Know Your Rights: Human rights for music fans

This blog is about human rights and music. A curious topic for a blog, you may legitimately muse. How might human rights and music collide? One way they might is where songs have been banned or censored, and as such issues such as freedom of speech and expression are engaged, but that is not what this blog is concerned with. In fact, this post is about using songs as a means of teaching people about human rights, in part inspired by a recent blog about human rights books for kids. It is about making human rights accessible to non-lawyers. It does that by proposing three pieces of music that (to my mind, at least) are worth listening to and have a message about rights that might be used in an educational context.

Before the main act, I set out some background thoughts, which comprise a warm-up for the hard-line pedagogues amongst you. (Feel free to skim read the next three paragraphs if you are only here for the headliners, an action that would be the literary equivalent of staying at the bar when the support act is on.)

Education, communication and music

As explained in a previous post and a brief bio on this blog, my own career has migrated from a (traditional) lawyer role to an academic lawyer teaching in a higher education establishment. If that makes me part-lawyer and part-educator, those parts should not be difficult to reconcile. Fundamental aspects of both jobs are about communication. An effective lawyer/teacher must be able to explain unfamiliar concepts to people in a comprehensible manner. In my teaching role, there are times when my means of communication are dictated to an extent – for example, the centrality of the lecture is evident in most undergraduate LLB programmes – but a certain measure of autonomy remains. Although this post is not a critique of the lecture medium, to the extent there are flaws in the traditional didactic lecture – perhaps relating to capturing and retaining the attention of listeners – quirky tricks can be deployed to break the monotony, such as video clips or question and answer sessions (using “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” style handsets). My favourite quirky trick, of completely unquantifiable effect, is to allocate a lecture a theme tune, normally to be played at the beginning of a lecture. Thus, my students have been introduced to the Scots property law doctrine of accession by Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) – the irony of the refrain “We don’t need no education” is not lost on me. The necessity of the law of succession (inheritance) has been illustrated by Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City and The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize? I have never been called on to teach family law, but if I was I would be sure to deploy Ben Folds Five in any lectures covering financial provision on divorce/separation (Song for the DUMPED) and abortion (Brick).

As I alluded to above, it is not exactly easy to gauge whether or not incorporating music is a useful exercise in anything other than self-indulgence, but I have three indications that my musical preludes might have been useful. The first is one of my lectures was peer-observed by a university colleague outwith the School of Law and I know she has taken to deploying songs in her (medical school*) classes. A second indicator is a small amount of feedback on student course evaluation forms that are handed in by students at the end of term. Needless to say, not all students felt moved to mention my musical selections in their evaluation of my teaching (no doubt they found the tunes horribly retro and quaint – sorry), but of those who did: a) not one made a comment that was negative; and b) several commented that it was a good way to engage the brain before a class (or similar). A third indicator is one specific student telling me she had become a Frank Turner fan after I played Long Live the Queen in a lecture. Actually, that last indicator tells me nothing other than I contributed to her musical knowledge, but in the interests of holistic education I suppose that is a good thing.

Two final comments are offered on the effect a musical interlude may have on listeners, both wildly speculative. 1) Maybe the music manages to tap into something primeval in the way a simple oration cannot. 2) Maybe the musicians have just a little more street-cred than a foosty lecturer ever will. Could that improve information retention, like some kind of musical mnemonic? As with much of this blog, that is not something I am able to quantify, but it is something to ponder.

Human rights songs

The Clash, Know Your Rights

Anyone compiling a list of song about rights who fails to include The Clash’s public service announcement with guitars is doing a disservice to the public. As Joe Strummer drawls, you have: 1) the right not to be killed; 2) the right to food money; and 3) the right to free speech. These rights are, of course, subject to caveats and (sure enough) when you look at the ECHR even the right to life is subject to qualifications. Fortunately freedom of expression is not as qualified as this song imagines, where it suggests you only have a right to free speech “as long as you are not dumb enough to actually try it.”

Soul Asylum, The Judge

Are you in favour of a fair trial? As both Dave Pirner (the Soul Asylum singer) and Ronald Dworkin (the jurist) pondered, “Who’s gonna judge the judge?”

The Levellers, The Battle of the Beanfield

In the opening track of the album “Levelling the Land” the Levellers bemoan the fact that the noise they thought would never stop died a death when the punks grew up. The Levellers have undoubtedly grown up, but the noise of “Levelling the Land” contains so many tracks that reflect the mood of parts of British society in the early nineties and (arguably) remain relevant today. Of the songs on the album, Liberty might capture a fundamental right in its title, and that sentimental quest for freedom continues in The Boatman, but it is the lyrics of The Battle of the Beanfield (based on a police action in 1985) that can provoke resentment and thought in equal measure. Looking at just one line from the song – “it seems they were committing treason, for trying to live on the road” – that might prompt discussions about the right to family life, privacy and even about land use.

Or maybe I am reading too much into all these songs, but there are three for starters. I can also think of songs by Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan, Manic Street Preachers, Sepultura, PJ Harvey, Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine that might be worthy of inclusion, not to mention a fair few folk songs.

To conclude, I would ask two questions:

  1. Do you think the deployment of music could be a worthwhile learning aid?
  2. Assuming so, what songs would you choose?

*Finally, to any medical students who have been subjected to lyrics like, “take another little piece of my heart now, baby…” on the back of me sharing teaching practices with a colleague, I offer my heartfelt apologies.

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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One Response to Know Your Rights: Human rights for music fans

  1. Pingback: Putting the fans in control | basedrones

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