Why human rights campaigning needs to change more than just its framing

The problem is not how we speak – it’s who we are.

Koldo Casla
30 May 2018

Image: Ponderosa Templeton, Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

Human rights campaigning in the UK, where I am writing this from, is shifting from finger pointing to emotional appeals. In this post-factual world of fake news, trolls and bots, simply uncovering human rights violations no longer works as effectively as it used to. A new approach is needed because connecting with people’s hearts is more urgent than ever.

One persuasively articulated new approach is that not everyone is the same – and thus, framing is crucial. This approach notes how some people support human rights messages whatever the package they come in, whilst others will always oppose human rights. And some, possibly the majority, do not have anything against the idea of human rights or against their champions, but remain sceptical or distant, or simply have not cared enough to make up their minds yet. This third group should be human rights’ target audience because they will tip the scales in one direction or the other. This tribe has a cracking name that matches their super heroic responsibility: The ‘persuadables’.

To reach out to the persuadables human rights groups are urged by the re-framers to change the conversation. Based on neuroscience and cognitive linguistics, campaigners must communicate hope over fear, they must tell stories that speak to emotions and humanity. Facts and figures are useful with your loyal friends. Feelings work better with the persuadables, or so says the theory.

I admire the zeal to reassess what works and what doesn’t. It is good news that the sector is paying more attention to public opinion here and abroad.

But I think we risk hitting a target by missing the point.

I agree that we should burst the bubble we live in. Strategic framing smells of psychological warfare - but I could live with that. My issue however is that this relatively new approach assumes that the trick lies in communications, when in fact it’s about something far more profound. The British human rights community faces an existential dilemma. The problem is not the way human rights activists speak. The problem is who we are.

Human rights people –working in the UK on UK issues- are cosmopolitan, highly educated, mostly white and polyglot, they live and work in London and they earn more than most. With all due respect to my brethren, human rights people are awfully privileged.

I know this because I tick all the boxes.

I refuse to apologise for it because there is nothing wrong with the colour of my skin, with my worldview, my place of residence or my academic qualifications, and I am insolently snobbish about being multilingual. I am in no position to demand any individual change from my colleagues in arms.

What I really want is to be part of a bigger and more diverse movement, a truer reflection of society.

I don’t want to sound more palatable to the persuadables. I want to speak differently as a consequence of having merged with some of them. I don’t underestimate the challenge. This renovation would entail significant organisational changes, starting from our own governance and the way we allocate legitimacy to our decisions. We would also have to rethink our geography and social space. We have been too distant for too long. It will take time and resources to build the necessary confidence but we should make extra efforts to leave our comfort zone and spend more time in areas that we have neglected at our peril. We could start where people voted to leave the EU for example. And we would also need to reconsider our own operations and the themes we campaign on. We would be expected to take a back seat, listen more than we speak, support other causes before we summon others to join ours. An adequate standard of living and healthcare are the two most valued human rights in our society. And yet Britons are not legally entitled to them. Isn’t it about time we campaigned seriously on this?

Strategic communications work in Ted videos and online dating agencies. They may be enough if you are Rupert Murdoch and your aim is to sell more papers, or if you are Cambridge Analytica and you want to help big money win elections. But it cannot be sufficiently good for us. We should not choose words to persuade the other. To the widest extent possible we should change to become the other. Speaking of dating, allow me the cliché: The problem is not them; it’s us. But we can change, and there is hope in that.

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