Speaking up about injustice is the most important thing any person can do to fight for human rights – here you can learn why.
For an activity on the power and importance of speaking up, see the activity template here.
Every change starts by someone speaking up. For every atrocity that is stopped or prevented, every injustice that has been made right, every oppressor that has been removed, there have been someone willing to begin the process by saying “this is not right – we have to change things”. Speaking up will not solve everything, but it is the first step in any solution.
Speaking up is important because to create change, people need to know: People who do not know about wrongdoings and atrocities cannot do anything about them. And people who do want change need to know that others are willing to stand by them.
The power of dissent
Watch: A powerful story about the power someone speaking up about racial discrimination
History has shown that ordinary people can contribute to extraordinary evil. For the most part, human beings just like to carry on with their lives in peace and quiet, and will not take action to right wrongs unless it is brought to the forefront of their attention. Even worse – when no one speaks up, it is disturbingly easy for people to lose perspective of the moral ramifications of their actions.
In 1963, psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments that aimed to find out how easy or difficult it was to make ordinary people inflict harm on others. Participants were instructed by an authority figure – a man in a lab coat - to push a button to inflict an electrical shock to ‘punish’ another participant when they failed in in various learning tests. As the other participant – in reality an actor hired by Milgram – did progressively worse in the tests, the shock voltage was increased, with the buttons labelled accordingly: from ‘mild pain’ to ‘danger of death’. This way, it was possible to find out how far ordinary people were willing to go.
The results were shocking: as it turns out, the vast majority of people were willing to comply with orders to administer potentially lethal levels of electrical shock to others. All it took was an order from an authority figure, and no one to speak up against him.
However, when Milgram introduced a third person who would openly object to administering painful electrical shocks, the amount of people that were willing to administer extremely painful or lethal shocks plummeted.
Even though this shows that ordinary humans have can easily be swayed to harm others, it also shows that it only takes someone to speak up to prevent this. This is why those who speak up have great power, and that is why they are feared by those who seek to keep or increase power at the expense of the rights and well-being of others.
The dangers of speaking up
When the Taliban gained influence in the Swat-valley in Pakistan, it was getting more and more difficult for girls to get an education. One 12-year old girl named Malala Yousafzai was very worried about this attack on her and her friends’ right to education, and decided to blog about her worries that girls’ need for education was being undermined. Her voice grew powerful and many listened to her. In 2012, three years after she began speaking up, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. She survived by an incredible stroke of luck, and has since been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for girls’ and women’s access to education.
But countless other dissidents, critics and journalists have been jailed, tortured or killed for daring to speak up about injustice. In Bangladesh, secular bloggers have been attacked and killed in the streets. Over the last fifteen years, over 100 media workers have disappeared in Mexico. We have ourselves spoken to people who have been jailed merely for speaking up for the fulfillment of basic human rights for themselves or other marginalised people – those interviews will be posted in the coming months.
This makes it even more important that those who can speak up without fearing punishment or repercussions use their voice to help those whose voices are silenced. Even when speaking from the outside, speaking up can be of real help: amongst many examples, one that stands out is how the South African apartheid regime eventually caved under international pressure.
Some voices have many listeners by default. Popular musicians and movie stars often decide to use their voice – which is heard by millions - to speak up about important issues. For example, a documentary about the consequences of global warming featuring Leonardo DiCaprio was released just last week.
But having a large audience does not mean that the message will be heard or that someone will not try to silence it. Emma Watson, international movie star, have since the end of her Harry Potter-years spent much of her time working with gender equality issues. In 2014, she started work as a UN Goodwill ambassador for gender equality, and launched the HeForShe-campaign, promoting men’s involvement in gender equality issues; all in all a stellar example of someone using their fame and their voice to try to improve the world.
However, when the British Newspaper ‘The Daily Mail’ covered this, they did so by publishing articles about her clothes and style during this campaign – completely subverting and undermining her message.
Speaking out does not guarantee that everyone will hear what you say. Speaking up can mean being censored, threatened or even ridiculed and ignored. But no change is possible without someone speaking up. Everyone will not listen. But someone might, and that can be enough.