The Awkward Squad and the Horseshoe Nail

Darkness. Brazil elects a proud fascist. A gunman murders eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The EU is becoming unsafe: authoritarians are on the rise in Italy, Hungary, and Poland; Journalists have been murdered in Malta and Bulgaria. All around the world, politicians, the press and the people are asking themselves how and why things have declined so quickly and catastrophically.

Now more than ever we need to stand up for human rights. They’re the shield that activists can use to resist oppression, and they are the tools and the source code around which free societies can be built… or resurrected.

The question recurs, “how shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

This quote from one of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest recorded speeches (tweeted by Kevin Gannon of Grand View University as part of a thread on how Lincoln’s ‘conservatism’ compares to modern Republican policies) speaks to one of the crucial lessons I’ve learned while working for English PEN. The crucial phrase in the passage above is “in the least particular”.
You have to sweat the small stuff. Human rights activists often have to be the ‘awkward squad’, nit-picking and raising awkward questions of well-intentioned laws that might have unintended consequences.
Yes, there are times when the human rights abuse is so egregious and the cause so just that everyone can support the campaign without too much thought. The case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia is one such example: The salient facts of that case can be summed up in just a few words, and my poster doing just that has been photographed and shared thousands of times.

Vigil for Raif Badawi, London, 13 Jan 2017. Photo by Alisdare Hickson, Creative Commons.
Vigil for Raif Badawi, London, 13 Jan 2017. Photo by Alisdare Hickson, Creative Commons.

But usually, human rights campaigns are in protest at ‘lesser’ violations where the harm is not so obvious, or where the person whose rights are transgressed is a less sympathetic character. Demanding  votes or books for prisoners, for example. Expressing concern about the wording of revenge porn laws. Protesting the prosecution of people who make offensive jokes about murder victims, or who make ironic use of violent hashtags. Upbraiding politicians who use language of censorship.
I’ve often cited Pastor Martin Niemöller‘s famous poem ‘First They Came For The Socialists’ in discussions of human rights campaigning. Its brilliant and important and true, but its also sometimes unhelpful. In his text, Niemöller conjures an image of (presumably) jack-booted militants knocking on the doors of first socialists, then trades unionists, then Jews, &cetera, until there is no-one left to speak up for him when the soldiers finally arrive at his own door. But in the poem, even the first outrage (‘the socialists’) is an obvious and clear cut act of tyranny, one that we would all recognise.
In reality, that’s not how the frog is boiled. The poem should not begin ‘First They Came For…’ anyone in particular. More accurate would be ‘First They Issued Prison Service Instruction To Revise The Incentives And Earned Privileges Scheme’. Or ‘First They Added The Word ‘Offensive’ To Section 127 Of The Communications Act’. Or some other technicality. Introducing a small weakness, that can induce bigger and more catastrophic problems.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

That’s where it starts. Not with a knock at the door but with minor tweaks to the law, demanded by people with no particular malign intent, who get frustrated when the ‘awkward squad’ of human rights campaigners start ‘banging on about free speech’ or the family rights of terrorists or whatever. Such campaigns might seem esoteric or even politically correct, but they are a strategic approach to defending human rights in the broader sense.


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