Students open the discussion for difficult dialogues
A generous atmosphere of enthusiasm hummed through Ford Hall on the night of Nov. 1st, 2012, as Ithaca College administrators, faculty, students and community members greeted each other with excitement. Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Peggy R. Williams Difficult Dialogues Symposium promised another engaging discourse about a complex and dynamic subject. On the heels of Hurricane Sandy, Sheryl WuDunn arrived with energetic reception from an audience eager to learn about her book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, co-authored by her husband, Nicholas Kristof.
With the approving nods and clapping hands of President Tom Rochon, President Emerita Peggy R. Williams, and IC benefactors in attendance, the audience also projected an unconditional acceptance of Sheryl WuDunn’s strident denouncement of gendered oppression worldwide. However, the discourse offered by WuDunn and Kristof fails to address the role of the U.S. in the global oppression of women. A group of students realized this acute failure of the movement and decided to respond.
The book is part of a larger movement that includes a documentary film, a Facebook game, live presentations by WuDunn and Kristof and an interactive website. Though WuDunn is not present in the film, Kristof stars as the activist/journalist/savior, alongside guest celebrities, as the audience hops across Africa and Asia witnessing vignettes of horrific oppression.
We ask: What does it mean to point a camera in the face of a young woman and ask her to relive her rape for viewers like us? In what ways does charity allow us to dissociate ourselves from the problem? Can we become saviors through monetary aid while ignoring the causes of global violence against women? The Difficult Dialogues Symposium quickly turned out to be nothing more than a difficult monologue, as we realized that the Half the Sky movement answered none of these questions. In an attempt to open up a true dialogue about the causes of oppression and global inequities, we came together to ask WuDunn some questions instead.
After the initial campus screening of Half the Sky on Oct. 5th, we came together to discuss the flaws of the Half the Sky movement. Each of us brought our knowledge to the discussion—pulling from scholarship on patriarchy and paternalism; colonialism and capitalism; wars and technology; systems of oppression and structural inequality; institutionalized racism and media representation; international aid and national dependencies;ideologies and socialization; self-organizing and resistance movements; and counternarratives offered by marginalized groups of people. Together, we diligently and consciously worked to articulate highly informed critiques of the Half the Sky movement.
At the symposium, we asked cogent, concise questions about the movement’s appalling flaws, such as its avoidance of critical issues like the historical processes (e.g. war devastation and colonial exploitation) that have brought us to “today’s moral challenge.”
Rather than address structures and systems that create poverty and gender inequity, the movement advocates giving women some money and educational opportunities. One problem (of many) with the movement is that it ignores men. It declares that women are the solution, but it doesn’t identify the problem (i.e. the causes of gender inequity). Neither in the book nor in the film do they ask a man about his opinions or experiences. It seems to us that in order to “Turn Oppression into Opportunity,” one must analyze the oppression and address the oppressive regimes in place. Instead, Kristof and WuDunn sell their readers/customers the idea that all these poor African and Asian women need is our economic aid. Their answer to these multiple forms of oppression is to give women money.
Kristof and WuDunn are receiving a lot of attention and cultural revenue from Half the Sky. Their product does not confront U.S. citizens. Their product does not implicate our public policies. Their product does not offer a holistic view of the oppression of women. Instead, their product positions U.S. citizens as potential saviors of poor, helpless Africans and Asians. This is why their book is a best-seller. The status quo in the US is not questioned — an easy answer is offered.
Uncritical and uninformed, but good-hearted, consumers of Half the Sky will feel compelled to participate in their project. The “solution” they offer is not only ineffective (as it fails to address structural and systemic causes of poverty and inequity), but harmful. The problem is that their project reinforces a worldview in which we are innocent and superior, and those Others from that Other land are backwards, violent savages.
Through our questions at the symposium, we wanted to provide people with critical frameworks so that they can question the superficiality and harmfulness of Half the Sky’s approach to “saving the world, one woman at a time” (a paternalistic, agency-removing phrase taken from the book’s dedication).
We would like to comment on The Ithacan’s problematic coverage of the event. Rather than report on our collective efforts and questions of resistance, the article, “Half the Sky incites student opposition,” positioned us as uninformed, angry, hostile and disruptive. It is no surprise that a mainstream paper would play a role in perpetuating popular narratives while denouncing those who criticize it in any way. The Ithacan offered us an Editorial spot, but when we responded that we would only submit a response if they guaranteed not to edit our submission, they did not respond to us.
In our defense, a number of us watched the film, read the book and researched the many critiques of Half the Sky circulating within the feminist and activist blogospheres. We came together, discussed the movement extensively and formulated erudite questions with the intention of opening dialogue.
When we challenged WuDunn and Kristof for his unethical journalistic approach, as well as the way the film portrayed these young women and the countries they live in, we were not challenging the awareness they are raising about international atrocities against women. It is not about denouncing the intention of the work they do, but rather critiquing how they do it and challenging them to do it in a way that is more respectful to the young girls depicted.
It seems that because we challenged her and her husband’s work and this popular narrative of the white man’s burden, The Ithacan portrayed us as critics with invalid opinions who don’t actually see all the good that this movement is doing. But does all this “good” make up for the negative results of the film? How it doesn’t portray these young women who are victims of oppression as having any agency or resistance? How it ignores the larger, structural issues (including U.S. involvement) that have aided in this international gendered oppression? How it portrays Kristof and these celebrities as saviors who can help to raid brothels and arrest rapists in order to “save” these young women?
As evinced by the coverage of the symposium, it is clear that The Ithacan is not sincere in creating an inclusive, accepting and fair environment for all opinions. Instead, what is taking place is the culture of silence (and silencing, for that matter). How can we create difficult dialogues when the privileged ostracize the subjugated?
White guilt and the horrors of American capitalism cannot be cured through charity. Too often individuals look to cure the symptoms of social inequality while blatantly ignoring the causes. It is easier to work in the short term than to take up the much needed task of devising long-term solutions. If difficult dialogue had truly been the framework/aim of this event, it would have brought the privileged and the oppressed together to deconstruct issues of racism, sexism, nativism, ableism, classism, agism, neocolonialism and all other roots of social inequalities.
We do not want to discredit those working within The Ithacan, especially those who continue to create the needed struggle in writing articles that allow for the oppressed to speak out while being oppressed themselves. We understand that, as with any bureaucracy, there is a hierarchy of power within The Ithacan that they too are often silenced by. The result is a culture of silence and silencing whereby the privileged do not even have to acknowledge or begin to deconstruct privileges. We are distracted from the truly difficult dialogues that need to take place, and that deconstruct the complex and intricate issues of social inequality. Also, it is truly disrespectful and simply uninformed to suggest, as the article did, that no thought and work is put into constructive criticism.
Too many organizations and individuals look to fix the symptoms and not the cause while completely enveloped in their privileges. This is the stance of Half the Sky and of The Ithacan’s reportage. If we cannot have a genuinely difficult dialogue that addresses issues of privilege and subjugation, we will continue to condone racism, sexism, classism, ableism, nativism, neocolonialism, agism and all other forms in which social inequalities take root.
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