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3:44pm on Friday, 2nd December, 2016:

Rights and Wrongs


I went to a meeting of the Human Rights Centre at the university yesterday. There were about 25 people present, mainly from the Law Department but with interested parties from other departments, too. I didn't speak beyond saying my name, job title and that I'd done some work in games and human rights before. Instead, I spent the next hour and a half listening to the discussion (which was dominated by five individuals, although perhaps another ten did chip in at least once).

Here's my take on it.

The concept of Human Rights operates at different levels: local, national and international. International is where all the action takes place that everyday folk think of as relating to "human rights": people in parts of the world really are in danger of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, never to be seen by their families again. If you live in a country where that happens (we don't), then national is also important; for most of the western world, though, national-level human rights involves trying to stop governments from enacting ill-conceived, slippery-slope legislation and corporations from exploiting loopholes in the letter of the law; it doesn't involve defending people from despotic regimes out to stifle freedom. Local human rights is when you walk out onto the street and are subject to racist or sexist abuse, or you can't get a job because you're too old or too gay or too in a wheelchair.

The problem Human Rights has is when local-level rights-abuse percolates upward to national or international level.

Human Rights conventions were created primarily to call governments to account. They are badly suited to calling powerless individuals to account. The Human Rights Centre is great at talking to liberal elites, but these people are already on board when it comes to human rights; it's beyond their competence to speak to "Daily Mail readers" (as some of those present at the meeting I was at characterised them).

The experience of the liberal elite in trying to educate the masses is the same today as it's always been: they come across as paternalistic, patronising busy-bodies. This is counter-productive: as a general rule, if someone you don't like tells you how to behave, you're not predisposed to act on their instructions. From the perspective of, say, unemployed adults in their early twenties who have little prospect of a decent job and no great future to look forward to, human rights are something other people have. Human rights advocates can offer these individuals nothing but lectures on how they should behave towards oppressed minorities. Telling them that they'll only know how important human rights are when they don't have them is about as relevant as telling them they'll only know how important life is when they're dead.

The mistake the Human Rights Centre people were making was believing that if someone abuses human rights then taking them to task over it will improve matters. It's as if they feel that you merely have to enlighten individuals as to the errors of their ways and they'll stop using racist language, picking on effeminate men and spitting at women in hijabs. One-on-one, it might. Beyond that, it won't — especially if your way of enlightening them is to put on a play that brings home the consequences of their actions (yes, this was a suggestion). That's really going to work for a group of people whose only access to theatre is a school musical... No, rather than attributing the people at the bottom of the pile with the same cultural access and interests that the elite have, you should instead look at why these people are behaving the way they are in the first place. No-one at the meeting seemed to grasp this point, except for a chap from Government who did recognise the problem but who wasn't really understood by the others speaking.

As for why these people are acting like they are, well when you're stuck at the bottom and have no hope of escape, you look for someone to blame. This could be immigrants, who seem to be given advantages and opportunities unavailable to you or your children. It could also be people — "minorities", for example — who are being given special attention while your own plight is ignored. It doesn't matter what the truth of the matter is: the perception is what counts. Human rights advocates, by promoting the rights of particular groups of individuals, make those individuals special. This makes them a target of the unspecial. The reason for this is not that human rights are unimportant (obviously they are important), but that at this stratum of society they're only of secondary importance compared to the general disadvantage everyone suffers from their social and economic situation. If enough people are trapped in this kind of hopelessness, then what previously was a local-level problem becomes a national-level one. Trying to get them to mend their ways by addressing the symptoms, rather than the cause, is doomed to failure.

Until the right not to be poor is ensconced into Human Rights conventions, we're unlikely to see an improvement in this dynamic.

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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).