In today’s world, freedom of expression has evolved from a right to a moral duty. Not speaking up, either online or in person, about the various injustices – be they racial, socio-economic, gender related – prevalent in the world today, appears to signal complicity. From the summer-of-our-discontent-2020, it has become clear that silence is no longer an option and obliviousness, no longer an excuse. To be a good ally, we are encouraged to express our displeasure vocally and clearly. In this piece, I question the need to engage in debates in our socio-economic echo chambers, where words appear to fall on deaf ears, and nothing is gained except anxiety about regular interactions and maybe family feuds. Why are these arguments between everyday people not effective? Are these arguments even needed? What could be a more effective alternative?
We dream of living on in posterity. The void of darkness and being forgotten is a terrifying prospect. To alleviate these fears and to leave a legacy behind, people give birth, wage wars, engage in philanthropy, name buildings after themselves. I would be lying if I said that this has not been a fear that has plagued me since I was a very small child. Being one of billions on a small planet, spinning away in this ever-expanding universe of uncaring celestial bodies, fills me with dread. Much to my dismay, the only legacy I see myself leaving behind is having a condition named after me where people are physically unable to keep their opinions to themselves.
I have always been vocal. A lack of inhibition ingrained in my psyche led me to answer back to anyone, whether this meant arguing as a child that elder children aren’t responsible for the upbringing of their younger siblings – something I have strong feelings about till this day – or debating the merits of eating halal versus eating organic. This got me in a world of trouble when I was younger and left certain impressions on people about my personality that lasted well into adulthood. Many people tried to intervene, arguing that my words were falling mostly on deaf ears. This seemed to me the height of arrogance: to judge someone as lacking the abilities to comprehend your viewpoint and thus hoarding your opinions. And so, I kept speaking. I discovered new topics I had strong opinions on. Feminism. Politics. Religion. New ideas were embraced, some old ones discarded. Yet all were polished and cut into careful shapes. And I kept speaking. Social media connected us all to a world where the currency is the expression and sharing of ideas, and I have embraced it wholeheartedly.
But now I am tired.
No matter how much I speak, no matter how many facts I present, no matter how many personal experiences I share, no matter how many fake WhatsApp messages I debunk – the cycle just keeps on repeating. I quote another woman who was driven mad by the scope of her ambition: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons exclaimed, “I want to break the wheel”. But the wheel appears to be made of titanium and evil. The emotional effort it takes to constantly debunk racist or dangerous or simply uninformed news and views has started to take a toll. I feel stressed, exhausted, and angry a lot of the time. Certain people’s messages and responses make my heart rate shoot up and my breathing become shallow. For the first time in my life, I have started staying quiet, simply to avoid engaging in arguments and discussions that I do not have the mental or emotional capacity for. And since this is against the very core of my being, it is not as restful as I would want it to be.
What went wrong? Are my communication skills so shoddy that I simply do not manage to make my point and instead have turned myself into a kind of entertainment? Someone who people engage with when they are bored as a kind of mental exercise, never to be taken seriously because the topics under discussion do not affect them personally? Or someone who keeps speaking out in the bubble of her own like-minded social media, never sure if she is reaching anyone, and getting drained by the constant deluge of videos and photos and statistics of human right violations, but unable to look away from them? And what is even the point of bouncing these opinions on the walls of my own socio-economic privilege? I live in Europe and enjoy a typically upper-middle class lifestyle. I holiday a couple of times a year, I do not think twice about most purchases, I have mostly lived in countries where my freedom of speech and right to life have been guaranteed. It is natural that I am surrounded by family and friends who enjoy similar advantages and privileges. We either agree on most topics, and when we do not, we aren’t personally affected by them to any great degree. This is simply us being informed: in my social circle and generation, not keeping up with the news and not having opinions can appear gauche, a mark of being so insulated as to be ditzy.
As such, can socio-economic privilege also be an accurate marker of the concern and depth of knowledge people have regarding their rights?
Let us now take a closer look on the dissemination of information between the social classes. For the purpose of a study published in the International Journal of Human Rights (1), India, Morocco, Mexico and Colombia were chosen as the surveying grounds. These countries were selected to ensure a variety of participants, ranging across continents, religions, histories, etc. The socio-economic status of the respondents was measured by assessing the highest level of education, place of residence, income vs expenditures and access to the internet. Looking deeper into the socio-economic background of people revealed that with actual social workers, activists and educators, a pattern around the term “human rights” emerged. The results were ideologically disappointing but corresponded to our reality. People belonging to lower socio-economic classes had reduced exposure to the term “human rights” compared to people who work in these fields.
This makes sense – why wouldn’t people with more internet access or higher education hear more about human rights, know people who work in these fields, or work in these fields themselves? But on the other hand, this also represents utter failure of the system. Why does it make sense that less privileged classes have less exposure to the term “human rights” than those who are working for their advancement?
Looking at the issue from the point of view of policy and decision makers is not much better. Are organisations actively involving the people they want to help in the strategy-making process? It is a logical – and documented – phenomenon that higher diversity in the workplace increases creativity and promotes innovation. In humanitarian organisations, diversity needs to be considered even more carefully. We cannot simply diversify based on race and gender, but in fact take a deeper dive into diversity of thought, religion – and in some areas – caste. To solve large-scale issues of economic development, education and social acceptance – the people who are directly affected must be included in the strategizing. Without their lived experiences, ideas, capabilities, and involvement, solutions are at best a stopgap measure and at worst long-term failures which exacerbate the problem they were meant to solve.
Take the example of the model of Tom’s shoes. For every pair of shoes purchased, Tom’s would donate a pair. This model has noble intentions. But all it ends up doing is undercutting the local economy, by providing goods at much lower prices (or for free) compared to what the regional market offers. This severely hampers self-sustainability efforts. Without asking experts and discussing with the locals what efforts could help alleviate the poverty that inspires such business practices, these efforts fall into the category of well-meaning saviourism. While not intended as such, saviourism usually reveals itself in the infantilizing of people in need, by those who mean to “save” them. There is hubris in the assumption that only an outsider can solve the problems of a community, when more often what it needs are resources to help implement mitigating measures that the community itself has devised.
NGOs unfortunately do not fare any better. In 2013, The Guardian looked at the top 100 NGOs globally, to gain a deeper understanding of their diversity. While the largest area of activity was in the continent of Africa (32%), the ethnicity of the boards of these NGOs was 8% African, with the largest percentage going to Europeans (66%). With a high degree of board members being university educated, the majority of these university degrees (75%) were obtained in the Western World.
This is the issue on the macro level. Lack of diversity on strategy-developing teams, a tendency towards saviourism rather than ally-ship. An ally is someone who raises the voices of the people in need and gives traction to their policies, rather than taking over the conversation. On a micro level these problems are repeated all over again on social media and our daily lives.
If this is all too theoretical, let me break it down in a concrete example. When Pakistan was organising its annual “Aurat March” (Women’s March) last year, I was almost giddy with excitement. The Aurat March is a yearly nation-wide rally aimed at increasing awareness of women’s rights and demanding justice and reforms from the powers that be. I donated, I posted on social media, I wrote in publications to promote the cause. And I am quite sure I was unable to convince any of the older women in my family to support the march because of their disdain at the “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” (“My body, My choice”) posters. Why did I engage in debate over this slogan when I know that none of the women I was talking to would be forced to give birth, or denied health care, or be asked to put up with abuse – in essence the women who were already living the all the rights these posters advocated for? What good does it do for me to sit in my (virtual) drawing room discussing the need for female Islamic scholars, interpretation and thought in modern Islamic jurisprudence, when our own housekeeper has a daughter who may not be aware of any of the rights she is entitled to? I am slowly beginning to wonder if all these arguments, all this posting, all this information spreading isn’t just very well-intentioned virtue signalling.
Let’s put all that aside for a moment. Let’s assume that posting about these topics leads to a general betterment of society and culture, leading to actual reforms in the long run. I would still need people to change their mind based on my arguments. According to a Pew research study, 14% of Americans changed their minds based on something they read online. Now 14% is by no means a small number. But America is a country where 90% of adults access the internet daily. We run again into one of the factors mentioned above, how socio-economics affect people’s exposure to certain language. I run again into the wall of accessibility to knowledge based on class. I am posting online for people who are already aware of these issues and are possibly posting the same things for me to read. Am I reaching the man in the small town who is deciding whether to send his daughter to school or the employee in an office to not assume the worst about her Black colleague? Mostly I am not, and even if by luck I am, only 14% of those could likely change their mind.
And if I want to dig deep into reasons why my arguments, specifically, seem to fall flat: my gender may also play into it. Implicit biases towards men and women, as a result of culture and environment, lead to women being disbelieved by doctors regarding symptoms and pain severity. Implicit bias leads to men being disproportionately represented in leadership positions with women earning comparatively lower wages (2). Implicit bias leads to men simply being considered more “brilliant” when compared to women. Globally. The number of times I have been told that I make “everything about feminism” is too high to count. But really—given a choice, who would you believe? The “emotional”, “bleeding-heart liberal” or the “strong”, “brilliant” man?
But most importantly, are any of these arguments worth the effort and time and anxiety?
Who am I reaching with my social media, my arguments on WhatsApp, and my propagating for policies that I will not implement and that the people I am arguing with will not implement? We have discovered that I am not alone in being unable in having my message reach the people who need to hear them – those who are suppressed by any number of factors, be it race, religion, gender, or economics – the very people who may not have the resources to ask for the rights they are entitled to or implement the changes they want to.
The constant barrage of bad news, the anxiety of having to defend basic rights and being called a dissident or un-patriotic for criticizing anything about the country, takes its toll on mental health. While there is a lot to be said about using whatever power you have in your hands to fight inequality where you see it – there is something equally powerful about recognising your limits and the role of an ally versus a saviour. I am realizing that these “intellectual” debates in social circles, which will more than likely never have to deal with policies, seem like an odd way of establishing equity. Rather they are a proclamation of power that states that we can afford the luxury of being coldly intellectual and political about issues such as defining blasphemy law limits, basic universal income, abortion, and gun control without once asking the people who will have to actually live by these laws and be unjustly targeted by them, what they think.
When the revolution comes, as it has in the past and will in the future, it will be bought around by empowered masses. People who are aware of their rights, people who are empowered to speak up for themselves, people whose voices have been elevated. I would be lying if I claimed that I have not seen myself in the role of a changemaker in the past. The one who rouses everyone to action, the one who leads a country to a new age of enlightenment. You do not want to be the leader of a country without a certain amount of narcissistic belief in your own abilities to execute change.
Exactly what it means to diverge energy from social debates and social media arguments to genuine ally-ship is something I am still working on. Donating to grass-roots movements? Volunteering with my local community? I am coming to realise that whatever my role will and should be, it should not be centred around me or my need to engage in debate for debate’s sake, but rather be curated and limited. Curated by engaging communities in conversation asking for their solutions for their own advancement. Limited to ensuring that their voices are heard and elevated over mine in the right spaces, and their presence in the halls of power. I am not needed to save people. I am needed to assist in raising and investing in communities who can then save themselves. My time would be better employed in teaching people how to fish, rather than debating the merits of eating fish amongst those who are feasting on ambrosia.
Omaina H. Aziz
- Ron, J., et, al., “Human Rights Familiarity and Socio-Economic Status”, International Journal of Human Rights, 2014.
- Pritlove, C., et, al., “The good, the bad, and the ugly of implicit bias”, Lancet, 2019.