By Rebecca Walton and Sarah Beth Hopton
Purpose: This article reports communication strategies used by a Vietnamese nonprofit organization to cultivate community engagement. One purpose is to convey a particular, non-Western perspective which can be considered alongside existing literature to highlight similarities and differences in different contexts.
Method: A qualitative field study investigating the question, “What are some strategies and keys to communication that facilitate community engagement and stakeholder participation, especially related to issues of Agent Orange in Vietnamese contexts?” We interviewed 38 participants across eleven provinces in north and central Vietnam.
Results: The organization studied cultivates community engagement by:
- Conveying information through activities and experiences (experiencing information), powerful images (seeing information), and numbers (quantifying information)
- Using that information to promote community engagement by reducing stigma and drawing upon a sense of responsibility
Conclusion: The organization’s community engagement strategies are both similar to and different from those conveyed in existing research on community engagement practice. The purpose of community engagement prioritizes unity, not dissent—a major difference. But the organization is highly attuned to preserving human dignity a significant similarity. The organization intentionally hooks into cultural values to motivate community engagement using rhetorical strategies appropriate to the local context—a similar strategy—but those rhetorical strategies are rooted in different frameworks, requiring different sensibilities and tools than those typically used in Western contexts.
Keywords: community engagement, rhetoric, social action, Vietnam, international professional communication
- Community engagement practice alone may look deceptively similar across contexts. But to understand and conduct effective community engagement, practitioners must be attuned to local values, culture, and context. Those factors inform the rhetorical strategies underlying effective practice.
- Partnering with local organizations is key to understanding not just the “what” of community engagement (i.e., communicative practices) but also the “why” (i.e., the rhetorical strategies necessary for effective work).
Practitioners and scholars of technical and professional communication (TPC) widely recognize the importance of community engagement informed by locally appropriate strategies and contextually specific understandings (Dura, Singhal, & Elias, 2013; Scott, 2004; Grabill & Simmons, 1998). Ideally, research regarding these strategies and understandings would inform the practice of community engagement. After all, as Hughes and Hayhoe (2008) assert, a key purpose of TPC research is to inform a “recognized and reliable consensus among the practitioners of that profession” regarding best practices (p. 3). However, the majority of our community engagement scholarship is focused on U.S. organizations working in U.S. communities using classical rhetorical frameworks to motivate engagement. When applied beyond American communities, such focus can make it difficult to judge the accuracy or generalizability of our findings. To expand the body of TPC scholarship in community engagement, then, we need more research investigating community engagement in contexts underrepresented in existing literature—especially research informed by local organizations that have long facilitated community engagement through local rhetorics. This research can serve at least two important purposes. The first purpose is to shine a light on previously unrecognized expertise, such as the community engagement expertise of non-Western organizations, and in so doing, to explicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of that expertise. This purpose reinforces and supports the recent social justice turn in our field as well as our longstanding body of work in social action (Rude, 2009). The second purpose is to fill gaps in scholarship on community engagement and rhetorical practice by conveying particular, localized, non-Western perspectives. Such perspectives can be considered alongside existing literature to highlight similarities and differences in community engagement strategies that are appropriate in significantly different cultural contexts. This comparison is useful for gauging the generalizability of community engagement practice and comparative rhetorical research across contexts to inform more effective social action. Toward these purposes, this article reports a subset of findings from a qualitative study of the community engagement strategies of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA).
The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA)
The Vietnamese government offers a small stipend to veterans who were affected by exposure to Agent Orange (AO), the nickname for a dioxin-based herbicide sprayed over millions of acres in Vietnam between 1961 and 1972 as part of a US-led crop destruction campaign. Though limited remuneration is offered to qualified victims—specifically, those who fought in the war and claim exposure-related illnesses—the Vietnamese government cannot financially support what it has identified as second and third generations of AO victims. To meet the needs of a growing number of victims, the Vietnamese government decided to socialize aid to victims and families, calling upon the people of Vietnam to contribute to a victim’s fund. VAVA is the nonprofit, humanitarian organization founded in 2003 charged with engaging multiple national and foreign publics to endow this fund. Though VAVA engages foreign publics, its primary fundraising opportunities lie among the national public. As the official Vietnamese Agent Orange victims’ advocate, VAVA holds a position of authority and respect among those familiar with the organization and its mission, but government sanction alone, while important in Vietnamese culture, is not enough to motivate national publics to engage this issue. VAVA must use a strategic, concerted, and uniquely Vietnamese combination of community engagement tactics and rhetorical frameworks, leveraging certain cultural, literary, and historical norms and symbols—some of which conform to classical rhetoric and some of which diverge—to motivate Vietnamese society to support its goals and mission. That mission, as described on VAVA’s website, is to facilitate self-support, mutual support, and community support among dioxin victims and their families.
In the following sections, we present a brief history of Agent Orange (AO). We then review TPC scholarship on community engagement and follow that with an exploration of new methodologies in comparative rhetoric and some of the points at which Vietnamese rhetorical traditions diverge from classical traditions. These sections provide the requisite context to begin to understand and interpret our findings regarding community engagement and rhetorical practice that follow. Next, we describe our research methods and present two major findings on VAVA’s community engagement practices among one audience: members of the Vietnamese public who are not directly affected by Agent Orange. We conclude with implications of these findings for TPC practice and scholarship on community engagement and comparative rhetorics.
Agent Orange History and Context
On the heels of the second World War, the American federal government was particularly interested in how science could improve wartime outcomes (Bush, 1945). Billions in public dollars were spent on research and technology (The Administration, 1945), some of which went to biologists who found particularly promising areas of focus in the study and manipulation of plant hormones (Kaempffert, 1948). A decade later, this plant hormone research was militarized in an experimental program used during the Vietnam War, a proxy war that took place in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia between December 1956 and the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 (Karnow, 1997).1 In 1961, experiments at the joint American-South Vietnamese Combat Development Test Center generated a request to the U.S. Department of State to use a special set of herbicides for a program conceived to destroy enemy crops and food sources, and thereby demoralize the Viêt Công and North Vietnamese Army. In November 1962, the first sortie of planes retrofitted to spray a super-concentrated mixture of 2,4,-D and 2,4,5-T—later nicknamed “Agent Orange”— flew low, above the triple-thick jungle of South Vietnam. The most famous missions defoliated some 4.7 million acres of Vietnamese jungle and destroyed nearly one-half million acres of crops (Lewy, 1978, p. 258).2
Though the evidence on human health consequences is mixed, the United States government compensates U.S. veterans of this war for multiple exposure-related illnesses (Veterans, 2016), and credible evidence on the health effects of dioxin exposure suggest serious health consequences, but even this evidence is controversial and contested.3 After several trials4 and Congressional hearings5, the international humanitarian community became involved in the fight over environmental remediation and victim remuneration6, and significant diplomatic7 and scientific efforts8 have aimed to lay to rest this hungry ghost of war. Uncertainty, anecdotal evidence, inadequate technical knowledge, and conflicting scientific practice converge to make Agent Orange one of the most politically, scientifically, and rhetorically embattled issues in modern history.
We saw a kairotic moment for this research study created by recent environmental remediation efforts and the disparate understandings of community engagement apparent in those efforts. In 2014, at the request of the Government of Vietnam, the United States government agreed to remediate the still-contaminated environment around the Danang Airport, where the bulk of Agent Orange was stored during the war. Agencies involved in the remediation project included the government of Vietnam, USAID, and many other groups. Though the involved agencies agreed the project required stakeholder engagement, engaging the Vietnamese public and surrounding community members proved incredibly difficult. According to USAID, some 55 meetings, site visits, and workshops were held by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments alone, but few, if any, included public input by community members or AO victims (USAID, 2016). Both formal (e.g., governmental) and informal (e.g., cultural) mechanisms differ significantly between Vietnam and the United States, differences with implications not only for the study of rhetorical practices that facilitate community engagement, but even for defining Vietnamese rhetoric and describing its place and importance in community engagement. As field researchers, we found this site of study fascinating, if also overwhelming. Though many in the West know about the complicated legacy of Agent Orange, we offer this crude and too-brief history because of its importance to the rhetorical performances and community engagement practices we observed. Such historical context helps to explain our findings.
Community Engagement in TPC Scholarship
The relevance of community engagement to TPC is well established (Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016). Community engagement offers complex sites of TPC involving wide-ranging stakeholders (e.g., community members directly affected by the issue at hand, indirectly affected publics, government bodies, nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses) with varied and potentially conflicting interests, as well as the bread and butter of our field: technical and scientific information, rhetorical strategies, and professional communication genres. Indeed, as researchers have explored how TPC facilitates (and fails to facilitate) community engagement, some have argued that technical communicators have a responsibility to engage in matters of public concern (Bowdon, 2004; Simmons, 2010). This appeal to communal responsibility resonated with us as we investigated VAVA’s community engagement strategies, because we saw the organization engage in similar persuasive arguments (i.e., appeals to civic responsibility) directed toward Vietnamese publics (discussed in the Findings section).
Much community engagement scholarship in TPC overlaps with environmental communication, public health, and risk communication (e.g., Ding & Pitts, 2013; Frost, 2013; Waddell, 1996)—ideally bridging the scientific with the personal and challenging notions that science is arhetorical. After all, as many scholars have attested (e.g., Miller, 1979; Ornatowski & Bekins, 2004), science is not neutral, natural, or arhetorical but particular to context: “The very activity of science, as well as the resulting documentation, reflects specific sociopolitical contexts” (Ornatowski & Bekins, 2004, p. 263). In light of this specificity, Grabill and Simmons (1998) argued that for risk communication to be ethical, it must be informed by locally appropriate, nuanced understandings of communities and their own perceptions of relevant risks and concerns. Unpacking what is “local” and “appropriate” is difficult on its face but becomes more so at cross-cultural sites of study where researchers are disadvantaged by barriers of language, culture, and time. However, recognizing risk as socially constructed allows for a broader selection of stakeholders to intervene through community engagement, because knowledge is constructed through interaction: “Rather than a linear flow of technical information from the risk assessors to the public, risk communication becomes a web, a network, an interactive process of exchanging information, opinions, and values among all involved parties” (Grabill & Simmons, 1998, p. 425). Workplace studies of practice at the juncture of community engagement and humanitarian communication make similar points, emphasizing the importance of local community values and priorities driving the agenda of community engagement (Mays, Walton, Haselkorn, & Lemos, 2014) and of communication strategies that attend to human dignity and show respect for local ways of operating (Walton, Mays, & Haselkorn, 2016).
This emphasis on locally appropriate strategies and contextual understanding underscores that many factors—the political, cultural, historical, social, and linguistic, for example—influence the effectiveness of community engagement practices. Thus, our field needs to study community engagement and rhetorical practices in the local contexts in which they’re practiced. Otherwise, we risk mischaracterizing communication strategies, rhetorical moves, and underlying values that are appropriate to and informed by particular contexts as universal (see Thatcher, 2012, pp. 10–19). Unfortunately, the vast majority of the community engagement research in our field focuses on community engagement practices in U.S. environments using classical rhetorical frameworks. Notable exceptions include Ding’s excellent body of work on risk communication, which overlaps with community engagement (2009, 2013). Establishing exigence for her transcultural theory, Ding pointed out that foundational scholarship on risk communication, scholarship that calls for community engagement to inform public policies and actions, is predominantly informed by Western theories (2013, p. 127).
Indeed, the centrality of Western ideals, forms of governance, and rhetorical conventions is clear in some of the most influential TPC scholarship on community engagement. For example, Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) describe early TPC scholarship on community engagement as efforts to connect our field “to broader democratic and human concerns in order to open up the field to civic advocacy and action and make it responsive to progressive political agendas” (p. 252, emphasis ours). As they (2004) note, the notion of “community” is complicated by the complexities of rhetorical situations in which technical communicators may promote community engagement: international and cross-cultural organizations (What are the relevant legal, political, and cultural considerations, and how should one navigate them?), communication environments with competing stakeholder interests (Which “community” is served, to what degree, and at cost to whom?), and even the construction of communities by professional communication strategies (How do communicators create the communities they then defend, promote, and engage?). In light of these complexities, it is essential that community engagement research seeking to inform practice first critically interrogate notions of rhetoric, persuasion, and values specific to each research context.
The field of comparative rhetoric tells us that rhetorical practice is influenced by culture and that contrastive rhetorical frameworks and sensibilities typically develop across long periods of time, often resisting conceptualization and codification in texts. When we began this research project, we asked Vietnamese scholars if there was an equivalent text to Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, in example; there is not. Instead, rhetorical frameworks and practices outside the Western tradition are more often embedded in texts that do not treat rhetoric as an explicit topic. To begin to understand the Vietnamese rhetorical tradition, then, and how rhetoric is used to engage the Vietnamese public around issues of Agent Orange, we would need to study literary and historical texts, texts on ethics, epistemology and statecraft (Lu & Benson, 1998, p. 3), legend, religion, political biography, and even cosmology. The closest text we could find that codified rhetorical practice based on epistemology, statecraft, cosmology and politics was the Confucian Analects.
Vietnam was ruled by foreign powers for over 1,000 years, and China ruled for most of those 1,000 years. Thus, the influence of Confucian thought on contemporary Vietnamese rhetoric is significant.9 Confucian rhetoric differs from Western rhetorical tradition in many ways. For example, verbal eloquence, highly prized by the Sophists, was regarded with suspicion by classic Chinese thinkers and outright rejected by Confucian texts (Xu, 2004, p. 115). “Glib talk” was more likely to result in hatred than respect in Confucian China. “A true gentleman,” says the Analects, the main text of Confucian wisdom, “should be slow in his words and prompt in his action” (Analects, Chapter 24).
Although Marxism would eventually replace Confucianism in both China and Vietnam, such Confucian rhetorical tenets remained influential on textual construction and rhetorical practice. For example, when persuading, many Vietnamese rhetors will use inductive rather than deductive arguments. The goal of such discursive organization is to convince the reader of the validity and authenticity of the argument and to gently lead the audience to a natural conclusion. Overt tactical moves of persuasion are often considered excessively direct and forceful (Hinkle, 2002, p. 31). We saw such rhetorical theories put into practice on several occasions. Lunch, ceremonial welcomes, and tea-drinking were conducted before the day’s arguments were made; evidence was collected by and given to victims and victim families before key requests (like registering for government assistance) were made of them; long histories of who fought where, when, and how were shared before the arguments about remuneration were made.
As Chinese rule gave way to colonial rule, the influence of Confucius gave way to other political, economic, and cultural paradigms—some Western, others Eastern—introduced by leaders like Hô Chí Minh. Though born and raised in Vietnam and a diligent student of Confucianism, Hô Chí Minh was also later educated in the West. The rhetoric he employed was a unique blend of Marxism, Confucianism, organizational tenets from the mandarinate (the French-employed ruling class of Vietnamese), and Western rhetorical frameworks, which Hô blended to modify and update traditional Confucian concepts like that of the superior man.10 A result of this remixing was that the character of the rhetor became more important than the content of the discourse. We observed this tenet frequently. Introductions at each new site visit were long and elaborate and were accompanied by official communiques from VAVA headquarters and the government. Once we established our character—that we were researchers from American universities sanctioned to study by VAVA and the Vietnamese government—the content of our IRB letter of protections, in example, was waved off as time-consuming and irrelevant (though we did review the letter information in detail anyway).
We noticed other Confucian tenets invoked during community engagement practices, too. For example, the concept of shu, sometimes explained as “self-reflection” but more easily understood in terms of “reciprocity,” was central to VAVA’s discursive strategy. Confucius advised, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others” (Analects, Chapter 15). Rhetorically and socially, shu is a powerful dictum that ordered villages and regulated political and interpersonal action. It was explained to us using a sort of syllogistic logic that is, admittedly, difficult to reject:
You should not turn your back on a brother.
All Vietnamese men are brothers.
Therefore, you should not turn your back on a fellow Vietnamese.
We can see shu at work in Confucian rhetorical theory too, which contrasts significantly with many Aristotelian rhetorical concepts and frames. In the Confucian paradigm, the purpose of rhetoric is to benefit the audience; to support contentious claims through tradition and authority; to present arguments simply; to find the truth through thoughtful study of the natural world; to be sincere and conciliatory; and to avoid arguing over matters outside one’s expertise or responsibility (Oliver, 1971). By contrast, the classical model of rhetoric approaches persuasion directly and forcefully; it is agonistic by nature and usually does not aim to create harmony or social relationship. The aim is to win the argument. Thus, logic, proof, and justification are integral tools used in argumentation, and the rhetor’s ideas and goals supersede those of her audience. Much Western discourse then focuses on individual points of view, factual and scientific validation, logical linear arrangements, and a “proper” set of universal rules that, when used correctly, should lead the rhetor to victory. Though feminist and comparative rhetoric studies have complicated, questioned, and countered this view, this is still largely how canonical texts on rhetoric used in modern American classrooms present rhetorical practice in the modern agora (Bizzel & Herzberg, 1990). Comparatively, we found almost none of these constructs used in VAVA’s persuasive efforts with Vietnamese constituencies.
This contrast brings us to a very important question to consider: Can we even call the communicative moves we observed VAVA making rhetoric? Specifically, can Walton and Hopton—as Euro-Americans who are hamstrung by our own terministic screens of culture, language, and classical training—make any claim of worth about the essence of a Vietnamese rhetoric? Further, and more interestingly, how do we acknowledge “the influence of one’s own cultural and ideological make-up on the study of the other” (Mao, 2013, p. 215) but still engage in ethical cross-cultural research? Mao’s groundbreaking 2013 special issue on comparative rhetorics provides concepts useful for us in particular and for TPC practitioners and scholars at large to unpack these questions.
The term rhetoric was developed by Plato, refined by Aristotle, and, as Schiappa (2003) argued, refers to a set of “specific theories and doctrines” (p. 312). For Schiappa, and many other scholars of rhetoric, there was no rhetoric before Plato and for other scholars, like Kennedy, all rhetoric after Plato, even that practiced in contrastive cultures, is merely an imitation (with local modifications, granted). Kennedy’s foundational argument in his classic Comparative Rhetoric (1997) was that rhetoric was a universal function of language and a global phenomenon worthy of systematic attention. He was, it seems, after the same universal “body” of persuasive devices and theories that Aristotle sought. Much of the interdisciplinary scholarship (but specifically that from comparative rhetorics) on which TPC scholars rely to frame their research gets stuck in the quicksand of what Schiappa (2003) first called “facts of essence” rather than “facts of usage” (p. 7). According to Mao (2013, p. 215), any attempt at defining something results in two types of questions: questions like “What is X?” and questions that ask “How X is used?” The first type of question is a “fact of essence” question; the second is a “fact of usage” question: “To genuinely embrace non-Euro-American rhetorical practices and their ways of knowing and speaking and to productively engage the cultural mappings that inform discursive fields, we must part ways with the perennial yet parochial longing for facts of essence” (Mao, 2014, p. 450). For practitioners working in complex intercultural sites, the question then becomes not “What is rhetoric in Vietnam?” but “How does VAVA use persuasion, and to what end?”
What such a methodological shift affords TPC practitioners is the ability to stand at what Mao called the “rhetorical crossing” and to observe, reflect, and analyze (and thus contribute to our field) from behind our own terministic screens of culture, language, history, and training. When TPC practitioners ask, “What does VAVA do, and how does VAVA do it,” we move in a direction committed to “an ecology of historicity, specificity, and incongruity” (Schiappa, 2003, as qtd. in Mao, 2013, p. 216). Such a commitment can help practitioners counter the dominant means and models of discourse and the theoretical frameworks used to analyze them and may even encourage the development of new ways of “being, knowing, and speaking” (Mao, 2013, p. 216).
Walton and Hopton went to Vietnam in summer 2016 to conduct a qualitative field study investigating the following research question, “What are some strategies and keys to communication that facilitate community engagement and stakeholder participation, especially as related to issues of Agent Orange in Vietnamese contexts?” We partnered with the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, a nonprofit, humanitarian organization which serves as the Vietnamese government-sanctioned nonprofit through which all aid to Agent Orange victims is mobilized, received, coordinated, and distributed. Vietnamese government approval was required for this research, and we are indebted to VAVA, who secured the requisite approvals with officials in each of the provinces we visited. We interviewed 38 participants across eleven provinces in two geographic areas: north Vietnam (locations accessible within a one-day drive from Hanoi) and central Vietnam (locations accessible within a two-day drive from Danang). VAVA headquarters identified these locations as offices in which representatives are known for strong community engagement work. Interviews addressed the following topics:
- What are some factors that make for good communication with communities (particularly three groups, which emerged as significant stakeholder designations during data collection and analysis: Vietnamese families directly affected by AO, Vietnamese publics not directly affected by AO, international audiences)?
- What are some strategies they employ in communicating to facilitate community engagement?
- What are some keys to successful community engagement?
- What are some barriers to successful community engagement?
To minimize potential for coercion, we hired a translator who is not associated with VAVA, and we emphasized to potential participants that all quotes would be anonymized and that their decisions regarding whether to participate would be confidential. The same interpreter, Nguyen Thuy Linh, who is a native of Hanoi, facilitated every multi-lingual interview. Onsite in Vietnam, interview notes were fleshed out in collaboration with the interpreter, who informed early analysis by culturally contextualizing the data. In the Findings section, we illustrate themes with “quotes,” which are as close as possible to participants’ words. But we acknowledge that quotes translated across languages cannot directly, exactly convey a participant’s utterances due in part to differences in language and culture, and due in part to the multiple humans who contribute to the process of meaning making (Gonzales & Zantjer, 2015).
Findings were identified through iterative formal coding of interview notes and transcripts to identify patterns of meaning. Walton and Hopton individually and inductively identified patterns in the data and then jointly developed a list of major themes. This article reports on one of those themes: community engagement of Vietnamese publics who are not directly affected by AO. To increase the credibility (Guba, 1981) of our findings, we shared a draft of this article with VAVA leadership, inviting their feedback.
The following findings emerged in reference to cultivating community engagement around Agent Orange, among members of the Vietnamese public who are not directly affected by it:
- Finding 1: This audience encounters information in the following ways:
- Experiencing: VAVA conveys information through activities and experiences.
- Seeing: VAVA conveys information in powerful visual images.
- Quantifying: VAVA conveys information through numbers.
- Finding 2: VAVA uses that information to promote community engagement through the following strategies:
- Reducing stigma: VAVA heads off potential objections to helping AO victims.
- Drawing upon a sense of responsibility: VAVA cultivates public commitment to help vulnerable community members and veterans.
Finding 1: How Audiences Encounter Information
A major goal of VAVA’s publicity is to make the ongoing research, remediation, and relief efforts related to Agent Orange important to Vietnamese publics. To prioritize patronage, the organization coordinates several opportunities to experience or interact with VAVA, victims and their families, and ranking government officials, often centered on key anniversaries and ceremonies like the 55th anniversary of the spray campaign, Vietnamese Veteran’s Days, or the Lunar New Year. Ceremonies play an important role in Vietnamese cultural life and traditionally are times of giving and honoring the past, thus offering kairotic moments for VAVA’s community engagement work (see Figure 1).
Other important ceremonies include “rewarding summits” wherein VAVA rewards victims who have overcome their limitations through entrepreneurship. Highlighting and promoting these “shining examples” (detailed below) is a critical component of VAVA’s persuasive strategy. This strategy shifts the narrative from being a victim to being a contributing member of society worthy of education, investment, and opportunities for happiness as defined by Vietnamese culture. In the quotes below, participants described why VAVA sees experience as such an important part of its communication with unaffected publics:
There is an emphasis on public relations to help the larger community see victims as part of the community and thus worthy of help.
The activities of the district are well recognized by the community members, and often they are moved.
The difficulty is that the society doesn’t fully understand. The news about dioxin is still very new to certain parts of society. Society is affected by many sources of information, but they understand [best] through real activities.
Another experience-focused component of VAVA’s community engagement strategy is home-building and self-sufficiency campaigns. A house is a powerful rhetorical symbol in Vietnamese culture. Representing more than status, it is also where ancestors are worshipped, and, thus, having a house is an important icon that can mark belonging both in current time and the hereafter. One VAVA participant relayed the story of a man and two grandchildren badly affected by Agent Orange exposure. They were very poor and lived in a house that was so badly decaying it flooded with every heavy rain, threatening the man’s and his grandchildren’s lives. VAVA and the government intervened, negotiating a land deal and raising enough money from the village to build a new two-story house that didn’t flood. The community participated in the construction of the house, working shoulder to shoulder to support their “brother”:
Under the recognition and witness of his relations and neighbors, he finally got to be in a house.
Integrating both young and old into such activities is especially important to VAVA’s future success, as the current generation, now some 40 years removed from the American war, will be the support network for the second and third generations affected by dioxin exposure. An example of experience involving children, and marking VAVA’s sense of its shifting patron base, is a fundraiser executed across several school districts where children donate their breakfast money to support victims of Agent Orange:
We encourage collaborations between the seniors and the young. The young and the old people both working together. In the North, there are not so many young people, but this job needs the activeness of the young. Here in [location redacted], the older people plan the strategies and the younger people do them.
Such experiences are important to VAVA’s mission in another way: Experiences provide the narrative and visual information needed to make Vietnamese publics see the extent of human suffering caused by dioxin (see Figure 2).
Participants described why these stories and images are featured in the print and digital promotional pieces distributed across various media channels and sent to businesses to solicit financial support:
When the society and communities understand about the general consequences and the general conditions and status [of victims], then they are compelled to help.
Not so many people understand the victims. For those who don’t really understand, we will first explain what an Agent Orange victim is [and how the victim is] directly or indirectly affected, and then we tell them about the level of suffering. We show the magazine coverage or the news. Based on the Agent Orange victim’s condition, we will invite them to see them directly with their own eyes. We may invite several times, and we may explain several times before they are compelled to care.
Businesses in larger urban areas might prove cautious of such promotional materials, making the power of visual documentation more necessary:
We also take a picture and show them the terrible condition of the house. In some cases, even though they receive the request, the business will send people to double check the request for donation. The corporations do this because they want to help the right people.
But photographing victims and families serves an even larger rhetorical purpose: not just as emotional appeal but as literal proof. Photographs, which were carefully stapled to wallboards inside every VAVA office visited, were silent witnesses to the true experiences of Agent Orange victims:
We post the images…because it is the reality. It is the facts—actual evidence of their victimization.… Without the photos, then the victim’s victimization is not a reality. Taking photos is a necessity. The pictures may be disturbing, but it is a necessary disturbance to show as evidence. These people were supposed to have the right to pursue happiness as stated in our Constitution, but dioxin took this right from them. So, we must show the photos so society will understand.
It is required by international and local researchers to have evidence, to have witness, to have a real case. If [we] speak only, they cannot understand. That’s why we need to have evidence, proof to show them, so they will listen, so they have a chance to see the pictures, the evidence, and the person, a real victim. So they can listen, but they can also see with their own eyes. That is how they can be persuaded.
Those engaging in the fight for justice for Agent Orange victims are frequently on the defensive. It has traditionally been the victim’s responsibility to prove exposure-related problems when seeking support. This has proven true globally, not just in Vietnam. Therefore, building the case for Agent Orange victimization—and thereby generating support for victims globally and nationally—requires VAVA to aggressively document the truth of its claims both visually and numerically. The number of victims suffering dioxin-exposure-related illness and disease is highly contested, but the Vietnamese government has determined the number to be in the millions. In response to claims the Vietnamese government inflated these numbers to guilt the United States into paying reparations, VAVA determined to prove their official counts by keeping meticulous records of victims, symptoms, relationship to the veteran first exposed, location of veterans’ service, and level of assistance received or needed.
The records are kept on large whiteboards that cover entire walls of VAVA offices and are used as much to prioritize need and document support as they are to persuade those who gaze upon the boards that Agent Orange is still a very real and present danger. Whether donors or the public see these boards or respond to their persuasive weight is unknown, but several VAVA volunteers could recite the statistics from the boards from memory, demonstrating the importance of the narrative of numbers and the rhetorical weight of quantification:
So, in the city, there are more than 150,000 citizens [and] more than 2,300 exposures. Based on these numbers there is 1.5% of the population suffers exposure. Within these numbers, there are 57 families that have more than 2-4 victims within the family unit. Within these 57 families, there are 124 victims total. In twenty-eight families, both husband and wife are victims. Twenty-nine had two generations of victims. There are three families that have three generations of victims. This shows the extent of the effects of dioxin.
These numbers don’t just live on the walls at VAVA offices. They also go into the professionally designed and produced flyers and reports that are used by intergovernmental agencies to stay on message as they support VAVA by extending its reach into communities, particularly at the village level where the need is greatest but access is hardest:
Because there are many levels of the society, we work with the other communication departments. We exchange information and then the communicators from that department go into the villages and communicate that information. Sometimes their only focus is Agent Orange.
We use forums and events and meetings with government offices at the appropriate level because they work with the society. We always call for help so people can hold hands together for the victims.
Finding 2: Key Strategies
If experiencing, seeing, and quantifying are the ways that audiences encounter information about AO, the question follows, “What key strategies does that information support?” To cultivate community engagement among Vietnamese publics whose families are not directly affected by AO, VAVA employs two key community engagement strategies. First, the organization aims to reduce stigma associated with disability by heading off two potential objections: 1) that families must have brought these troubles upon themselves, and 2) that people with disabilities do not contribute to society. Second, VAVA aims to strengthen among members of the public a shared sense of civic responsibility to care for 1) vulnerable society members, and 2) veterans.
One important communication strategy for cultivating community engagement is to reduce the stigma associated with disabilities. Participants explained if society believes that children are born with disabilities due to karma, then those children’s families may be shunned or looked down upon:
There is stigma. People’s children are affected, and they hide it from society. Some people even lock up their children. They don’t understand; they don’t know why, so they just think it’s karma: this is karma; your family did something bad in the past. And that creates fear. When VAVA comes, VAVA tells them this is consequences of the war; you have nothing to be afraid of.
This message regarding dioxin exposure as the cause of AO-related disabilities is aimed not only at affected families themselves but also at the general public to head off potential victim blaming (see Figure 3):
In Vietnam the spiritual issues are crucial. […] They believed it was karmic: the grandparents must have done something bad for the children to receive it.
After the communication, they have changed their minds. [VAVA] educated them that it’s dioxin, not karma.
Since VAVA was first established, we push more PR activities so society knows this is the consequences of the war, and there is less stigma.
A second approach to reducing stigma is using “shining examples” to create a widely embraced narrative among the Vietnamese public, a historically successful strategy in Vietnam. To promote a national identity of fierce independence immediately after French colonial rule, Hô Chí Minh rallied writers, composers, and artists to draw upon Vietnam’s past for heroes and folk legends to promote as “shining examples of sacrifice, pluck, or steadfastness” (Decaro, 2003, p. 125). Similarly, VAVA mines local communities for shining examples of people with disabilities who have strong, positive spirits and who are making efforts to “overcome their difficulties” by being contributing members of society:
We have a sample of victims who are productive and have overcome their difficulties. We also have prizes and awards for the victims that have a good spirit. This is the signal and way to show society that victims are not victimized but are proactively trying to overcome their troubles.
We get support for chickens, ducks, cows, calves, and motorbikes or bikes. All this is to enable them to overcome their difficulties by themselves. We cannot only give them the fish all the time; we have to give them the fishing pot, too.
VAVA highlights these examples in publications, media events, and public occasions:
On specific occasions reporters from the media will come to report, and it’s usually during this time that we put forward the bright examples.
To generate support (in the sense of financial donations as well as communal spirit) from the broader Vietnamese public, VAVA frequently highlights cases of families who are making efforts to “overcome their difficulties” and to “blend into society” (see Figure 4). These efforts are central to VAVA’s mission; in fact, one of two major purposes of the organization is collecting donations used to help AO victims blend into society:
The second function is to call for donations, help, and resources from society—both mentally and financially—to help victims overcome their difficulties and blend into society.
The goal of helping victims to “blend into society” was very prominent in participant descriptions of community engagement. In this framing, we see the goal of restoring harmony: community engagement for the purpose of restoring vulnerable and disadvantaged people to an accepted and respected place within the fabric of society. Emphasizing the belonging of AO victims is a rhetorical strategy rooted in communal values like shu. Thus, publicizing how well people with disabilities are blending into society helps to reduce stigma, which benefits AO victims and also strengthens the message that the broader public, then, has a responsibility to provide the financial support and social acceptance that facilitates people with disabilities in contributing to society.
Promoting a sense of responsibility
A second key message that VAVA uses to encourage community engagement among Vietnamese publics not directly affected by AO is that all members of society have a sense of responsibility to vulnerable Vietnamese in general and to veterans in particular. The belief underlying messages of communal responsibility is clear in the following quote:
One hundred percent of all the children here are in dire poverty, and many come from families with two or three victims. As the human, it is our responsibility and our will to help them reduce their burdens and their suffering. It is not just the individual’s responsibility, but it is the collective society’s responsibility to care for these who suffer.
VAVA is acutely aware of threats to AO victims’ human dignity, threats such as having to continually beg for financial assistance:
There is a phrase – di an xin – which means to “go and beg,” and this is a joke among the community of victims that they have been forced to ask penny by penny for support from dioxin, which is pronounced the very same as di an xin.
To relieve this humiliation, VAVA members aim to stir empathy among Vietnamese publics, not just to motivate an individual response but rather to restore harmony, to call everyone to get involved together as part of a distributed and varied but communal effort:
It is true to say it is pity, but it comes from the heart of the human; pity is a human feeling. We want to provoke pity, but from the pity they may become better motivated to help them [AO victims and families].
In the Vietnamese regulations and policies, there are always events to call all people, organizations and associations across society’s multiple levels so together, united, they are helping the victims of Agent Orange.
One key to involving “all people” and “all organizations” is conveying that many forms of help are welcome, and all efforts are beneficial. Businesses are asked for financial donations; people who cannot afford to give money are encouraged to donate labor; even children can donate from their school meals:
We also cull resources from many sources. We even cull from kindergarten level. They [the children] will donate one breakfast or partial breakfast to the victims.
They may be very old without a salary, but they try their best to help. For example, when we make a call for help, those who even don’t have money can come and labor.
Every level – old to very young – contributes to the care of victims.
We see in these messages a connection to the Confucian concept of shu and its application in caring for one’s brothers: i.e., Vietnamese people being responsible for assisting any member of society in the ways and to the extent that they are able. This concept was invoked not only regarding responsibility to vulnerable society members in general but also to veterans specifically:
A very bad leaf that’s in a bad condition can cover a worse leaf—or help someone in an even worse condition. The second proverb is to “love others as you love yourself.” So, VAVA representatives, who are also victims, they volunteer, donate, sacrifice their youth to the war and are unlucky in getting exposed to Agent Orange. Therefore, the Vietnamese government and people never forget their contribution. Therefore, they will care for and love them.
We have to be clear about the victims, who are veterans, who devoted their lives to the peace of this country. They are suffering. Therefore, the next, recent, younger generations must have the responsibilities toward taking care of the older generations. The communication method must express that the veterans have devoted their lives to the country and therefore everyone must pay the debt of gratitude to the veterans.
Thus, we see that VAVA cultivates community engagement among publics who are not directly affected by AO using two key strategies: first, heading off potential victim blaming, and, second, invoking a sense of responsibility toward vulnerable people and veterans.
Implications for Practitioners and Scholars
In reflecting upon the rhetorical messages and communication strategies VAVA employed, we are concerned that a Western outsider may (mis)interpret strategies and messages in light of Western perspectives. For example, the use of visuals to help the Vietnamese public to “see” the plight of AO victims and to motivate patronage may seem like solely an application of pathos: an emotion-based appeal intended to motivate individuals to care about and take action regarding AO out of pity for strangers who have been affected. However, there is a danger in interpreting VAVA’s community engagement without being attuned to locally appropriate rhetorical strategies: It can lead to inaccurate understanding that could occlude recognition of why VAVA’s work is so effective. In calling Vietnamese publics to “see” AO victims, VAVA is acknowledging victims as brothers and is calling for collective, communal responses: it is calling for everyone, even “bad leaves,” to cover a worse leaf. Further, it is privileging a kind of evidence that is “external to the subject” as Aristotle would have called it and countering classical wisdom that “it is wrong to warp the jury by leading them into anger or envy or pity” (1354a). Observing such moments of rhetorical contrast from behind our own terministic screens invites the Other to speak.
Similarly, consider VAVA’s strategy for heading off victim blaming: drawing attention to “bright examples” who are “overcoming their difficulties” by “blending into society.” This message should not be confused with an individualized independence, the ability to support oneself (i.e., pull yourself up by your own bootstraps). Rather, a key to this communication strategy is highlighting the efforts of AO victims to take their place within the fabric of society to contribute to society. VAVA’s message implies, “If AO victims are making efforts (in the face of challenges they did not bring upon themselves through karma, by the way), then how could unaffected Vietnamese community members refuse to do their part in helping to restore harmony to society?” Thus, in considering not only what messages VAVA communicates but also why it does so, we begin to understand the effectiveness of their community engagement without essentializing.
VAVA’s message is a call to restore harmony by helping AO victims to blend into society. This message draws upon shu, the responsibility to one’s brother to help in any way you can. It is a rhetorical argument rooted in localized values, an argument that we believe requires an insider voice or at least insider expertise to be heard with credibility. Thus, one key implication for practitioners working across cultures is to investigate why local community engagement strategies are successful rather than merely observing successful insider practices and emulating them. In this case, it is the context of the message, which relies on a complex Confucian lineage rather than the content of the message, that matters and compels Vietnamese audiences to engage and act. In other words, it is necessary for TPC practitioners who are cultural outsiders to learn about the values, attitudes, beliefs, and intentions underlying successful local practices and to study those values, attitudes, beliefs, and intentions in usage rather than in theory. Further, any generalizability of best practices should fall under the guidance and authority of cultural insiders. Practitioners must remember that “historicity, specificity, and incongruity are always becoming” (Mao, 2014, p. 450). Therefore, we must be careful about generalizing whether guided by local practice or not, because the “political dynamics of cultural conversations at specific historical moments and power-and-knowledge relations in the rhetorical rethinking of the human sciences are never fixed or stable and they are always being realized” (Mao, 2014, p. 451).
In investigating VAVA’s practices, we see an overt difference in the purpose of community engagement as compared to Western perspectives. In the US, community engagement historically aims to inform, protest against, or change public policies (Grabill & Simmons, 1998). That aim directly conflicts with the Confucian-inspired warning against speaking eloquently in opposition to official ideology (Xu, 2004). VAVA coordinated closely with government officials to maintain unity in ideals, priorities, and messages between the government and all branches and levels of VAVA. Thus, a major purpose of community engagement seemed to be calling all members of society to contribute to restoring harmony, a goal that prioritizes unity over dissent. This difference in the purpose of community engagement is an important one. When TPC practitioners prepare to facilitate community engagement across cultures, it is vital they investigate not only community engagement messages and the underlying rhetorical traditions those messages draw upon but also locally defined purpose(s) of community engagement.
Among other practical implications, the locally defined purpose informs whose perspectives and priorities should direct community engagement activities. For example, how VAVA sees the purpose of community engagement—calling all members of society to fulfill their responsibilities for restoring harmony—informs how and to what degree the organization sought out local perspectives and views. TPC scholars have emphasized that ethical risk communication (Grabill & Simmons, 1998) and humanitarian communication (Walton et al., 2016) must be informed by communities’ own concerns and priorities. As Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) might point out, this requirement raises the question of which communities’ priorities should take precedence and who constitutes a community. In analyzing VAVA’s interaction with unaffected Vietnamese publics, we did not see VAVA asking what issues those publics wanted to address. VAVA’s mission is specific to generating community engagement around Agent Orange, a mission VAVA pursues with unaffected Vietnamese publics by hooking into values important to those publics, such as societal harmony. VAVA’s interactions with AO victims and their families, however, did center on building relationships that would allow VAVA to understand families’ particular circumstances and needs.
In addition to local perspectives and views, another priority common to community engagement communication is preserving human dignity (Walton et al., 2016), a priority shared by VAVA. VAVA seeks to preserve the dignity of AO victims while motivating unaffected publics to support victims and their families. Participants discussed the importance of showing powerful images of people with disabilities but only with the family’s consent and for the purpose of drawing together both affected and unaffected publics to help victims blend into society. VAVA representatives explained that they do the work of generating support for victims and heading off potential objections in an effort to save victims themselves from the indignity of doing so: Victims should not have to “go and beg” (di an xin). To motivate community engagement, VAVA emphasizes the responsibility of unaffected publics to their veterans—capable heroes who sacrificed for the common good. The organization also draws attention to “bright examples” of victims who are making efforts to “overcome their difficulties.” In both of these messages, we see attention to the dignity of AO victims, of highlighting and respecting their contributions while calling upon unaffected publics to do their part as well. This nuanced communication strategy can be a useful example for practitioners seeking to balance messages of desperate need for involvement and contribution, on the one hand, with respect for the efforts and capacities of beneficiaries, on the other.
In summary, VAVA’s community engagement strategies are both similar to and different from those conveyed in existing research on community engagement practice. The purpose of community engagement and the rhetorical moves used to highlight this purpose focus on unity, not dissent—a major difference. But the organization is highly attuned to preserving human dignity—a significant similarity. And VAVA intentionally hooks into cultural values to motivate community engagement using rhetorical strategies appropriate to the local context and audience—a similar strategy—but those rhetorical strategies are rooted in different frameworks and call for different sensibilities and tools than those typically used in Western contexts. In presenting these strategies, this research provides a vivid, specific picture of what community engagement looks like in a particular context around a particular issue, contributing one more facet to the body of community engagement scholarship which aims to inform TPC practice. This facet is an important contribution, we believe, because it shows what community engagement may look like when it does not aim to support democratic goals or to influence public policy.
A major implication of this research is the importance of partnering with local organizations that do the day-to-day work of community engagement. These partnerships are key to exploring questions regarding facts of usage rather than merely facts of essence. Exploring these questions requires us to pay attention to the political, economic, and cultural exigencies that influence local contexts and communicative performances. How do the divergences in observed social, political, and linguistic practices help us rethink our own? Engaging in this reflexive work can help us begin to “resist formulating structures of sameness and difference only based on facts of essence and move toward developing relations of interdependence based on lived, holistic experience” (Mao, 2013, p. 217). Thus, whether studying or practicing community engagement, technical communicators must work through local structures and existing organizations familiar with local concerns, priorities, and ways of knowing, and be open to the possibility that one’s own view of what community engagement is or aims to accomplish may not be another’s. We call for more partnership-driven international research, especially in the Global South where resources are scarce and local expertise understudied, to learn about community engagement from those engaged in this important work.
- Though a gross oversimplification, America’s entry into Vietnam was the result of a series of complex ideological impulses and political miscalculations. Even an abridged history or justification for the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War is beyond the scope of this article, but great works of scholarship by Stanley Karnow (Vietnam: A History) and Phillip Caputo (A Rumor of War) explore these issues.
- Like much of the scientific and military discourse on Agent Orange, sources vary and often conflict regarding the exact quantities of defoliant sprayed, the areas sprayed, and the duration soldiers were likely exposed. That said, Lewy based his figures on the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) history, which is one of the better sources available.
- For example, see the current language on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website regarding Agent Orange exposure: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/index.asp
- For a fairly thorough explication of the court records and final settlement amounts, see Peter Sill’s Toxic War: The Story of Agent Orange. The strength of the book is his access to trial documents, transcripts, and files, many of which have been lost to history and never digitized or archived. However, his selected bibliography includes only 24 works, with the most recent works published in 1993 before much of the recent and best scholarship on Agent Orange was written. For a complete decision, see Judge Jack B. Weinstein, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, In re “Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation,” March 10, 2005, available at http://ffrd.org/AO/10_03_05_agentorange.pdf
- In the 1960s, Congress was certainly aware of Agent Orange, but the public controversy about AO exposure had not yet begun, and so most texts about AO were technical memorandums like that composed by Richard A. Hensen in August of 1965, describing the “Physical Properties of Normal Butyl Esters of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T and Orange.” There were also science and policy Legislative Assessment Reports. Such reports were delivered to the Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development of the Committee on Science and Astronautics in the U.S. House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 1969. In later decades, the Congressional corpus changed substantially and included reports to the Comptroller General on the costs of covering negative health effects related to Agent Orange. By the 1980s, and at the height of the scientific controversy, the Congressional corpus included special reports specific to Agent Orange delivered to the Committee on Veterans Affairs, hearings, and the specific testimony of Admiral Zumwalt, an important character in the narrative of Agent Orange, as both he and his son, who were high-ranking officials in the U.S. military, died of exposure-related disease. There are also health and science briefings by Dr. Alvin Young. By the 1990s and 2000s, most of the texts reflected testimony gathered in hearings that resulted in bills and appropriation reports.
- The Ford Foundation and The Aspen Institute are two nonprofit organizations that have tirelessly advocated on issues related to Agent Orange. For more information, see https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/agent-orange-in-vietnam-program/
- ;There are hundreds of studies looking at various effects of dioxin on human and animal health. The best meta-analysis of these studies on human health was conducted by Anh Duc Ngo and colleagues: “Association between Agent Orange and birth defects: Systematic review and meta-analysis” (2006).
- “In the thousand years of its occupation by China, Confucianism, the ruling philosophy of China, undoubtedly had influence. As in China, an intellectual elite in Vietnam developed over time and, very generally, practiced principles of obedience and respect for one’s elders, education, and authority, which created a structured and stable social hierarchy. Confucianism’s influence in Vietnam is seen especially in Hanoi where, in 1070, the Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) was erected as a learning center dedicated to Confucius. Though its influence declined (as it did in China) from the 15th century forward, Confucianism’s influences are still felt today and were influential in other cultural moments, including Ho Chi Minh’s construction of his vision of governance, which prompted the expulsion of the French and precipitated the Vietnam War (Son, 2013). That said, Confucianism is difficult to define, explain or explore — let alone Confucianism in Vietnam — because it has become, as Liam C. Kelley noted in his 2006 article, “an invented signifier that bears a problematic relationship to the thing it signifies” (p.1). To resists this, scholars are increasingly considering “repertoires of resources” (p. 1)—of which Confucianism is but one part. These repertoires of resources allow for individuals to marshal different ideas and practices at different times and in different circumstances while offering scholars an alternative to the essentialism inherent in all-encompassing ethos, rhetorical or cultural systems.”
- The concept of the “superior man” was central to Confucian thought. The “superior man” could be superior to his fellow humans but strove to be superior to his past and present self. This superior man is not at all a super man of the Nietzschean type. He is merely a kind and gentle man of moral principles, at the same time a man who loves learning, who is calm himself and perfectly at ease and is constantly careful of his own conduct, believing that by example he has a great influence over society in general. See Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Confucius (New York: The Modern Library, 1938), 23. The “superior man,” then, was not a person of perfection but a condition of being superior to or in those things that one could be superior. For example, purpose is an area where the “superior man” could demonstrate superiority. According to the Analects bk. xix., c. vii, “the superior man learns in order to attain the utmost of his principles.” For Confucius, the “superior man” was compelled through virtue to strive toward higher things.
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About the Authors
Rebecca Walton is an associate professor of technical communication and rhetoric at Utah State University. Her research interests include social justice, human rights, and qualitative methods for cross-cultural research. Walton has collaborated with organizations including the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, and World Vision to conduct research in countries including Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, and Bolivia. Her co-authored articles have won several national awards: the 2016 and 2017 Nell Ann Pickett Award and the 2017 STC Distinguished Article Award. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Beth Hopton is an assistant professor of Technical & Professional Writing at Appalachian State University. Her scholarly work focuses on human rights, technology, and the environment. Her research is found in Communication Design Quarterly, Kairos, and connexions. Additionally, she is the author of two nonfiction books: Woman at the Devil’s Door: Mary Pearcey and the Hampstead Murders and Deadfall: Mysticism, moonshine, and the Mullins Massacre of 1892, due out in 2020 by Indiana University Press. She is available at email@example.com.
Manuscript received 3 April 2017, revised 26 July 2017; accepted 30 August 2017.