During an autumnal equinox the Sun spends about an equal time above and below the horizon at all points of the Earth. September 23 is the date for this year’s equinox. For the rest of 2014, the northern hemisphere will pine the loss of sunlight as the other half of the globe rejoices its gain. For a brief period during equinox, however, we are all equals. At least in this single, solar respect.
In most other departments, that simple, elegant equality does not resolve tidily. Not on any day of the year, in fact. Once you’re on the ground, inside the clutch of our gritty atmosphere, the peaks and valleys of human privilege and disparity stand in stark contrast. Some are always stuck in the cold. That is the stuff of injustice and inequality.
Sticking with this theme, UN Women just launched a “solidarity movement for gender equality” entitled #HeForShe. The announcement a couple days ago featured Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame and now the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, and a stirring speech about her identity as a feminist. Watson received astounding press coverage for her appearance, scoring hits in nearly every news outlet one may care to think of. Diverse media from Buzzfeed to the Guardian, and plenty of Canadian media too, switched gears to cover Watson’s “game-changing” speech—proving once again that pop culture and mass media can lock gears seamlessly with the machines of major international organizations and crank up a story that the whole internet can get on board with.
There is truly no substitute for a poignant and heartfelt celebrity speech when it comes to garnering mass media attention. Watson promises headline power, plus a much more valuable asset—influence over young minds in a frightening battle ground which Jessica Valenti described in a Guardian article earlier this year: “Punching Gloria Steinem: inside the bizarre world of anti-feminist women“. Valenti talks about the war raging between feminists and the “latest crop of female anti-feminists” and their Washington-based organizations that seek repeal of the Violence Against Women Act and pay equity reforms. In a culture ruled by virality, pithy memes like #IDontNeedFeminism threaten to have more firepower than sober observations—such as those of the former chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Patricia M. Wald—that gender inequality in cultures like the legal profession owes less to overt discrimination, and more to “subtle differences in how much more difficult it can be for women to locate and manipulate the levers of personal influence inside and outside the firm, with supervisors, senior partners, and clients.” [Patricia M. Wald, “Myths about Women’s Careers in Law”, (2013-2014) 2 U. Balt. J. Int’l L. 5].
Headlines for Watson were gushing—although some could not help but undermine. The Telegraph unblinkingly observed that “Emma Watson hits a high note with gender equality speech — and her wardrobe choices.” That was a particularly tone-deaf one. Safe to say, no journalists felt compelled to comment on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s personal grooming or attire.
The #HeForShe campaign, meanwhile, appears to be aimed at getting men more involved in feminism. It advertises the aim of rallying “one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.”
While I’m far from an authority on gender equality and feminism topics, I feel that this call for allies might be more complicated than it first appears. In part, it’s awkward to think of feminism as a cause looking for a saviour. And if it ever is looking for a saviour, it’s not looking for a 39-year old white male like myself.
Consider the Kony 2012 video and the Invisible Children campaign. Teju Cole wrote a thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic, warning that “if we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” His comments touch on the concept of the “white saviour”, the over-exuberant ally:
“[…] there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”
Cole’s article was a follow up to a series of tweets he posted, one of them being:
5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
— Teju Cole (@tejucole) March 8, 2012
As a feminist, I’ve always been more comfortable on the sidelines, encouraging female voices that sound clear and sharp and true, and that resonate with my own moral feelings on gender equality issues, but not wanting to head in and run the plays. I have not always known if that tentativeness was heroic or not. But a hero is probably the wrong archetype to enlist. If the #HeForShe campaign is about being an ally to women, then it is important—and I’m just speaking on instinct here—that some due diligence is observed in the manner described by Cole. I hope that men of #HeForShe contemplate something a little more nuanced than that “big emotional experience” if being an ally is the aim.
Admittedly, the UN millennium goal for gender equality does not extend to gender equality in First World law firm partnerships, but in the greater arena it’s all connected. The “due diligence” that conscientious in-group members owe those in the out-group requires a more subtle exploration of their own role, and not an expectation of emotional gratification for being a hero. Perhaps humility is the word.
To conclude, here’s one more excerpt from Judge Wald reflecting on the legal profession:
“‘[M]ost of today’s discrimination stems not from attempts to harm anyone but from selective helping.’ We’re each part of several groups defined by race, gender, religion, family, alma mater and so on, and when we go out of our way to help an in-group member, we don’t see that as a bad thing. We’re being ‘good people.’ But such selective privileging reinforces the status quo.”