingly are erased and their essential right to asylum is denied.

The expression of compassion and empathy can also be problematic as even an outpouring of grief and compassion can lead to militarization. An example of this is the off-shore processing of asylum seekers to Australia. As emotions are mobilized toward compassion, drownings are utilized to question ‘open border’ policies. The resulting policies may both assuage guilt of countries recieving asylum seekers, while violating the rights of those very asylum seekers. Off-shore processing is defended not as protecting borders, but as saving lives, even though it may lead to increased exposure of “protected” individuals to sexual violence, death through illness and murder, and other vulnerabilities.

Raj recommended unpacking both negative and positive emotions and how they are used by law and policy makers. While fear about permeable borders and compassion for drowning refugees are not the same emotion, in many cases they have resulted in similar policies: the erasure of oversight, denial of legal representation, denial of healthcare, denial of access to community organizations, and indefinite detention in off shore sites.

Further, Raj advocated the examination of emotion regarding policies that rely on concepts like “reasonable fear” (for example policing) when it becomes evident that certain types of bodies create more fear than others. An example of this is the rage generated by recent incidents in Cologne, Germany, in which sexual violence perpetuated allegedly by brown and black men received a strong reaction while more invisible violence in domestic contexts or by leaders in a community may be tolerated and in fact lead to a critique of the victim. Examining emotion can lead to exploration of why certain forms of violence are recognized while others are ignored.

Raj will continue this research through his PhD thesis titled “Feeling Law: Intimacy, Violence, and Queer Subjects.”