Volume 9 (2018) Issue 2 - Article Delahunty
JLLT Volume 9 (2018) Issue 2.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 9 (2018) Issue 2 (PDF)

Language, Ideology, and Participant Positioning in Amnesty International Appeal Letters1

Gerald Delahunty (Fort Collins (Co), USA)


It is well known (Bell 1984) that individual texts may serve different purposes, each for a different audience. The current research reveals how one instrument, the "appeal letter," in Amnesty International's (AI) activism in support of human rights simultaneously linguistically enacts at least two roles - of attempting to persuade powerful government functionaries to act in accord with human rights and to persuade AI's members / volunteers of the righteousness of their causes, to act for those causes, and to donate in their support. The letters are written by AI staffers and distributed to AI members / volunteers embedded in emails that provide information on the case and exhort the volunteers to send the appeals. This paper demonstrates how a particular characterization of ideology (Eagleton 2007, Verschueren 2012) provides the means to identify how linguistic choices index these various purposes and their respective audiences. One major device for engaging volunteers is the construction of the letters as direct first-to-second-person appeals, i.e., from an I to a you, thereby positioning the AI volunteers as principals "whose position is established by the words that are spoken, ... whose beliefs have been told, . . . who [are] committed to what the words say" (Goffman 1981:144-145). This paper demonstrates how this and other linguistic devices, most especially presupposition, ideologically construct the letter senders, by rationalizing, universalizing, and naturalizing - and thus legitimizing - their human rights commitments, thereby unifying them as a social group and motivating their actions in support of those commitments.

Keywords: Linguistic indexes of ideological positioning, producer and recipient roles, Amnesty International, human rights appeals

1 Introduction

Amnesty International (AI) is a major non-government agency active internationally in support of human and humanitarian rights. One instrument in that activism is the AI appeal letter, a letter written by AI staff and addressed to government officials calling for redress of a human / humanitarian right violation and emailed to AI volunteers / members embedded in an email giving information on the case under appeal. The volunteers, by clicking the SEND button, electronically forward the letter, ostensibly to its named "Message Recipients," though in fact, to a destination I have not been able to identify.

Example AI Appeal Letter (#8)2

Message Recipients: Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Prime Minister, Ayhan Sefer Üstün - Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights Chair

Subject: End Abusive Police Action and Reveal Extent of injuries

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Prime Minister, Ayhan Sefer Üstün - Parliamentary Commiss... (show more)

Dear (recipient name),

I have been shocked by images showing police actions against demonstrators in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, and call upon the Turkish government to immediately end the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators. Turkish authorities must ensure the right to freedom of expression and assembly, rights that are essential for any truly democratic state.

Accurate information regarding those injured by police violence must be released. Moreover, there needs to be a prompt, independent and impartial investigation into the excesses committed by law enforcement officials so that those who have ill-treated demonstrators and other members of the public can be brought to justice.

I demonstrate in this paper that the appeal letters are elements in an ideological discourse and ideologically position both sets of intended recipients - the AI volunteers who have opted to receive them and their named Message Recipients, though it is perhaps more important to AI that the letters so position the volunteers than to perform their ostensible function of persuading their Message Recipients to redress (potential or actual) violations of human and / or humanitarian rights.

That the letters, their writers, and their recipients are elements of ideological discourse is demonstrated by their linguistic enactment of the characteristics of ideological discourse identified in Verschueren (2012) and, especially, in Eagleton (2007).

While I identify many linguistic expressions that enact these ideological effects, I focus primarily on presupposition and identify the large range of presupposition triggers that occur in the corpus.

This paper is part of larger project examining the genre from several discourse-analytic points of view (Delahunty 2013, 2014, 2015), particularly according to the “[t]heses, rules, guidelines, procedures, and caveats” proposed in Verschueren (2012: Appendix 1, pp. 200-4) for the study of ideology in discourse, with the goal of taking up van Dijk’s challenge “to both describe and explain in detail how exactly members of specific groups speak, write and act ideologically.” (van Dijk 1998: 130)

2 Data, Methodology and Disclosure

The data upon which this study is based consists of a corpus of 30 AI appeal letters, combined into a single, searchable Word document; each letter is numbered, dated, and separated by page-breaks.

My analysis of the AI letters is guided by Jef Verschueren's Ideology in Language Use: Pragmatics Guidelines for Empirical Research, (2012), which provides guidelines for the pragmatic study of (primarily written) ideological discourse, several of which I make use of here.

Verschueren (2012: 21) points out that “[i]n actual research practice, most discourse-based studies of ideological processes start from basic intuitions that are not unrelated to the researcher’s involvement.”

This and my other studies of the AI appeal letters derive from my experience as an AI volunteer. In that role, I electronically SEND the appeal letters that I receive, ostensibly to their addressees. Immediately after sending an appeal letter, I receive an email thanking me for doing so and asking for donations for AI. This juxtaposition prompted me to ask what more there might be to my sending the letters than just appealing for the redress of human rights violations. So, this research is an extension of my professional interests in discourse analysis by integrating it with my (limited) activism as an AI volunteer by investigating one AI activity and deepening my understanding of human rights and its discourses.

3 Reflections on Ideology

3.1 Why Consider AI Letters Ideological?

Ideology is often thought to denote a system of false consciousness in the service of elite hegemony. On this interpretation the emancipatory ideas and activities of organizations like AI would fall outside the purview of ideology. Additionally, as the AI-USA letter writing guide enjoins letter writers not to "discuss ideology or politics3, AI appears to assume this definition of ideology, and thus not to regard human or humanitarian rights or the legal frameworks that codify them as ideological. It is therefore necessary to demonstrate that AI does in fact operate from an ideological position. I do this by demonstrating that the AI appeal letters exhibit the characteristics of ideological discourse proposed in Verschueren (2012) and Eagleton (2007).

3.2 Ideology

Verschueren defines ideology as:

any basic pattern of meaning or frame of interpretation bearing on or involved in (an) aspect(s) of social 'reality' (in particular in the realm of social relations in the public sphere), felt to be commonsensical, and often functioning in a normative way. (Verschueren 2012: 10)

Eagleton's (2007: 45, italics in original) characteristics of ideology are readily operationalizable for the purposes of this research - they are "unifying, action-oriented, rationalizing, legitimating, universalizing and naturalizing," to which I add normative. I examine the linguistic instantiation of each of these characteristics below.

3.3 Verschueren Procedure 3.1 / AD 3.1

This procedure requires researchers to

[d]efine the activity type or speech event type (providing a general frame of interpretation) to which the investigated discourse belongs. (Verschueren 2012: 120 ff.)

The AI letters are urgent appeals to government officials to redress situations that AI deems violations of human rights or to take actions that AI deems important or necessary to protect the rights of (groups / classes of) individuals, especially "Prisoners of Conscience,” or in support of human / humanitarian-rights-related causes.

3.4 AI's definition of “Prisoners of Conscience”

AI defines Prisoners of Conscience as

someone has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs) (https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/detention/; 0410-2018.)

3.5 Eagletons' Characteristics of Ideological Discourse

3.5.1 Unifying

Ideologies are often thought to lend coherence to the groups or classes which hold them, welding them into a unitary, if internally differentiated identity, and perhaps thereby allowing them to impose a certain unity upon society as a whole... How unified ideologies actually are, however, is a matter of debate. (Eagleton 2007: 45)

According to its website,

Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people who take injustice personally. ( https://www.amnesty.org/en/who-we-are/; 04-10-2018)

The AI appeal letters enact a unified and unifying stance on human and humanitarian rights, manifested in frequent mentions of those rights, as well as related notions such as international standards (of judicial proceedings) based on those rights. As each appeal is written in the first person singular, e.g., "I have been shocked by . . ." (#8), the thousands of AI members and volunteers who SEND the letters, the referents of those "I's", are expressing the same concerns and asking for the same redress on the basis of the same justifications.

3.5.2 Action-oriented

However abstrusely metaphysical the ideas in question may be, they must be translatable by the ideological discourse into a ‘practical’ state, capable of furnishing their adherents with goals, motivations, prescriptions, imperatives and so on.” (Eagleton 2007: 47, see also Sypnowich 2014: 2).

AI is action-oriented. Its website proclaims that

We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. (https://www.amnesty.org/en/who-we-are/, 04-10-2018)

and that

Amnesty International is a global movement of people fighting injustice and promoting human rights. (https://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/. Accessed October 04-10-2018)

Note the words denoting actions: campaign, movement, fighting, and promoting.

Writing, distributing, and sending the letters are actions that attempt to persuade their addressees by appeal and protest to redress (potential) violations of human / humanitarian rights. These appeals and protests are enacted by directive expressions, e.g., ask, call on, urge, must (not), should (not), and by imperatives in Subject lines: Free Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina (#9), which are linguistically and functionally similar to the demands for action typical of protest placards, e.g., FREE PUSSY RIOT

3.5.3 Rationalizing

[I]deologies can be seen as more or less systematic attempts to provide plausible explanations and justifications for social behaviour which might otherwise be the object of criticism. (Eagleton 2007: 52)

The AI letters provide "plausible explanations and justifications" (Eagleton 2007: 52) for their appeals. These are typically criticisms of the actions of governments or of individual government functionaries that are justified (Forst 2012) by appeal to international laws and their associated procedural norms.


I am deeply concerned that (sic!) US government's so-called 'targeted killing' program allows for the use of lethal force, including with drones, that violates the right to life under international law. (#1)

Uzbekistan is party to numerous international human rights treaties, which prohibit torture and the use of torture-tainted evidence in court. In spite of this, torture continues to be used by Uzbekistani security forces to extract confessions which are used in courts to secure convictions. (#26)

3.5.4 Legitimating

Legitimation can simply mean establishing one’s interests as broadly acceptable (Eagleton 2007: 54)

AI legitimizes its actions by invoking declarations of rights and legal instruments agreed upon by most of the world’s states, mainly the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and "international standards" based on these. For example, an appeal to President Obama urges him

to ensure that the US government follows international law governing the use of lethal force: (sic) international human rights law and, in the exceptional circumstances where it applies, international humanitarian law as well (#1)

An appeal to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refers to

[i]nternational human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the USA is a State Party (#28)

3.5.5 Universalizing

Values and interests which are in fact specific to a certain place and time are projected as the values and interests of all humanity. (Eagleton 2007: 56)

Human rights are presented in AI documents as universal by invoking universal laws, etc., e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus applying to all people, peoples, and governments, even though some countries have not ratified these instruments and others have crafted alternatives (e.g., Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam)

AI letters frequently invoke the universal attributes of these instruments to frame and evaluate local values and exigencies, e.g., by characterizing government actions as violating universal international rights/standards.


Albert Woodfox has been kept in isolation for decades, in conditions that the UN United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture condemns as torture. He has been denied meaningful social contact and access to rehabilitation programs. Such conditions violate minimum international standards for humane treatment. (#15)

I also call on the Sudanese government to abolish the penalty of flogging, which violates the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The corporal punishment of up to 40 lashes is a clear violation of Article 33 of Sudan's 2005 Interim Constitution, Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Republic of Sudan is a state party.(#22)

3.5.6 Naturalizing

Successful ideologies are often thought to render their beliefs natural and self-evident - to identify them with the ‘common sense’ of a society so that nobody could imagine how they might ever be different. (Eagleton 2007: 58)

Propositions or assumptions can be naturalized by presenting them as uncontroversial and accepted by both authors and audiences. AI letters take for granted that characterizing an action or situation as a violation of human rights is sufficient warrant for its evaluation and redress.


I call on you to quash Raif Badawi’s flogging sentence immediately, as it is a flagrant violation of the prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under international law. (#16)

This bald, indeed boosted ("flagrant"), assertion that Badawi's, and presumably anyone's, flogging violates international law is presented without supporting justification, thus implying that the claim is "commonsensical."

AI letters typically invoke "human rights", or "international standards", or "the prohibition against torture" as if there were no controversies about them. Even when they make concessions to the addressees’ situations, the letters rebut those concessions by again invoking "human rights" and related concepts and instruments in ways that present the rebuttal as irrefutable. AI always wins the arguments in their letters. International laws "trump" (Dworkin 1984, cited in Wenar 2015: 13) national ones and local contingencies, as the sentences after however in the following rebut the concession to local contingencies in the sentence before it.


I understand that your government has as an obligation to bring to those responsible for serious crimes to justice, and that Iraq must confront violence by armed group. However, I am deeply concerned about convictions that are based on forced confessions and trial proceedings that fall short of international standards. As such, I urge you to declare an official moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty. (#3)

3.5.7 Normative

Human rights declarations and covenants have been enacted into international and local laws, and law is "a normative social practice: it purports to guide human behavior, giving rise to reasons for action." (Marmor & Sarch 2015) "Human rights are norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses" (Nickel 2017: 1). Verschueren (2012: 10) characterizes ideologies as "often functioning in a normative way." The letters invoke international laws and "international standards" of legal procedure in their evaluations of appeal situations and in their evaluation of the redressive actions they appeal for.


Under international law, the government has an obligation to show that surveillance that infringes the right to privacy is necessary, legitimate, and proportionate. (#10)

I am deeply concerned about convictions that are based on forced confessions and trial proceedings that fall short of international standards. (#3)

3.5.8 Rights

AI and the AI letters characteristically mention various rights, and so it behooves us to consider what is entailed by "right". Wenar (2015), a substantive survey of the nature, history, justification, and critiques of rights, characterizes rights as "entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states" (Wenar 2015: 1). He also characterizes rights as having "special normative force" (p. 13) and notes that

[t]he reasons that rights provide are particularly powerful or weighty reasons, which override reasons of other sorts (...) Rights permit their holders to act in certain ways, even if some social aim would be served by doing otherwise. (Wenar 2015: 13)

As I noted above, some AI letters include concessions referring to "some social aim" to the Message Recipients, which are typically rebutted by reference to inadequacies of local legal proceedings, e.g., "the legal irregularities" and the "two flawed trials, overturned convictions, and the injustice of solitary confinement to "a cell the size of a parking space".


Over the years, Louisiana authorities have often repeated that Brent Miller's family is due justice. I have no doubt that this is true, and I have tremendous sympathy for Officer Miller's family and friends. However, I do not believe that confining Albert Woodfox to a cell the size of a parking space is just – particularly in light of the legal irregularities that lead (sic!) to his conviction. The litigation surrounding Albert Woodfox's case has spanned four decades and includes two flawed trials. His conviction has been overturned once by a state court and twice by a federal court, underscoring concerns about the fairness of the legal process. No physical evidence ties Mr. Woodfox to Officer Miller's murder. (#15)

Note again here the pivot from concession to rebuttal indicated by however.

3.6 Text Producer and Recipient Roles

Linguists have proposed that the text producers and recipients may play a variety of roles. McCawley (1999: 595), citing Goffman (1981), distinguishes between three speaker / writer roles:

a. Animator (An): ‘individual active in the role of utterance production’.

b. Author (Au): ‘someone who has selected the sentiments that are expressed and the words in which they are encoded’.

c. Principal (Pr): ‘someone whose position is established by the words that are spoken, someone whose beliefs have been told, someone who is committed to what the words say’ (Goffman 1981: 144-5).

The appeal letters are written by AI staffers, who must therefore be their Animators and Authors, though they are intertextually dependent upon other documents by other Animators, Authors, and Principals. But because the letters are ostensibly sent on to their addressees, their named Message Recipients, by the volunteers to whom AI sends them, those volunteers must be their Principals, as they, by committing to be AI volunteers and by sending the letters, are presumably “committed to what the words say” and thus committed to the truth of the claims made in the letters and to their ideological elements. By virtue of sending the letters, the senders become the referents of the "I's" of the letters and thereby adopt the epistemic and ideological positions attributed to those "I's" in the letters. They "inhabit" those "I's". (Cf. Blommaert's conception of "voice." [2005: section 4.2])

McCawley (1999: 596), citing Goffman (1981) (and cf. Bell 1984; Levinson 1983: 68, 72; 1988), distinguishes the following recipient roles:

a. Addressee (Ad): person(s) to whom the utterance is addressed.

b. Ratified recipient (RR): has ‘status as a ratified participant in the encounter’.

c. Intended recipient (IR): those whom the ‘speaker’ intends to hear/read and

understand the utterance (can take in eavesdroppers or bystanders).

d. Recipient in general (R): those who hear/read the utterance, irrespective of

what the ‘speaker’ intends or is even aware of.

The named Message Recipients are the Goffman / McCawley “Addressees.” They are the intended referents of “you” in the letters. As the letters are more likely to be read - if read at all - by assistants or other such surrogates to the Message Recipients rather than the Message Recipients themselves, they may be regarded as Goffman / McCawley Ratified recipients, Intended recipients and / or Recipients in general - persons of whom the writers are aware but who are not directly addressed.

However, the AI volunteers who receive and send the letters are also McCawley / Goffman Ratified and Intended recipients. In the embedding emails, they are directly addressed (e.g., “Dear Gerald,”) and are the intended referents of “you.” And they are the intended referents of the “I” of “I urge / call on / ask . . .” in the letters. By agreeing to receive and then reading the letters, the volunteers adopt the roles of Ratified and Intended recipients, and by sending the letters and thereby becoming Principals, they become the agents of the speech acts expressed in the letters and committed to the ideological stances expressed in them.

The Message Recipients and their surrogates are also ideologically positioned. Each letter presents an argument, a justification (Forst 2012: ch. 9), based on an ideological evaluation of a situation as a problem which the Message Recipients are constructed as having the power and responsibility to solve. However, because the letters allow for no justification for the appeal situation that is not rebuttable within AI’s ideological frame of human / humanitarian rights, we must see the Message Recipients and their surrogates as also ideologically positioned within that particular “order of justification” (Forst 2012:1).

Asking, calling on, or urging someone to act on the basis of international standards of justice to redress an injustice implicates that both speaker and addressee agree that the situation is unjust and that the justification for that evaluation and for the situation's redress derives from those international standards. Clearly, a speaker performing those speech acts has adopted a stance vis-à-vis the situation and has implicated the addressee in that stance. (Du Bois 2007)

4 The Language of the AI Appeal Letters

I begin by listing the various expressions in which the words "right" or "rights" occur. I then discuss the use of presupposition in naturalizing the human rights ideology by invoking a socio-cognitive world presumed to be shared by AI personnel and the Message Recipients and their surrogates. The numbers in parentheses denote how often the expressions occurs in the corpus.

4.1 “Rights” (Plural) Expressions in the Corpus

4.1.1 Indefinite NPs

human rights (54)

women's human rights (1)

[women ’s] full political rights (1)

international human rights (17)

international human rights law (13)

international human rights standards (1)

international human rights law and standards (1)

international human rights and humanitarian law (2)

human rights violations (2)

torture, enforced disappearance and other human rights violations (1)

human rights violations, including the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance (1)

violence against women and girls is one of the world’s most pervasive human rights abuses (1)

human rights protection (1)

human rights lawyers (2)

Russian human rights defenders (1)

a group of over 100 lawyers and human rights activists who signed a public statement condemning Wang Yu's disappearance (1)

a leading advocate of religious freedom, human rights and democracy (1)

Ayhan Sefer Üstün - Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights Chair (1)

4.1.2 Definite NPs

the rights guaranteed to Egyptians (1)

the advancement and protection of LGBTI rights (1)

the rights of family members of those killed (2)

the highest possible human rights standards within a new Arms Trade Treaty (2)

the rights of the remaining defendants (1)

the rights of all people, not only US citizens (2)

the human rights of free expression and assembly (1)

the balance between security and privacy rights (1)

their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly (1)

the widespread pattern of human rights abuses within the US criminal justice system, including the alarming use of lethal force nationwide (1)

the rights of your own citizens (1)

the human rights of people across the globe (1)

the rights of others (1)

the disappearance of prominent human rights lawyer Wang Yu (1)

his peaceful human rights activism (1)

Sudan's international human rights obligations (1)

4.1.3 References to Specific Rights Instruments

Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1)

Article 13 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1)

Article 22 of the American Convention on Human Rights (1)

The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1)

The American Convention on Human Rights (2)

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (2)

4.1.4 "Right" (Singular) Expressions in the Corpus4

the right to life (7)

the right to privacy (1)

the right to a fair trial (1)

the right to life of a non-U.S. citizen (1)

the right to life under international law (1)

the right to freedom of expression (5)

the right to freedom of expression and assembly (1)

the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly (1)

the right to be free from arbitrary detention (1)

the right to protection against arbitrary or collective deportation (1)

the right to the truth about your mass surveillance program (1)

4.2 Presupposition

Presupposition is a potent device for inserting information into discourse as if it were accepted as true by speakers and addressees. I assume that it is a pragmatic rather than a semantic matter and that the presupposed information may or may not be new to the discourse and / or to the addressees, and while generally presupposed information is backgrounded, it may on occasion be the "main" or "real" point of an utterance (Simons 2005: 331).

Simons offers a "sketch" of a theory of presupposition grounded in relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson 1995), arguing that presuppositions, like (in fact, as) implicatures, are "relevance establishers" for utterances - "for a speaker to presuppose p in uttering S is for the speaker to intend the addressee to accept p for the purposes of establishing the relevance of the utterance" (Sperber & Wilson 1995: 334). That is, presuppositions must be computed by addressees in order to discover the relevance of an utterance in its context as intended by the speaker (ibid.), though they need not be accepted by them. Presupposition is thus an important device for making information seem natural. (See also Beaver and Geurts 2014; Levinson 1983; Huang 2014).

4.3 Definiteness

Definiteness is an important indicator of presupposition. Many of the expressions that include "right" or "rights" are definite. Lyons claims that "[d]efiniteness is the grammaticalization of what I have informally termed 'semantic/pragmatic definiteness identifiability'" (Lyons 1999: 278). He characterizes the relevance theory, and specifically Wilson's (1992), conceptualization of definiteness as:

a version of identifiability: interpreting a definite noun phrase means retrieving or constructing a conceptual representation which uniquely identifies the referent. (Lyons 1999: 273)

So, AI volunteers and Message Recipients or their surrogates are assumed to be able to construct the relevant representations from information they have stored concerning these rights. This assumption implies that letter writers and letter readers exist in a shared socio-cognitive world in which the mentioned rights trump any local contingencies that might otherwise have legitimized the actions that are characterized as violations of those rights. This shared world is the legal world of treaties and conventions to which almost all of the countries of this world are signatories and to which, consequently, all of the citizens of those countries, whether powerful or not, are subject.

Additionally, definite descriptions are generally assumed to refer, that is, to name or describe actual entities or classes of entities in their discourse world. Consequently, the definite "rights" phrases commit writers and readers to the existence of those rights, not merely to their cognitive representations. For example, the definiteness of the two NPs in The death penalty violates the right to life (#3) indicates not just that the writer assumes that an intended letter reader can readily access or construct mental representations of the penalty and the right that are similar to those of the writer, but also commits them to the existence of the penalty and right. Simons (2005: 337) argues that the computation of existential presuppositions is essential to the discovery of the intended relevance of utterances containing referring expressions.

4.4 Other Presupposition Triggers used in the Letters

In addition to definiteness, discussions of presupposition identify a range of other triggers, of which the following are typical:

    • Factive and semi-factive predicates:

aware of, assault on, comply with, concern, concerned, condemn, disappointed, disclose, disturbed, even though, find, highlight, impose, in accordance with, intercepted, jeopardize, know, learn, member of, protect from, realize, recognize, reject, respect, reveal, revelations, sharing, shocked, silence, surveillance, though, understand, uphold, unknown, violate, violation, welcome

    • Aspectual / change of state predicates:

amend, contravene, decriminalize, deprive of, drop, end, expand, free, overturn, quash, re-criminalization, release, remedy, remove, re-open, slow down, stay (the executions), still, stop, uphold, withdraw

    • Iteratives:

also, another, continue, current, first, once again, ongoing, reintroduce, repeated, retry

    • Implicative predicates:

get, happen, remember, take this opportunity

    • Negative implicative verbs (imply the falsity of their complements):

avoid, fail

    • Quantifiers:

full extent of, further, furthermore, just one of, many of, more, most of, no more, one of

    • Temporal adverbials/clauses:

when blogger Ahmed Anwar posted a video ... on-line, [w]hile they remain incarcerated, after surviving 41 years of a nightmare

    • Cleft sentences:

what is clear

    • Verbs of judging:

accused, criticize / criticism, justify, prosecute, sentence

    • Comparisons and contrasts:

contrary to, longer than

    • Non-restrictive relative clauses:

which carry ... obligations, which require ... insufficient, which started on July 9 ... Yu, which violates ... punishment

    • Questions:

Where are the missing?

4.5 Specificity

Reference in the letters to specific articles in specific laws, covenants, treaties, constitutions, and declarations is far less frequent than to rights generically. I suggest that this is a naturalization tactic. At least part of the reason for this relative lack of specificity would appear to be because the genre is a hybrid appeal and protest, not a legal brief, which would be expected to uniquely specify the statutes involved. Protests typically appeal to general values for legitimization, e.g., MY BODY MY CHOICE5 or for specific actions, e.g., FREE PUSSY RIOT6.

Additionally, the references may be generic because reference to a specific article or clause in a specific law could invite consideration of the ways in which laws are made - by discussion, argument, agreement, "ideological division" (Chen 2015: 249), and the masking of conflict by the suppression of dissenting or minority voices - thus creating space for criticism of those processes and their products.

Legal references in the letters may be generic also to allow them to include situations that the actual statutes do not. Definite NPs refer maximally, and a vague definite NP is presumably intended to include any and all potential referents, e.g., The right to freedom of expression might be interpreted to include any and all expressions, though the right to freedom of expression articulated in a specific law will define limits on that freedom.

Finally, references in the appeal letters to human and other rights may be generic because the letters are designed to unify a general audience of AI members and volunteers and are more consistent with the letters' appeals to pathos, while explicit references to specific laws would presuppose an audience of political and legal professionals for whom facts and legal technicalities are essential.

4.6 Ideologically Positioning of Letter Senders and Receivers

As noted above, the letters contain a broad range of presupposition triggers and other linguistic devices that index evaluations that are to be regarded as valid by both authors and audiences, but which could and perhaps would be rejected by the Message Recipients, as indicated by the letters’ occasional, rebutted, concessions. That the presupposed evaluations are far more likely to be accepted as valid by AI members and volunteers suggests that the letters are at least partially, and perhaps, primarily intended to engage those members / volunteers and to serve as fundraising devices, while AI acts in other ways on behalf of Prisoners of Conscience and other human rights goals, e.g., as an organization that can "exert influence on the whole range of decision functions (intelligence, promoting, prescribing, invoking, applying, terminating, and appraising)" at organizations such as the UN. (Chen 2015: 82, 79-89)

5 Concluding Remarks

The arguments above have shown that if we adopt a neutral set of criteria for identifying discourses as ideological, then we can see that discourses of liberation, emancipation, and counterpower can also be ideological. The analysis has shown that the language of the AI appeal letters is chosen to ideologically position both the AI members / volunteers and the Message Recipients as, respectively, committed to, and governed by, the ideology of human rights as it is encoded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its enabling covenants (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR], as well as The Hague and Geneva conventions, which derive from the late nineteenth century.

Further research, especially research based on Verschueren (2012)'s extensive and well-supported theses and guidelines for the empirical pragmatic and discourse-analytic study of discourses of ideology, would provide broader and deeper insight into genres that support powerful and nefarious positions, like, for example, discussion in Verschueren (2012) of his and his colleagues' research on the "debate on diversity" (references in footnotes pp. 4-5) and his analysis of late 19th and early 20th century history textbooks, as well as those genres that invoke rhetorics of power in support of more liberationist positions but from oppositional footings.


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Gerald Delahunty, PhD


Colorado State University

English Department

Director of Language Programs

347 Eddy Hall

Fort Collins


Email: gerald.delahunty@colostate.edu


1 This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2017 International Pragmatics Association conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 16-21.

2 Numbers in this format refer to the appeal letters in the corpus, which is described in Section 2 below.

3 https://www.amnestyusa.org/files/pdfs/uan_guide.pdf; 04-10-2018.

4 These are all definite expressions.