August 15, 2014

This research project has grown out of the reduced concern for the international protection of human rights. Indeed, politicians can now win elections by expressing less concern about human rights (such as the asylum seeker issue).

I suggest to people concerned about human rights that the old ways of doing things may no longer work. I have written elsewhere on how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are having membership problems (and I am happy to send people more information on those projects1).

But there is also a particular issue of a change in the underlying perception of human rights issues. At this stage I am simply exploring issues, rather than being able to produce a set of recommendations.

The Human Rights Era
Today’s era is very different from the human rights era which began after World War II. In 1945 there was revulsion at both the human rights violations and the failure of the international community to protect human rights in the Inter-War and World War II periods. There was a desire to create international mechanisms to protect human rights.

Hence the UN’s “International Bill of Rights”, which began with the 1948 Declaration, which was followed up with the two initial Covenants. An even more elaborate system for the protection of civil and political rights was devised by the Council of Europe. Meanwhile, there was a flourishing network of human rights NGOs at local, national and international levels

Human Rights Fatigue
I suggest we now have “human rights fatigue”. The mentality that was appalled by the human rights violations in the 1930s and 1940s has now been replaced by a different mentality.

“You don’t think your way through to a new way of living – you live your way through to a new way of thinking”. In other words the trauma of the human rights violations forced people (not least politicians and international lawyers) to rethink old ideas of state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs. Hence we get the post-war movement for the international protection of human rights.

Human Rights Fatigue
I suggest we now have “human rights fatigue”. The mentality that was appalled by the human rights violations in the 1930s and 1940s has now been replaced by a different mentality.

“You don’t think your way through to a new way of living – you live your way through to a new way of thinking”. In other words the trauma of the human rights violations forced people (not least politicians and international lawyers) to rethink old ideas of state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs. Hence we get the post-war movement for the international protection of human rights.

But now there is a new mentality: people are more complacent. The post-war generation of human rights activists are dying off. The generation who can remember the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s have left the scene and have been replaced by a later generation who are no longer so shocked.

Second, there has also been the rise of New Right economic rationalism, with its focus on oneself and not the community. We are now more self-absorbed, self-focussed and concerned with getting rich – and far less concerned with broader issues.

Finally, there has been the breakdown in the post-war moral consensus on human rights. The Cold War gave rise to a policy of selective indignation at human rights abuses, with human rights issues attracting different perceptions of political priorities: some violations are seen as important while others are neglected.

A Way Forward
In this presentation I am dealing with the implications arising from (i) an improved understanding of how people think (ii) the rise of tabloid media (iii) how we might be able to learn from the climate change controversy and (iv) some new ideas for communicating human rights.

Improved Understanding of How People Think about Issues
We have discovered in the last 30 years as much about the operations of the brain as we did in the previous 3,000 years, for example, there is now the ability to scan brains and “see” them at work.

Since at least the European Enlightenment, there has been the assumption that people are “rational”. Economic textbooks often assume, for example, that humans are rational actors seeking to maximize self-gain. 2

But we know now that humans are not entirely “rational”. There are limits to “rational” debate. For example, human brains operate at two speeds: an immediate reaction (useful if one is being chased by a tiger) and a more reflective response. Much of the political debate is dominated by the immediate “flight or fight” response,3 rather than the more reflective one.

Meanwhile, NGOs operate on the basis of “if only people knew the facts” they would think and act differently. How often have human rights activists spoken of the need for “more education”?

But it may be that more “education” does not so much “inform” as simply “reinforce” initial impressions. The Obama style of leadership is that of using events as “teaching moments” to inform fellow Americans. But this may be a waste of time; only his supporters are listening; the rest are not. Ezra Klein has called this the “More Information Hypothesis”.

But in fact Klein suggests that more information simply reinforces existing views because we read selectively: we know our position and look for information to reinforce it and not to challenge it. The name of his recent article is “How Politics Makes Us Stupid”.1

Klein has also examined the work of Dan Kahan and his colleagues on “Identity-Protection Cognition”. Even if people were to develop doubts about their views, it may not be in their own best personal interests to voice them; they continue to maintain their original views so as to be acceptable to their social group (or to maintain their ratings if they are in the media). There will be no dramatic conversions.

Jonathan Haidt1 has examined the apparent paradox of why, for example, working class Americans vote for rich candidates who are not going to look after the financial interests of the poor. “Bush’s brain”, Karl Rove the campaign manager who won the 2000 and 2004 elections for George W Bush, created the theme of “God, Gays and Guns”: we love God, hate gays and think everyone should have a gun.

Haidt says that US working class voters trade their economic interests for politicians who can reflect their conservative values.2 Haidt argues from social psychology that people find evidence to support what they want to believe. He looks at six dimensions to people’s moral concerns: (i) care/harm (ii) liberty/ oppression (iii) fairness/ cheating (iv) loyalty/ betrayal (v) authority/ subversion (vi) sanctity/ degradation. The left favour the first three concerns but the right go for all six and so scoop up a broader range of people (such as the working class “Roosevelt Democrats” who would have normally voted Democrat).

In other words, it may be that the traditional language we use in the human rights context no longer works, not least in the media.

The Rise of Tabloid Media
The media set the pace of politics: we would not run a company in the way we run a country, with politicians bouncing from one headline to the next.

An important new characteristic is the rise of “tabloid media”: moving from facts to emotions, with journalists having changed from asking “Tell us what happened” to “How did you feel when you saw what happened?”

The language of war has entered sport, and the language of sport has entered politics: people are less interested in who is right or wrong – but who is going to win. Substantive issues get overlooked in the interests of focussing on personalities. The media divide the nation and so multiply the ratings

The media are agenda-setters; they don’t tell what to think but they do tell us what to think about. They define “reality”. If something does not fit within the narrow frame of the mainstream media’s then perception of reality then it is ignored or treated as a “conspiracy theory”.

All this has had an impact on politics. Politicians used to be leaders – now they are followers: they find out where the crowd is running and get in front of it. Politicians used to tell people what they needed to know – now they tell them what they want to hear. The media provide the dominant paradigm in which the politicians run around frantically.

It is interesting, for example, to contrast the current political hostility towards asylum seekers with two episodes in which Australians were far more welcoming: (i) the late 1970s travel by sea of Vietnamese asylum seekers, who were assisted by the Fraser Government and (ii) the Howard Government’s generous assistance to the 4,000 Kosovars in 1999 fleeing Serbian aggression.

A Lesson from the Climate Change Controversy
Kevin Rudd’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) won the 2007 federal election partly on the basis of concern about climate change.1 But in only a few years the issue has fallen off the political agenda. Three party leaders (Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard) – all committed to reducing climate change – lost their jobs, partly over climate change. They had failed to communicate the issues.

A good book on how to communicate science is by Randy Olson Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style 1. Olson was a science professor who changed in mid-career and went to California to learn movie-making (he now specializes in science and environmental movies). One of his drama lecturers told him not to be so rational and “not to be such a scientist”; the harsh reprimand stayed with him. Olson argues that there are four “layers” of communication, rather like a pyramid, with the layers getting broader as they move towards to the base.

At the top of the pyramid is the “mind” – which is where scientists spend most of their time. They communicate learnedly with each other in a careful, heavily foot-noted style. The next layer down is the “heart”: the locus of love, loyalty, patriotism etc. The third layer is the “gut”: locus of fear. The base of the pyramid are the “reproductive organs”, which is why so many companies use romance for marketing – it is the easiest way to reach the broadest number of people for whatever is being sold: cars, chocolate, clothes, shampoo.

Applying the top three layers of the Olson model to the Australian climate change debate, we can see how the model helps explain the change within Australia. In 2007 Rudd’s climate change campaign struck a chord with most of the electorate (including moderate Liberals). Rudd (in Olson’s model) reminded Australians (the “heart”) of their love for the Great Barrier Reef and (the “gut”) fear that it could be destroyed by climate change. Rudd argued that Australia should act to protect the Great Barrier Reef. This was rather misleading because Australians account for only one or two per cent of the total global emissions and so no matter how good Australia’s climate change record might be, Australian actions alone could not save the reef. However, this was overlooked in the interests of securing the dramatic Labor victory.

But then Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister moved up Olson’s model. He left the “heart” and “gut” and started to read out speeches written in the “head” style by public servants. He and his colleagues failed to communicate with the same skill they had before the election to the “heart” and “gut”.

Meanwhile, the conservative Opposition initially disowned the Howard climate change policy and endorsed the Rudd Government’s December 2007 ratification of the Kyoto Protocol – the first time that the first action of a new Australian Government was to ratify a treaty. But the climate change sceptics then got to work – as per Olson’s model – on the “heart” and “gut”. They argued that the proposed Rudd emissions trading system would really be an “extra tax system” (appealing to the “gut” and fear of a new tax). They warned that climate change policies would cost jobs (“heart” and the love of being employed). In late 2009, the sceptics within the conservative Opposition party rebelled against their moderate leader Malcolm Turnbull and replaced him with one of their own (Tony Abbott).

In February 2010, a national Australian newspaper did a survey of where it had all gone wrong. There was a feeling that Rudd failed to communicate his proposal. The new Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said that it was very complex and he quoted the line from former ALP prime minister Paul Keating: “…if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it; and if you do understand it, you wouldn’t ever vote for it”. In that same article veteran ALP pollster Rod Cameron was quoted: “It is a complex issue and, to be fair to the government, it was very difficult to explain. But they didn’t even try. I thought it was a breathtaking piece of arrogance”. 1

New Ideas for Communications
The lesson here for human rights, then, is that we need to focus more on “heart” and “gut”. We need to be more imaginative in how we communicate human rights issues.

Second, there is the lesson from the longest running radio series in world history: BBC’s The Archers. During World War II the UK became self-sufficient in food and the post-war government decided that UK farmers should maintain that progress. It was necessary to educate them on the emerging ideas in agriculture. A formal radio programmme (TV was not then in general use) would not be effective: few farmers would bother to tune in. The Archers, as a daily episode, provided a daily drama interspersed with conversations about agriculture. (The government is no longer influencing programme content). Could we get some attention to human rights in Australian light entertainment?

Finally, Malcolm Gladwell, in examining how ideas can be spread, provides the illustration of Georgia Sadler.1 Sadler (now a professor at the University of California San Diego) was a nurse employed to educate women on health issues. Over two decades ago she realized that the women who came to her seminars were already aware of the issues. The challenge was to connect with the women who did not or could not attend.

Sadler realized that women have a more intimate relationship with their hairdresser than with most other people. She decided to educate the hairdressers to educate their clients. She worked with trainers on how the hairdresser could educate their clients in a compelling manner.

To conclude, I suggest that we find new and perhaps unconventional ways to communicate human rights in this new era.

1I have written both scenarios on the future of NGOs and (separately) a PhD on the future of the Uniting Church; I am willing to email these.
2A more realistic approach is contained in: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, London: Penguin, 2009
3For example, Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow, London: Allen Lane: 2011
4Ezra Klein “How Politics Makes Us Stupid”, April 6 2014,
5Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, London Allen Lane, 2012
 6An example of this is Joe Bageant Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Melbourne: Scribe 2007 (It will be recalled how Senator Obama jeopardized his 2008 presidential election campaign with his dismissive remark about small town Americans and their love of guns; this may have played well with the middle class in New York City but it hurt him with the traditional working class “Roosevelt Democrats” elsewhere).
7A good study of the politics is Philip Chubb Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics under Rudd and Gillard, Melbourne: Black Ink: 2014
8Washington DC: Island Press, 2009
9John Breusch “Flawed Model, Muddled Message”, The Weekend Australian Financial Review (Sydney), February 27-28 2010
10Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, London: Abacus, 2000, pp 253-5

Keith Suter