Our Collective Apathy and the Language of Human Rights

By Aheli Guha

More than 340,000 people are dead in Syria.[1] Nearly 700,000 people have fled Myanmar.[2] Nearly 2000 people are in detention for seeking asylum in Australia.[3]

It’s a macabre score-sheet. The numbers are often rounded to neat zeroes to save us trouble. It is symbolic of our current blasé attitude towards human life. We are suffering from the malady of apathy. Wars, ethnic cleansings, drone strikes, general human rights violations and more rage around us and we barely bat an eyelid. The plight of the Rohingyas scarcely make the news. Australia’s refugee policy remains largely unchallenged. Syria has become a regrettable side note.

Like most things, our apathy can be explained in many ways. Maybe we have become numb to the shock of crises. Too desensitised or disillusioned to be angry. Maybe the numbers are too big and too far away to comprehend. From a less charitable perspective, maybe we have turned in on ourselves. Our empathy reserved for only those who look, talk and think like us.

There is perhaps another explanation – the language of human rights itself. It is at its core a legal and academic language that has grown around the international human rights instruments. As a result, it is distant, impersonal and aspires towards objectivity. It is limited in its ability to show reality as it is. Often, it does not do justice to the visceral nature of the human suffering it tries to describe. ‘Extra-judicial killing’ does not bring out the confusion, terror and finality of a knock in the middle of the night, a blind-fold to the eyes and gunshot against a grey wall. ‘Indefinite detention’ does not show that what it really means in fact is the taking away of time, future and purpose from someone’s life by force. ‘Persecution’ does not convey the terror of an individual hounded by the State. Other words, such as ‘trauma’ have become trivialised. Its usage can range in context from a playground injury of a child to the systematic rape of a woman during war.

For those whose job it is to get the truth to the people, it is important to remember that suffering is fundamentally an emotional experience. To represent it with impersonal language is to diminish its reality. It is necessary when writing about human tragedy to reveal to the audience what is happening, without vagueness, without the comforting veil of jargon.

The importance of representing reality as it is lies in the fact that words and images can nudge people towards action, just as it did after people witnessed the horrors of the holocaust, when we said ‘never again’ and created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Or when the media exposed the My Lai massacres to the world, galvanising further support for the anti-war movement of an unprecedented scale. Or the images from Abu Ghraib, shocking many into action against the war in Iraq.

To break our current apathy towards human suffering, perhaps we need to see the bare truth.

[1] http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=79337

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561

[3] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/immigration-detention-statistics


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