Can empathy address human rights opposition and fatigue?

The Scottish Human Rights Bill is set to be introduced in the summer of this year, 2024. In addition to the already protected rights within the Human Rights Act 1998, The Scottish Human Rights Bill will bring Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR) into affect along with rights specific to ensuring the elimination of racial discrimination (ICERD), discrimination against women (CEDAW), and the protection of rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD). This is a hugely positive move in the protection and fulfilment of human rights for Scottish citizens.

Human Rights attitudes

Human Rights as a framework have received support and praise since the famous United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1984.

As with other conceptual frameworks, human rights have not been without sceptics and opponents. Human rights academics such as Samuel Moyn, Charles Jones and Andreas Spahn have employed a healthy amount of critique of human rights as a framework and offer interesting narratives into the potential pitfalls of human rights if left unchecked. These critiques focus on the danger of the individualistic nature of human rights, and the potential for them to unknowingly contribute to a growth in inequality because they provide a foundation of what each person is entitled to; while omitting a limit or a ‘ceiling’ on the levels of enjoyment of each right for citizens.

However, I would suggest that it is by being open to and aware of the critiques of human rights that we can avoid these pitfalls. The argument that human rights may contribute to growing inequality sparked a movement that emphasised that human rights should not be considered in a vacuum, and rights based policies should always consider a reduction in inequality simultaneously.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has adopted this proactive ‘checking’ of human rights in the form of the Attitudes to Human Rights in Scotland survey. The 2023 survey found that people in Scotland are more likely to support human rights than not, and that there was an increased concern from people about experiencing fewer human rights. The survey also found that 10% of those that took part were opposed to human rights, 13% were disengaged and 30% were conflicted on the topic.

Just like our human rights sceptics, there is a small fraction of the Scottish population that are either opposed to or conflicted about human rights. The question that this poses is: how can we address human rights opposition or apathy in order to further the protection of the rights and freedoms of the Scottish population? One such answer might lie with the pivotal role that empathy can play in both human rights and equality.

Why is empathy important for human rights?

Jamil Zaki- professor of psychology at Stanford University- has argued that contrary to popular belief, empathy is not an innate fixed trait, but is rather a skill that we can strengthen.

“Empathy is not really one thing at all. It’s an umbrella term that describes multiple ways people respond to one another, including sharing, thinking about, and caring about others” (Page 178, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Jami Zaki, 2019)

The correlation between low levels of empathy and occurrences of discrimination and in-out group thinking, have been widely documented within literature. At its heart, empathy is about sharing what makes us ‘human’. Empathy brings into focus the human experience of other individuals, forces us to consider how they feel and increases our concern for their wellbeing and in turn, our own.

 The role that empathy can play in alleviating human rights scepticism, opposition and rights fatigue has the potential to be pivotal for not only human rights but also for equality more generally.  To paraphrase Lynn Hunt (Inventing Human Rights, 2007), equality is not just an abstract concept and human rights is not just a political slogan; Rather it must be internalised in some way, and one of those ways is through empathy. 

In our current geo-political time of fraction and tension, reminding ourselves of the important role that empathy can play in the realisation of human rights and equality has never been greater. And so, I end this opinion piece with one simple ask: Keep sharing your experiences with each other and keep building your capacity for empathy one conversation at a time.

End of page.

You may also like:

Written by: Margaret Fender, General Practice Nursing Transformation Lead, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Published: 10/07/2024

Why self management is the transformational change needed within our health care services, from the Nursing Transformation Lead at NHSGGC.

Continue reading
Written by: Shari McDaid PhD, Head of Policy and Public Affairs (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), The Mental Health Foundation Published: 02/07/2024

The Mental Health Foundation's, Shari McDaid PhD, tells us why challenging poverty stigma is vital for people's mental health.

Continue reading
Written by: Grace Beaumont, Programme Manager - Self Management Published: 11/04/2024

Self Management Programme Manager Grace reflects on the fifteenth anniversary of Gaun Yersel, the Self Management Strategy for Scotland.

Continue reading
Back to all opinions