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Rhetorical identities : contexts and consequences of self-disclosure for 'bordered' empowerment practitioners Zingaro, Linde

Abstract

This study examines the intentional self-disclosure of a diverse group of activists and helping professionals who identify themselves as 'bordered,' in that they share some markers of marginalization with their client populations. Working from the position that rhetorical 'speaking out' is a political act of social justice advocacy and a meaningful historical practice, the data for this social science 'portrait' is drawn from interviews conducted in two stages. For the first stage, 13 practitioners were presented with a series of vignettes describing situations where a helper might speak about her own experience. The resulting discussions of the epistemology, ethics and intentions of 'bordered' workers provided both theoretical and practical responses to problems often encountered in several different 'helping' contexts. At the second stage, 6 of the original group discussed their own experience of disclosure. The study assumed that the ideology of 'empowerment' was likely to be the epistemological ground for this practice. The study was structured, at both data-gathering and representation stages, as a specific response to a practice-based hypothesis: that 'speaking out' from marginalized experience can result in negative "Disclosure Consequences," both for the speaker and for some listeners. The methodology created to avoid this outcome for respondents allowed for in-depth conversations that revealed their practical knowledge of this dynamic. The resulting data offered many suggestions for those wishing to use personal story-telling in this way, including descriptions of possible 'conditions for safe disclosure.' The preoccupations and strategies identified by practitioners contributed to a theoretical description of the bordered speaker as positioned between contradictory rhetorical possibilities: the 'Knower,' or Performer of Dangerous Knowledge; or the 'Abject' who, like Spivak's Subaltern, can not be heard. This study suggests that the development of 'tellable stories' of marginalized experience contributes to the social construction of ethical subjectivity, but that required conditions for this 'empowerment' must include not only access to language or 'voice,' but also the presence of a witnessing relationship. This 'portrait of a practice' poses theoretical questions on the uses of plural voice as a rhetorical strategy for bordered speakers, and on the use of such speech as 'social drama.'

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