Something strange is happening to the human rights discourse. Few people are paying attention, but like a cat whose hair bristles before the unknown, close observers have switched to alert mode.
What are we talking about? New phraseologies. Established human rights language giving way to slogans. Neologisms. Hyperboles and metalepses. Instances of pure linguistic engineering. Social justice rhetoric, much of it coming from a critical theory perspective, is making its way into the human rights movement.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these innovations. Languages are living organisms. They change as the needs of speakers and societies evolve, and tropes appear when new realities emerge. New words, new uses, and new meanings make sense in their own context. Human rights aren’t a frozen monolith either. As tools to check how power is exercised, formulate grievances, and uphold dignity, human rights are open to change.
However, winning human rights battles depends on bringing ordinary people on board the human rights cause—and it starts with the language we use. As a human rights advocate and researcher, I’ve witnessed how recent rhetorical shifts are turning people off human rights. This is happening in three different ways and at three distinct levels: when we do advocacy with the general public, when we interact in the private sphere, and when we deliberate within the human rights movement itself.
Making human rights less clear: how we confuse people
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, in 1948, human rights have made their way into mainstream discourse. Irrespective of their political leaning, people who read the news know at least some human rights terminology: presumption of innocence, arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, the right to food, etc. From a linguistic perspective, these terms are clear.
“The clearer your message, the better chance you have to convince your audience” says a basic rule of advocacy. Yet a look at contemporary human rights paints a disturbing picture. After 75 years of efforts, human rights folks are switching to a new, vaguer rhetoric.
One of its most striking features is its reliance on buzzwords. Take, for example, the word “equity.” Like a specter in a hallway, it’s hard to describe, hard to catch, and hard to make sense of. It’s nowhere to be found in international human rights treaties, national laws, or court rulings. Its ambiguity is at odds with the glibness with which human rights folks have come to use it (try googling “vaccine equity,” “racial equity,” or “gender equity”). At a recent human rights workshop, speakers’ ad nauseam use of “equity” led a colleague of mine to ask me whether we were in fact discussing equality. Even human rights folks are lost.
Take the words “justice” and “accountability.” At first sight, they raise no issue: a large chunk of human rights work is to hold abusers to account, ensure that due process is upheld, and secure redress for victims. Yet activists have come to use these words in such an expansive fashion that common sense is unable to define them anymore. One hears about “reproductive justice,” “environmental justice,” or “accountability for women and girls in humanitarian settings.” Iteration after iteration, even human rights folks struggle to understand what “equity” means and why it’s replacing equality, or why “justice” and “accountability” are used so loosely that they can refer to any desirable social outcome. These words mean myriad things. They’ve become fetishes.
Pedagogy is built on repetition, and since advocacy is a form of pedagogy, repetition is usually good for advocacy. But the condition is to convey clear messages. If words are vague, then messages are unclear and repetition becomes counterproductive. Overusing words means spoiling them and depriving them of their value.
Let’s take a few other examples, which have triggered debate within the human rights movement. What exactly do the slogans “defunding the police” or “dismantling systemic racism” mean? The first seems to refer to anything from abolishing police to reducing purchases of heavy weapons, or reallocating funding to social programs—there are dozens of possible interpretations, some of which make sense to address police violence. Any questioning of the second can land you an accusation of racism (it’s happened to me, after 10 years of work in the human rights field). But a look at how activists use the expression leaves us to wonder: if “dismantling systemic racism” actually means “fighting racism,” why not say it this way? If it means “cracking down on racist police officers,” why not make it clear? If it means something else, why not explain it? Definitions are circular and questioning the rhetoric is met with contempt or outrage. Yet more clarity would help foster a constructive debate.
The performative assertions and programmatic rhetoric of critical social justice activism aren’t based on existing human rights law, clear state obligations, or reasonable expectations of what human rights can achieve in the short run. As a result, the human rights discourse is vaguer and vaguer. By setting goals human rights cannot meet and assigning ambitions they cannot match, critical social justice rhetoric ends up diluting human rights. If we claim there is a human rights-based approach to every social problem, we pave the way for failure: if human rights are everywhere, they end up being nowhere.
Making human rights less credible: how we irritate people
Social justice rhetoric imports are producing another form of backlash. They don’t just look confusing. They irritate people.
Take the oxymoron "silence is violence." There’s no way it can be a human rights approach to free expression. While refusing to stand idly by in the face of injustice is legitimate, we cannot enjoin people to speak out, equating being silent (a protected right under human rights law) with actively committing violence. Take the expression “vaccine apartheid,” which conflates differences in COVID-19 vaccination rates and a violent, institutionalized system of racial domination. It not only ignores the greater (as of early 2022) availability of vaccines in African cities (and many Africans’ reluctance to get the shots); it also lightly throws an accusation that requires an extremely high level of proof.
Take other hyperbolic assertions like “white supremacy is everywhere” or “all men are rapists.” They’re both easily defeated by observation. Take one more example: “Men are trash.” Before I deleted my Twitter account (in part to take distance from the human rights bubble), I replied to an activist I was following who used that phrase in response to an article on domestic violence. I highlighted that such an insult, directed at an entire category of people based on immutable characteristics, was unacceptable (imagine replacing “men” with “women” or “people of color”). Her reply? I was being “fragile.” Where does the human rights movement go from there? If we are unable to convince each other, how are we going to convince the public?
But there’s more. Take the metalepses reproductive and LGBTI rights organizations now routinely use: “pregnant people,” “people with uteruses,” “people who menstruate” (the latter led to social media campaigns against J.K. Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others).
These rhetorical devices, and hyperboles and political correctness in general, put people on guard. When we eliminate nuance and abandon discernment, we erase the world’s complexities. We make human rights look simplistic. The more hyperbolic assertions get, the more righteous human rights folks feel, the less credible they are.
The same process occurs when we make human rights less flexible than they should be. Critical social justice rhetoric imports are rigidifying human rights through compulsory capitalizations (one must write Black and Indigenous, but white). This is purely engineered language.
Critical social justice activism now imposes the use of “womxn” to include both women in the traditional, biological sense of the word, as well as trans women, women of color, and non-binary people. It’s gaining traction on human rights Twitter. It also imposes “Latinx,” a descriptor that removes gender specificity but has been criticized for being out of sync with Latino communities. These neologisms were created to address gaps in inclusion and visibility. I get it. And I have nothing against people using pronouns in their bio, provided it doesn’t become compulsory. But when I tried to explain these innovations to non-human rights friends, I put them on guard instantly. In discussions with colleagues, we can feel the same unease.
Every activist should try this: introduce “womxn,” “Latinx,” or “people who menstruate” to family members or acquaintances—anyone who isn’t involved in human rights. Write them down. Observe their reaction. Then try explaining why more and more human rights folks advocate “safe spaces” and restrictions to free speech on the basis of overly broad definitions of “harm,” or regard the latter as a fig-leaf for the oppression of minorities. Then consider this simple question from a mere tactical standpoint: will critical social justice rhetoric help human rights win hearts and minds?
Rhetorical shifts take human rights folks further and further away from common sense. Like Humpty Dumpty, we look like tyrannical individuals who demand that words mean just what we choose them to mean—neither more nor less. This reflects a deep misconception about what languages are: systems of communication. Words are always subject to negotiation with other speakers. Changes of meanings cannot be unilateral. In short: a speaker cannot demand that words be interpreted the way they want. If human rights activists do like Humpty Dumpty, they’ll destroy consensus over the meaning of words and expose themselves to Alice’s objection: “The question is whether you can make words mean different things.”
Making human rights less universal: how we tribalize people
As the human rights discourse gets less clear and less credible, it also gets less universal. Rhetorical shifts reflect the tribalization of the human rights movement.
Outside the US, unease is growing over the expression “racialized people.” In countries that reject the use of the word “races” to refer to human groups, it raises red flags. (In my own country, France, people on the Left are tearing each other to pieces over “personnes racisées.”) One must ask: is it wise for human rights folks to uncritically adopt this neologism to refer to minorities, or its twin (“non-racialized people”) to refer to white people? Does it make sense to use these words in black-majority countries? I tried it in Uganda. It wasn’t a terrific success: my Ugandan friends had a good laugh.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, Spanish-based activists tried to organize a “racialized and antiracist humanitarian aid caravan.” Its objective: helping “refugiadxs racializadxs” (sic). My point isn’t to say that racism at the Polish-Ukrainian border is unimportant. Racial discrimination anywhere must be condemned. But what are activists achieving with this esoteric language? They speak to themselves; they might speak to each other; but they don’t speak (or even attempt to reach out) to the public. As a result of extreme niche activism, human rights end up looking like a catalogue for categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories of people, each emphasizing what differentiates them over what makes them members of the human family—a process that’s at odds with the human rights project. As critical social justice rhetoric moves away from traditional human rights language, fewer people can relate to it. Its main function seems to be reinforcing group cohesion. Its adoption is both a rite of passage and a sign of group belonging.
As armed conflict was about to break out in Ethiopia in 2020, I had a deep conversation with an Ethiopian friend. Taking his country as an example, he pointed out how dangerous it was to stir up identity rhetoric and enshrine ethnicity as the primary marker of people’s social and political identity. When I mentioned that identity politics was making its comeback, he couldn’t find words strong enough to express his disgust at the state of human rights (and broader social justice activism) in the US.
Human rights language was designed for legal purposes and to avoid doing politics in the tribal sense of the word. If we replace it with critical social justice rhetoric, we reenter politics. Doing so, we provide ammunition to those seeking to delegitimize human rights activists as mere politicians… and we could end up giving an assist to the Right.
This isn’t to say that human rights aren’t political. They are. This isn’t to say that human rights actors should always stay out of politics. This is illusory—human rights are about reining in those in power and confronting abuses. But we’re not talking about that kind of politics here. We’re talking about the kind of identity-based politics that makes activists lose battles before they have even started. We’re talking about human rights sounding particularist, not universal.
As slogans turn into mantras and mantras turn into dogmas, they do little beyond preaching to the converted. As critical social justice activists get drunk on their new power, they feel authorized to deem dissenters outdated (at best) or monsters (at worst). How did we get there?
Between US imperialism and group conformity
I spend part of my time in Africa, working with Africans. In the last conversations we had on these issues, many expressed unease. They lamented the imposition of US activists’ rhetoric to describe realities that aren’t American, highlighted the prevalence of (and lack of global attention to) racism not just toward Africans but within Africa and among Africans, and deplored US activists’ focus on police violence in the US, which results in near total indifference for police violence in Nigeria, Kenya, or South Africa, which is comparably eons worse, at least by the numbers.
Many Africans reject US activists’ identity rhetoric. They reject its imposition of certain words and phraseologies, and its ban on other words. They reject the condescension US activists display when they refuse to include the Indian Ocean slave trade in global conversations about the legacies of Africans’ enslavement. They also stress that racism is a global, complex, and multifaceted phenomenon. Last year, a Sudanese activist told me about his experience of racism as a child. In Sudan, differences in skin color often result in unequal treatment. Compared to his darker-complexioned siblings, he systematically got larger servings of food in restaurants. He went on to tell me how US activists’ focus on systemic racism in the West was undermining African efforts to address racism in Africa.
In this regard, UN negotiations on racism illustrate how US activism is harming global human rights work. While observers noticed significant change in US human rights discourse (much of it is welcome; the Trump administration had set the bar low), this move came with the adoption of social justice rhetoric. “Equity,” “racial justice,” “Latinx,” and the systematic use of pronouns in bios are among the most noticeable. (President Biden didn’t go as far as endorsing the “defund the police” movement.) These changes in official US rhetoric won’t address the skyrocketing levels of polarization of domestic politics, but they contribute to solidifying rhetorical shifts in the global human rights movement.
On multiple levels, US actors are reinforcing their grip on the human rights discourse. US groups’ investment in the UN Human Rights Council in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder is a case in point. As the world watched the horrifying video of George Floyd’s last moments, the Council decided to hold debates and adopt resolutions on systemic racism and police violence. US groups entered that space en masse, which was understandable given the need for justice expressed by victims and their families. But when it comes to submitting reports to the UN, many African human rights groups simply cannot compete with their American counterparts.
Questions therefore emerged around reports the UN subsequently prepared, as they focused on what are essentially US issues (gun violence and high incarceration rates). New UN resolutions also came on top of decades-long efforts to address racism. Within the UN human rights system, eight or nine mechanisms on racism already existed before a new one was created, in 2021. Some asked: what will a new mechanism achieve that the existing ones haven’t been able to achieve? Some also asked: where are African issues? The UN’s exclusive focus on racism in the West erased racism in other parts of the world. But this isn’t it. As negotiations were ongoing with Cameroon as the facilitator, others started wondering: why are US activists praising Cameroon? That country’s position within the negotiating framework ensured it constant applause, which ran counter to and damaged efforts by African NGOs to bring attention to the abuses Cameroon commits against its own people. US activists’ ignorance of non-US issues was detrimental to non-US activists’ efforts.
This points to two different, yet concomitant, phenomena: US cultural imperialism and individuals’ strategic choices. The former is clear. Language is intertwined with power dynamics, and the human rights movement is no exception. While African NGOs were being pushed out, Western states operated a U-turn. Under Trump, most of them were terrified of supporting a UN resolution condemning racism and even mentioning the US. After Biden’s inauguration, many started including “systemic racism” in their statements. A French diplomat recently told me how his country was now isolated, even within the EU, on racism rhetoric. The irony shouldn’t be lost on critical social justice activists. They claim to “de-center” the West but end up re-centering it. It’s precisely the kind of power they despise—US cultural imperialism—that’s about to make their rhetoric mainstream.
The latter operates at another level. Like for any dominant language, becoming competent in the new rhetoric comes with benefits. For a range of reasons—solidarity with US activists, fear of ostracization, career ambitions, or group conformity—human rights folks feel that they must take up the new rhetoric, or even engage in self-flagellation exercises worthy of the Moscow trials.
Resisting the imposition of a US-centered vision of how we should talk about human rights isn’t easy. US-based foundations and donors, including OSF and the Ford Foundation, are among the largest donors to human rights organizations. And they’re massively investing in social justice-inspired programs that are rooted in critical theory and identity activism.
Whether the critical social justice rhetoric of US activism takes over the human rights movement remains to be seen. The risk, however, is clear. If open debate is replaced with anathema, values with raw power relations, and rights with particularist claims, the human rights discourse will become irrelevant for most people.
This isn’t to say that we should reject all linguistic innovations. Restructurings and reinterpretations are always possible. If activists convince a critical mass of people that the new rhetoric adequately describes reality and helps improve respect for rights, then they might succeed. But then I must tell them: be patient. Explain why you believe the new rhetoric makes sense. Don’t hammer it home and insult those who disagree. Above all: self-reflect and reach out to the public. Remember that you can always leave the tribe. Think critically and value nonconformism.
If the human rights movement fails to do this, it will turn people off human rights. As a discursive strategy, subsuming human rights under critical social justice rhetoric might prove to be more than a mistake. It could be a suicide.