Boiling the Frog Yields Diminishing Returns

When a country enjoys relatively good protections for human rights, citing the most extreme examples of rights abuses elsewhere could inspire compancency, not vigilance. To make the defence of the Human Rights Act into a vote winner, we need to frame the debate closer to home.

Last week I made some notes on Yvette Cooper’s speech on the balance between liberty and security. I wrote this:

The Shadow Cabinet need to find the passion and the language to defend the Human Rights Act against a sustained Tory attack. If the entire Labour Party routinely cites liberty as a way of empowering ordinary people, then its support for human rights can become a vote winner.

I have been thinking more about what that ‘language’ shoud be… and what it should not be. Is the current approach to human rights advocacy effective in the British context?
A favourite tactic of human rights campaigners is to argue that a particular policy could send us down a ‘slippery slope’ to more widespread rights violations. We also use the ‘boiling frog‘ analogy, where tiny changes (to the law, or to the temperature in the pan) eventually leads to danger. The argument appears in three guises, depending on whether the end result is similar to an example from 1) fiction; 2) another country; or 3) some point in history.

1. It is worse in fiction

Here is a tweet that is typical of the discourse on the recent PRISM scandal:

For those who haven’t seen it, Enemy of the State is a 1998 film starring Will Smith. A rogue cabal within the NSA wage a war against the hero, who unwittingly stumbles on a conspiracy.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has also been frequently referenced in the discussions over Government snooping.
How helpful are these comparisons when we discuss real-life Government policies? A reference to an extreme dystopia is meant to act as a salutary tale. It is supposed to shock us into action, lest our own society ends up like the fiction. But what if that does not happen? What if the public attitude is simply “well, it could be worse, it could be like Nineteen Eighty-Four“!

2. It is worse in other countries

We do not even need to go to fiction to find examples where the situation is much worse. When it comes to human rights and civil liberties, the UK sits at the positive end of the spectrum. We have a strong rule of law, healthy media, and protection for civil liberties and human rights. There are still problems, of course, but compared to most other countries we are in good shape, and it is simply not serious to suggest otherwise. If campaigners draw too close a comparison between the problems we encounter in the UK, and the problems experienced in (say) Zimbabwe or North Korea, then politicians and the public will not take us seriously. We will be seen as shrill exaggerators.

3. ‘The past is another country’ and things are worse there, too.

In 2009 I helped organised the Convention on Modern Liberty. We produced a series of videos from various notables, on why civil liberties are important. I recorded my own response, taking on the old poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller, ‘And Then They Came For Me‘.

My concern was that perhaps the Pastor’s poem no longer moves people as it should. Perhaps people look at the robust protections we already have in the UK, and think, They Will Never Come For Me. For members of the British white middle-class, assuming Niemöller does not apply to them is an entirely rational assumption. Campaigners need to understand this, if they wish to build support for human rights.
Meanwhile, the lessons of the past are slowly being forgotten. Every year, there are fewer people alive who remember the genuine existential threat posed by the Nazis during the Second World War. The historical lessons from that era are twisted and misappropriated for short-term political point-scoring. Rhetoric has become inflated. Words like ‘fascist’ are deployed against any changes to policy on anything. Warning that a particular illiberal policy risks a slide into ‘totalitarianism’ is not as persuasive as it once might have been.
So, whether we are discussing fictional worlds, foreign lands, or the recent past, Boiling The Frog on The Slippery Slope yields diminishing returns. Of course, there will always be people (myself included) for whom a reference to these places is still persuasive – Amnesty International and English PEN would not have a membership base otherwise. But to create a wider, deeper consensus in support of civil liberties, and to make the defence of the Human Rights Act into a vote winner, we need to frame the debate closer to home. This may mean eschewing discussion of the most egregious human rights violations abroad, in favour of ‘lesser’ human rights issues, that British voters find it easier to identify with.

6 Replies to “Boiling the Frog Yields Diminishing Returns”

  1. Really appreciate the point you’re making, it’s all too easy to use the slippery slope argument. Perhaps in your next post you could expand on your thoughts of what to do instead? Thanks for the insight.

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