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How to Reframe Human Rights in the UK? Focus on the Hidden Cultural Codes

Negative media coverage has played an important part in shaping public perceptions of human rights. The majority of British tabloids and broadsheet newspapers portray the Human Rights Act as primarily concerned with ‘undeserving’ groups such as prisoners, terror suspects, or foreign criminals. Human rights laws are also used to attack Britain’s relationship with Europe – critics claim that European judges undermine British democracy when they are allowed to interpret and overturn British laws. They are rarely discussed in positive terms as tools to protect our basic rights. It is no surprise then that the Government is prepared to scrap the Human Rights Act and even withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.

Repeated negative discourse on human rights has influenced more people to be conflicted towards human rights in the UK. Although this group – which demographically is broadly representative of the UK as a whole – can see the benefits of human rights legislation, they also feel that these laws are being exploited or abused.

This autumn, Counterpoint travelled to Glasgow to understand why the current negative frames about human rights have appeal in Scotland and the rest of the UK. We conducted a deliberative workshop with Glaswegians who were conflicted on human rights to find the deeper reasons for why they accepted and were at times persuaded by the media’s negative reporting of human rights. The aim of the workshop was to deconstruct people’s views on human rights to better engage with them on this issue and challenge the current negative climate.

Why Framing Matters

This is where the insights discussed by the linguist George Lakoff on cognitive frames are important. Frames are the mental structures that we use to organise and order information so that we can understand issues and form preferences. Our brains assimilate information from words, images, or remembered experience into an underlying organising idea we use to understand or tell a story about the world. For example, if we hear words like ‘surgeon’, ‘nurse’, ‘scalpel’, ‘patient’, ‘operating room’, we link these words with a frame about a hospital operation. The language we choose therefore unconsciously activates a particular frame that helps people make sense of things.

The reason particular frames lock on to people in a specific context is because they incorporate political or social ideals. They are strongly connected to the cultural codes that shape and form the basis for people’s beliefs. These codes are often hidden and are crucial in understanding what appeals to societies.

To understand why the British public holds a particular view, our job is then to reveal the cultural codes that lurk beneath the frames. When we detect the hidden codes, we can see how the language we choose may reinforce a frame we may not expect.  If we want to change public opinion, we must choose the appropriate language to activate the cultural codes that will unearth the frames that will help human rights campaigns, in this case frames that persuade people to view human rights in the UK more positively.

Findings from the Deliberative Workshop

In Glasgow, we found that that specific cultural codes relating to equality; security; liberty; and British identity underpinned the human rights debate in the UK. So for instance, once we understood how Brits conceived of equality, we had a better understanding of why people believe that human rights are being exploited by people who do not deserve them and what language continues to strengthen this frame.

Participants in the workshop discussed equality mostly in these terms:

“It’s not necessarily fair for everyone to be treated equally, maybe for prisoners it’s not necessarily right that they should have the vote”    

or

“It’s like saying equality is great, it’s like a piece of cake, and we should get an equal slice of that cake, but maybe the size should be bigger for me and smaller for you. Equality is not the same for everyone.”

These and other statements suggested that people conflicted about human rights conceived of equality as what philosophers would call “equality of fortune” or “luck egalitarianism”. Under this conception of equality, people believe that there is a natural inequality in the distribution of luck where some people have good luck while others have bad luck. The point of equality is then to compensate individuals for their misfortune and crucially ensure that everyone gets what they morally deserve. Where people have undeserved bad luck, they should be made equal. But people who are responsible for their own bad luck such as foreign criminals, prisoners or terror suspects should not be made equal because it’s their own fault for losing their rights. Those who are responsible need to be punished and held morally accountable to pay their debts to their victims.

In the human rights debate, this means that language often used by campaigners discussing the ‘vulnerable’, ‘victims’, or a ‘safety net’ for the weak may reinforce a conception of equality as ‘luck egalitarianism’ or ‘equality of fortune’. When we hear these words, our brains automatically and unconsciously lock on to a frame about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. While there are vulnerable people like the disabled who are not responsible for their bad luck and should be made equal, there are those who are responsible for their bad luck like criminals and prisoners who do not deserve to have human rights. Despite good intentions, when advocates use the above language their efforts may be counterproductive and reinforce a negative frame about how human rights should not be applied to everyone.

An Alternative to Desert?

An alternative conception of equality that does not automatically and unconsciously activate desert is what philosophers such as Elizabeth Anderson would define as ‘democratic equality’ or ‘relational equality’. Rather than a distribution of luck, relational equality views equality as a social relationship: a community in which people stand in relations of equality to others. This concept of equality focuses on social hierarchies rather than natural hierarchies, where people are not naturally inferior but made so by people who dominate, exploit, marginalize, or inflict violence upon others. As a result, people make claims of equality in virtue of their position in relation to others and not their god-given inferiority.

We think relational equality provides a much better foundation for discussing human rights. What does this mean for human rights advocates in the UK? Advocates could focus on language and stories that activate a conception of equality as relational where human rights are talked about as laws which ensure that people show respect and treat each other with decency – a cherished value in the British context – and as equals in their communities and relationships.

While this approach is only a suggestion whose effectiveness we will test in a separate deliberative workshop next year, detecting the hidden cultural codes behind frames is crucial to understand and influence any debate.  When we know the cultural codes behind frames, we can see why certain views appeal to people and what language supports these views. If we choose the appropriate language that activates cultural codes that we believe in and that support human rights campaigns, we can strengthen the frames that can help  advocacy efforts, in this case ensuring that the protection of our rights is not endangered.

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