Human rights is about extending the same rights to all humans. If we do not do the work of reinforcing empathy and respect for people on the basis of shared humanity, we lose the foundation of universal human rights and open the door to narratives that create excuses for human suffering.
We need people to feel empathy for each other, but also to feel affirmation that emotions like love have their place at the negotiating table. To counter the idea that the spheres of politics and law are governed purely by utilitarian realpolitik, we need to promote the value of acting with humanity - of kindness, empathy and compassion as important values in politics and society. This includes seeing and respecting the humanity in people who are different from us. These visuals, therefore, speak to the golden rule, that we should treat people the way we want to be treated ourselves.
We therefore need visual framing that reinforces both the policy value of care but also simply makes stories of kindness more salient, reinforcing the worldview that human nature tends towards love and kindness, not hate and cruelty. Recognising our responsibility to each other is good policy - as the covid-19 pandemic shows, our ability to care for everyone in society is paramount.
Human rights work is trying to bring the best out of society, and bring the best out of people. Human rights defenders are like gardeners, keeping the weeds of injustice out of our society, watering the soil so that we all have opportunities to grow.
In general, images of civil society tend to be protests or demonstrations, but much of the work of NGOs is less confrontational. In workshops, human rights activists often drew on the imagery of planting seeds or watering young shoots and saplings. They drew trees that provide shelter, roots and bear fruit. They used a frame of organic growth and abundance, as opposed to scarcity and crisis, to describe the sharing and generosity they want to result from their work. And when asked to draw human rights as a metaphorical tool that people use to make change happen, they drew watering cans, to illustrate how they see their work creating hope and opportunity for others (as a contrast to the metaphorical shield or umbrella that protects from harm).
We can also draw on nature and gardening metaphor and imagery to reinforce our worldview that kindness is human nature – care makes us grow, we all thrive when we care for each other, we all thrive in a more caring environment.
This imagery, for example, can be used to frame migration debates not about the people who move, but about the people who welcome and host others. We need more tolerance and acceptance of others, so let’s show our audiences more of that behaviour we want them to replicate.
Artwork: Rozalina Burkova for Fine Acts (download)
We need to promote the value of kindness in our politics, so much of which seems to be about finding utilitarian excuses not to be kind. We can do this by reinforcing how much of human progress is the result not of selfishness or individual flair, but of kindness, openness to others, and cooperation.
Translated to real life, we can capture these kind of images with people making room for each other, for example at a dinner table (with the underlying message of abundance that there is ‘room for more’).
Behind so many public debates around human rights today is an underlying fear of others and the need to promote the value and desirability of living in diverse, dynamic societies. The identities that are used to divide us and wield power of others are constructed, then we should try to construct new identities, unite and empower all humans; new identities that refuse to be limited or defined by the old.
But because of the way these debates are currently framed, it may be more effective to more subtly and indirectly remind people how normal and universal diversity is in the world, whether through artistic creation that simply celebrates the vibrancy of difference or real-life images as simple as a street with different restaurants (to avoid triggering harmful “spice of life” or “good immigrant” frames with these kind of images, make sure the trend to diversity is universal and the exchanges between groups are between equals, not just a marginalised group serving a privileged one).
Human rights communications ask people to practice using empathy. We want to activate that ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. We should see empathy as a muscle to be strengthened through use, rather than a limited resource.
Simulation theory suggests that humans as social animals take cues for their behaviours from their in-group: if they see others around them perform racist actions, those actions become less taboo. So when we “call out” the behaviour we want to stop, we must also “call in” the behaviour we want to see. In other words, show our audience people they can relate to showing empathy to another. The Common Cause approach also suggests that even elevating empathy towards animals can boost our overall tendency to show and use empathy towards other humans.
Rather than the onus on our storytelling being on the rightsholder to “prove their humanity” or reach a certain tipping point of suffering that elicits pity, our focus can be on the encounter between two different people and how it changes them both. With neither saviour nor victim in the story, the action of human rights can be about people connecting in solidarity, joined by their respect for each other as human beings.
Human rights is often undermined by rhetoric that stirs fear, hate and disgust towards groups of people. If we are against these forces, we must promote countervailing forces. We need to build tolerance and mutual respect through a constant stream of imagery and stories that reinforces humanity in our audiences as effectively as racist propaganda pushes inhumanity.
We can attempt this through art and design that encourages people to practice the art of seeing the humanity in people who are different from us. In real life, this approach can be translated into stories of encounters between different people—stories of positive social contact tend to increase empathy, and our communications should seek to create indirect social contact —show our audiences people they can relate to positively engaging with people they might consider “other”.