WHO GIVES A FUCK ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS?

SMN Lates #1

On November 6th, over 25 people gathered for our first SMN Late, a new series of after-hours working sessions to dig into big issues affecting our social and environmental fabric. Our first event was convened in partnership with Robert Kennedy Human Rights UK, and brought a range of artists, activists, technologists and third sector organisations together to explore the challenges of those who wish to engage the general public in issues of human rights.

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IN A NUTSHELL

During our working session (and subsequent pub-based action), three key themes emerged.

  • First, the phrase “human rights” itself is an engine of social division and frequently obstructs engagement with the values it seeks to encode and protect.
  • Second, the spectre of large, systemic change is daunting and unrealistic. A range of smaller, more focused actions is an accessible way to start real change.
  • Finally, innovation in the sector is likely to require not only better ideas but a more fundamental shakeup of the governing myths that underpin it.

For this Late, we used a simplified version of Causal Layered Analysis to bring some order to our discussions, structuring the analysis of issues according to three levels: Litany, Systems and Myths. This article outlines Something More Near’s analysis of our conversations during the event using this framework.

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HYPOTHESIS #1: “HUMAN RIGHTS” GET IN THE WAY

Let’s start with Litany - the “chitchat” of contemporary culture. We left with the sense that “human rights” as a phrase is both exhausted and exhausting, and one that frequently gets in the way of more interesting conversations. Like many “big ideas”, Human Rights is at once expansive and vague. When the topic “human rights” was addressed directly within our session, conversations frequently remained stilted, general and superficial. However, once the issues became specific - racial discrimination in the cultural sector, slave labour in the t-shirt trade, women's safety in cities - conversations became more interesting, involved and energetic.

But there is something more at work here. Human Rights seems a fractured word, one that means very different things to different parts of society. For the internationalists, it is a high water mark of postwar international consensus, a grand vision of universal rights that stretches across the world, and a common foundation from which to build society, truth and justice. In tabloids, we find it joined at the hip with descriptions of “terrorist” and “benefit scrounger”. For others, it is something that exists far away (if at all) - something defended in the margins of the global south. For those somewhere in the middle, it carries the vague aura of uncommitted worthiness, a hessian-wearing motto of those who want to ‘do good’ without any passionate or directed efforts, plagued by the enormity of the phrase.

Human Rights is a phrase riven by the broader political fault-lines that surround it and dominate it. In this regard, it fundamentally differs from many of the rights-connected issues that have generated attention (we might include saving the NHS, Brexit, the re-nationalisation of railways, Black Lives Matter…). Each of these issues have generated their own controversies but have also drawn their potency from the way in which they are not defined by but cut across previous configurations of political and media consensus. The Remain camp, with its unprecedented alliance of City billionaires and rabid socialists. The rehabilitation of the NHS, perhaps the one issue where metropolitan urban and the home counties agree.

For human rights folk, we say:

The phrase “human rights” is not going to win you new friends, even if they agree with the issues underneath it. To find those friends and new champions, to forge new communities and new conversations, human rights organisations will need to let go of the language of their founding documents. Temporary coalitions can gather around smaller words with less baggage, more meaning and more “contact points” with those different to you. Find a language that - unlike “human rights” - is not cut in half by the factions of political configurations, but can create new bridges between them.

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HYPOTHESIS #2: A BETTER FUTURE NEEDS MORE SURPRISING PARTNERS

Let’s drop down to the Systems level of our analysis. Systems were a natural focus for participants. In our vast and hyperconnected world, it seems second nature to assume that changing things means thinking not only about single targets but a whole ecosystem of actors.

Such broad horizons come at a cost. And as every good artist knows, constraint is the precondition of creativity. During the session, the most energetic conversations were built on ideas that did not seek exhaustive, global plans, but celebrated very particular alliances. Sri Lankan activists and premium supermarkets. London’s BAME youth and Somerset House. Data scientists and internet Feminists. This is often emphasised in the literature of innovation, where new ideas frequently come not from exhaustive collaborations but the juxtaposition of unlikely ideas [link here]. We were struck by the creative ways participants began linking their own experiences, ideas and interests to solve each others problems. As the evening went on, unique and surprising alliances began to form, and as seemingly disparate worlds combine, audiences grow.

For human rights folks, we say:

At the level of Litany, we explored how focusing language on the specificity of individual issues might lead to better conversations than the global concepts of rights. So too at the level of relationships. In a sector that is frequently struggling with the challenges of limited resources, the spectre of systemic and equal engagement with citizens, government, corporations and regulators may be a tempting utopia, but in reality is likely to end up with a diluted solution. Instead, seeking new bedfellows for different issues - unlikely combinations of people who can bring their own knowledge and energy, will lead to more concentrated and powerful answers.

HYPOTHESIS #3: LET GO OF THE ABSOLUTE END

Finally, lets turn to the level of Myth – those unspoken and often invisible assumptions that quietly colour both the Systems and Litany of a society. Taking a step back from the immediate conversations of the session, the SMN team were struck by a basic thought - what if the way human rights activists conceive of their task is part of the problem?

The fight for Human Rights can be absolute and relentless. Absolute in the sense the human rights crowd can be utopian in flavour - built on the sense that Human Rights is an ideal state which humanity can achieve – if only real people and real situations would stop being so troublesome. And relentless in the continual tempo of campaigning - the constant sense that something must be done, that now is the time for action. Just one more email, just one more donation, just one more march and the disease will be cured. Poverty will be made history.

The crisis and the unique opportunity is now. And Now. And Now. Forevermore.

In the world of psychotherapy, a key tenet is the acceptance that one cannot “fix” everything - that one must learn to live with your wounds. In one of the most remarkable books of the last decade, Donna Haraway speaks of a humanity that must leave behind both the despair of failure AND the spectre of the final fix, that we must cultivate our own “response-ability” to “stay with the trouble”.

In a weird way, Comic Relief might hold some clues here. Sure, it is easy to dismiss this event - filled with celebrity platitudes and a three-hundred year old Rod Stewart struggling his way through another rendition of “Maggie May”. And yes, David Lammy is right that Africa deserves better But in some way, perhaps the continued success of this event holds some clues - a call to action that knows it is not the complete solution, but draws in the casual participation of people who know they do not hold all the answers, and of others who can be honest about the fact that they are unlikely to maintain their outrage for an entire year. What can we learn from the continued health of an event that focuses attention on a very successful single weekend a year and is willing to be forgotten for the remaining 51?

For human rights folks, we say:

It may be that the ability to engage new audiences and effect significant change requires not only changes in communications tactics and alliances - but a new sense of self for the sector. What happens when we let go of the spectre of universal and unchanging Human Rights that we struggle to realise? What happens when the relentless struggle towards a unreachable ideal is replaced by an acknowledge that everything is partial? And what if we celebrated the enjoyment of those site-specific and sporadic fixes? Don’t try to build a new skyscraper. Plug the leaks, hold all-night parties in the basement, find new ways to make new friends in old neighbourhoods. What happens when human rights organisations focused on helping us all to be more human?

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POSSIBLE PROJECTS

During our session, our conversations focused both upon general issues and particular propositions. Three concepts attracted significant attention during session for further investigation:

  1. Empowering young BAME voices with a mentoring scheme for central London cultural institutions including Somerset House.
  2. Finding ways to break down climate change narratives into more “bite-sized pieces” young people can pick up and use.
  3. Developing new communications strategies that rethink “human rights” and position the underlying issues closer to the everyday lives of British citizens.

If any of these are things you would like to explore with a group of interested fellow travellers, please get in touch.

THANKS

To our attendees: Dennis Marcus, Thomas Coombes (Amnesty), Chris Duncan, Nadeem Din-Gabisi, Patrice Muller, Eden Clark, Rosanne Palmer-White, Alistair Moore, Tiphane Valois, Axelle Valois, Kathryn Quinton, Isabela Herig, Esther Obiri-Darko, Neil Crowther, Ed Fletcher, Emily Mattiussi, Funmibi Ogunlesi, Pali Palavathanan, Shivani Nirula, Feodora Rayner, Anilea Murphy, Simon Myers, Freddie Elcock, Celia Delaney and David Gunn .

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