In his new book, The Mass Appeal of Human Rights,Joel R. Pruce, University of Dayton assistant professor of human rights, details the evolution of human rights into a mainstream moral cause.

Looking at human rights flashpoints during the past 40 years, Pruce examines how benefit concerts, celebrity endorsements, graphic imagery of suffering and branded outreach campaigns affect human rights organizations’ abilities to build enthusiasm and goodwill among the masses.

“I found these strategies can be effective in attracting a large number of supporters but weaken the viability of human rights by commodifying its practices,” Pruce said. “The public demonstrates a desire to engage on global issues, but major campaigns fail to transform this moral awakening into political mobilization. Instead of cultivating committed supporters, the tendency of these campaigns is toward crafting advocacy practices that are convenient and fun.

“My hope is that, after reading this book, advocates and practitioners will examine the associations they create through campaigns with mass appeal and consider how to more profoundly connect with the public around human rights issues.”

Pruce provided the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign as an example of a recent effort that went viral and fizzled out.

 “It relied on sharp marketing and clever video editing but never challenged supporters to step outside of themselves,” Pruce said. “Political change places deeper demands on us. Human rights promotion cannot be reduced to merchandising and entertainment.” 

Amanda Murdie, Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations and professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, recommended Pruce’s book as “a must-read for both scholars and advocates.”

“By highlighting the precarious position advocates often find themselves in with distracted publics, Pruce’s study pushes research in this area in new — and more realistic — directions,” added Murdie. 

In addition to teaching courses on the politics of human rights, human rights and foreign policy, and international law and organization, Pruce researches nongovernmental organizations and advocacy, and mass media and visual culture in human rights.

In conjunction with partners on and off campus, Pruce leads the Moral Courage Project, which trains students in “human rights storytelling” to identify and celebrate individuals who take risks to make important contributions in their communities during moments of crisis. By seeking overlooked stories and marginalized voices, the Moral Courage Project aims to learn from those most directly affected by the crisis.

The first project was in Ferguson, Missouri, capturing stories of people who shaped and witnessed the 2014 protests after the killing of Michael Brown. The team produced an award-winning interactive website, podcast and a traveling exhibit. In May, Pruce led another group to El Paso, Texas, to take testimonies of people defending human rights along the U.S.-Mexico border.