Compassionate communication as human solidarity

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Compassionate communication as human solidarity

Cees J. Hamelink

In a recent book on “Communication and Human Rights”, I propose that all discussions on communication rights, the right to communicate or the right to communication should be based upon the notion of “communicative justice”.1 This means doing justice to the human capacity for compassionate communication. This mode of human communicative behaviour features four fundamental human rights principles. Its realisation is possible only when Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is taken seriously.

In the UDHR four principles are essential: the respect for human dignity, the right to freedom, the right to equality, and the right to security. Applying these principles to human communication – in its manifold manifestations – four basic standards emerge: communicative dignity, communicative freedom, communicative equality, and communicative security.

Communicative dignity means that communicative behaviour is guided by respect for human dignity. It avoids the humiliation of people through de-individualization, discrimination, disempowerment, and degradation. Communicative freedom means that people are free to accept or reject each other’s claims on the basis of reasons they can evaluate. The respect for the communicative freedom of others requires that we accept the other as fundamentally different from us and see their alterity as a unique feature that cannot be assimilated and reduced to similarity.

Communicative equality means that in communicative behaviour the participants are equal to initiate communication, that speech acts are symmetrical, and that communication roles are reciprocal. Communicative security means communicating in a caring manner. Security means knowing you will be cared for. A secure society is a community of mutual care in which people are protected against forms of verbal and non-verbal harm to their physical, mental or moral integrity. Since human security is most deeply undermined by experiencing anxiety, communicative behaviour avoids practices and politics of fearmongering. Communicative security also requires an environment in which people can trust that their interactions are not monitored by third parties.

I propose to place the notion of “communicative justice” at the core of these communicative standards:

Communicative justice

The concept “communicative justice” refers to a not-yet-realised common standard of human communicative behaviour. This standard represents an entitlement to dignity, equality, freedom, and security in all human communicative acts. It represents a mode of communication that does justice to the human capacity for compassion.

The core of compassionate communication is human solidarity. The notion of solidarity originates in Roman law, where it referred to the accountability of each member of a certain community for the debts of any other. This limited view of solidarity was expanded with the French revolution when solidarité took on a meaning beyond the context of the law and came to suggest the idea of mutual responsibility between an individual and society. Solidarity began to mean a commitment of the individual to support the community and a commitment of the community to support the individual. This is primarily a moral commitment that cannot be enforced as a legal duty.

The concept, however, provides a framework of mutual obligations and responsibilities among members of communities (local, national, and even global) that binds them to the realisation of standards of common achievement. This resonates with early ancient philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle who discussed solidarity as virtue ethics because in order to live a good life one must behave in a way that is in solidarity with the community.

Compassionate communication is an act of constructive power against the destructive power of communication. This mode of communication presents alternative solutions, includes all in an open and critical dialogue, explores the multiplicity of knowledges, and exposes deliberate acts of harm to the life-environment.


Human rights tell inspirational stories through which people can become agents of their own destiny. The human rights regime presents us with an image of a compassionate world. This amounts to the challenge to go from imagining a human rights-based society to realising a human rights-based society. Against the imagination of a world that accepts human rights as “common standard of achievement” (UDHR), there are formidable forces that are hostile to the imagination of autonomy, equality, and human security.

The communicative justice that I have described requires a process of institutional and mental transformation to a caring, egalitarian, convivial and secure social order. This reflects the provision of the often forgotten Article 28 of the UDHR which states: “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This transformation means having the moral courage to commit to active participation in the public cause, to revolt against situations that we experience as unjust and immoral, to accept that our moral universe extends to future generations but also to new arrivals in our societies such as refugees and migrants.

Realising that living always means living with others, we have to take responsibility for a world in which we and others can live with dignity, freedom, equality and security. We have to decide how we will relate to this moral challenge.


1. Cees J. Hamelink (2023). Communication and Human Rights. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Cees J. Hamelink is emeritus professor of international communication at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.