The trivialization of human rights
Virtual activism makes some human rights causes visible but reduces engagement on the street.
Credit: Urupong / iStock
“Noble causes” often are trivialized in order to gain more followers. The ones addressed by the human rights movement are no exception, to the extent that forms seem to be more important than the content in the new discourses around human rights.
Increasingly, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, a trend has developed among some donors, both governmental and philanthropic, to demand greater impact from the projects they fund. While there is no doubt that more emphasis needs to be placed on the effectiveness of campaigns and other advocacy efforts, measurement indicators have not been clear and, as a result, a project’s impact is often confused with its visibility.
In times of social networks and virtual interaction, the valuation of the supposed impact is measured through the number of followers, retweets, and likes. The street activist has mutated into an “influencer,” more interested in projecting their personal image onto social networks to gain followers and set trends than in being a spokesperson for the mission of the organization they represent. In fact, many of these activist-influencers have more followers than the organizations to which they belong and they take advantage of the cult of personality to disseminate their image.
This is a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed by intellectuals and analysts. For example, Martín Hopenhayn observes:
The new activist in global civil society does not want to be grouped into large units or parties, and exercises their resistance by maintaining themselves in the reticular, porous, rhizomatic multiplicity of actors who concur to vigorously oppose the dominant forms of economic, political and financial rationality and cultural standardization.
It is as if the discipline and rigor typical of organizations whose main asset is credibility has become, for the new activist, a straitjacket to which they are not willing to submit.
Undoubtedly, social networks have a power that I do not intend to underestimate. There are campaigns that have saved lives, initiatives that have called for mobilizations that have brought down governments, and proposals whose dissemination through networks has made it possible to change political decisions. But their valuation as an indicator of impact cannot become a determinant, as seems to be happening with organizations that, despite being small and not having sufficient human resources for substantive work, have had to hire staff only to count reactions on social networks and report them to donors, without any critical analysis of the real impact of these virtual expressions of support that, in general, come mainly from friends or like-minded people and communities.
Virtual “activism” has some perverse effects. NGOs are losing the street—and not because of the pandemic. It is more comfortable to click than to physically interact. And, again, some donors have insisted on the need to explore new languages and narratives. This proposal may have value, since it is undoubtedly necessary for an organization to diversify their language so that their message reaches nontraditional sectors.
In the early 1990s, a human rights advocate in Peru referred to the challenge of diversifying language on three levels: mobilizing the convinced, convincing the indifferent, and neutralizing the opposed. The risk is to confuse the means with the end. Language is used for transmitting, but it is not easy to reduce the principles of human rights to 140 characters, a verse, or a few musical notes without accompanying these simplified versions with a meaning that is reflected in facts.
At the same time, the new language seems to be developing in place of, rather than in addition to, traditional actions. This translates into less litigation, less victim accompaniment, less community interaction, and less face-to-face mobilization.
In this regard, an article published in this portal reported on a valuable “experimental and practical initiative of narrative change” that highlights precisely the need to “return to basic values, such as empathy, togetherness, and community participation and learn to live these values at all levels of our work.” This experience reminds us that narrative work “requires human rights actors to be living embodiments of their stories; showing is much more powerful than telling. What we do is the narrative; what we say is our effort to frame it.”
Donor competition and their drive for a type of impact that remains superficial erodes the core values of the human rights movement and advocates are doing little or nothing to address it. They are falling into a trap that will lead to the trivialization of their work and its surrounding discourse.
I do not propose that “noble causes” should be a concern for small sectors of the population. On the contrary, the mass use of the language of human rights, so that it becomes a culture, that is, a collective identity that guides our behavior, should be our goal; but this massification should not sacrifice the content, but rather transform the latter from within a practice that sets the tone of the discourse.
Ligia Bolívar is Venezuelan and lives in Colombia. She is the founder and coordinator of AlertaVenezuela, former director of the Human Rights Center of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, founder of Provea, and was a member of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International.