Whose Voice? Whose Issue? The Problems with SL Activism and One Billion Rising

Like many hundreds of other people, I made my way yesterday to the Second Life event observing One Billion Rising. The theme of OBR – an end to global misogyny and sexual violence – is one that has always been vitally important to me, and I very much looked forward to seeing how the artists and activists involved in this year’s event would approach these issues.

One Billion Rising in SL

The layout and organization of One Billion Rising in Second Life were nothing if not impressive.

I was not disappointed: overall, this was an enormously impressive, and very deeply affecting, tribute to the need to find solutions for what remains one of the most important instances of social injustice in the world. One Billion Rising in SL was evidently very well planned and organized, and I applaud without reservation all of those involved in putting it together. The sims were beautifully laid-out and easy to navigate. The musicians seemed to be doing a good job of doing what they were supposed to do, entertaining, and the art that I saw was interesting, thought-provoking, and sometimes more than a little heart-wrenching. The event was extremely well-publicized, and must certainly have succeeded in raising the profile of global violence against women.

And yet . . .

My visit to One Billion Rising in SL underlined, for me, some of the more problematic issues that adhere to the identity politics of the event. OBR in “real life” has attracted more than its share of controversy even within the larger “progressive” and feminist community. It is not that anyone really questions the laudable goal of the event: we all want to see violence against women end, and I think we are all in agreement that raising the profile of this issue is an important part of an eventual solution. OBR has certainly achieved such a profile in RL, and the success of the event in SL parallels that.

Katz Jupiter's "A Woman's Safe Space"

Detail from Katz Jupiter’s large and interesting installation, “A Woman’s Safe Space.”

The controversy that has swirled around One Billion Rising has, however, little to do with its aims or its success in achieving them, and a great deal more to do with process, and with the issues of identity, voice, and appropriation. OBR was created in 2012 by the high-profile writer and feminist activist Eve Ensler. Ensler is best known for her The Vagina Monologues; she is unquestionably an extremely dynamic, intelligent, and passionate player within the larger feminist community.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

As much as I admire all that Ensler has achieved on behalf of the movement, however, I will confess to a degree of unease about the flavour of her particular brand of activism. Ensler takes a kind of entrepreneurial approach to feminism and activism. It is almost as though she seizes control of particular issues, markets them, and then franchises them out to others. The enormous success of The Vagina Monologues is an instance of this, but so too is One Billion Rising. The problem is that in so doing Ensler, who despite being a survivor of gender violence herself is a white woman of privilege, too often seems to be appropriating or usurping the voices of those who are “authentic” witnesses to the injustices for which she positions herself as chief spokesperson. In essence, “speaking on behalf” of women of colour and women in developing nations too often sounds like “speaking for,” or even “speaking instead of” those who are living the violence and injustice she is combatting. Speaking on behalf of someone who already has a voice, and has articulated a perspective, is really another form of silencing.

Tyrehl Byk's Installation

Tyrehl Byk’s installation featured quotes from Muslim texts sanctioning the oppression of women. How problematic is this kind of representation of an entire culture?

So this is an issue, in many ways, of representation. Who “represents” those women suffering around the world from discrimination and violence? The enormously high-profile and successful woman who has created an “event” that has stolen headlines and mobilized millions? Or the women who are themselves actually living out that discrimination, and who have already found voices of their own to protest against it?

Nor is it merely a matter of “ownership” of the issue. Ensler is admittedly very good at articulating the issues and the urgency of the problems, but how well positioned is she to give them appropriate expression? Natalie Gyte, writing last year in The Guardian, asked some difficult questions about the form that OBR was actually taking:

In asking women to dance in order to overcome violence and rape, focus is displaced and root causes are overlooked, it completely diverts the world’s attention away from the real issue of gender based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance. It’s like saying to survivors ‘Ok, you’ve been raped, but you can overcome it if you come together and dance for 20 minutes on Valentine’s Day… Eve Ensler says so…’. It’s patronising and it denies not only the causes of violence, but also the devastating and long lasting effects.

Referencing Gyte’s piece, the author of the blog Prison Culture similarly notes that

It’s instructive that Ensler chose to be inspired by Congolese women’s dancing rather than their years of painstaking and dangerous community and political organizing against violence and for economic justice. Congolese women have been annexed to Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign. One has to ask, how this happens? How does one become subsumed under the One Billion Rising campaign umbrella? If one Congolese woman dances, must all Congolese women dance too? Unsurprisingly not all women in the Congo are on board with Ensler’s campaign.

Dancing and Music at OBR in SL

Dancing away oppression at One Billion Rising in Second Life. Everyone was clearly having a very good time.

Visiting the OBR event in SL yesterday forcibly brought some of the issues raised by critiques like this to mind. The issues of representation and appropriation are, of course, even more complicated when we are addressing virtual worlds, where “authenticity,” in the sense of a simple essentialist correspondence between identity on the one hand, and real life biology and geography on the other, goes out the window. Who, in Second Life, is actually speaking for women globally? Whose voice was included? Who decides how we represent misogyny in, say, the Muslim world, or in India? Who is “we”?

A bit of disclosure at this point is necessary: some years ago I was very involved in SL feminist activism myself, and helped organize similar, but somewhat smaller, events. I know from personal experience how difficult these things are to put together, and, in particular, how ethical and ideological questions continually intrude in the process. I remember mentally facepalming on a number of occasions, for instance, when musicians we’d asked to perform for our events played songs that were wildly inappropriate in the context of the event. And I know how difficult discussions about these issues can be: there is in fact no rule book for dealing with issues as complex and potentially controversial as women’s rights, anti-violence, and cross-cultural activism.

So I am entirely sympathetic with the kinds of issues and problems that must have faced the organizers of One Billion Rising in SL, because I’ve faced them myself. And, in fact, my increasing discomfort with my own “answers” to these problems has much to do with why I have, to a very great degree, withdrawn from SL activism.

Installation by Betty Tureaud

For me, the most affecting and starkly dramatic installation was this one by Betty Tureaud, depicting a bruised and battered woman assuming classic “model” poses before an anonymous, featureless crowd.

It’s not that I don’t think that there are reasonable responses to some of these questions. For instance, I’m not really big on the idea of privileged white “guilt.” I feel guilty enough about things for which I have been personally responsible without feeling the need to shoulder the burden and blame for my entire culture. I am more than willing to acknowledge that the advantages I enjoy in life have been built upon the oppression, hardship, and exploitation of millions of others, and I want very much to help amend the continued social injustices that underwrite my existence, but I don’t feel “guilty” for having been born into privilege. This wasn’t a “choice” I was given. On the other hand, what I do now with my life is.

I also don’t believe that not being able to claim an authenticity of experience – i.e., I’m not a person of colour, I am not poor or living in a developing nation, I’ve never been sexually assaulted – is justification or reason for inaction. Social Justice and Feminism are not “perspectives,” nor are they identity-contingent: to believe in the equality of all gender and sexual identities, and to want to fight for a more economically and socially just world represent belief systems and values, and can (and indeed, should) be held by anyone, regardless of their own life experiences and identity. For that same reason, I see myself as somewhat more than an “ally” of those who do labour under these disadvantages and privations: I don’t check my critical faculties at the door because I myself have not had to live with violence and oppression.

Installation by Carmsie Melodie

An interesting and evocative installation by Carmsie Melodie

The question, then, is how to reconcile the fact that I am not speaking as a personal witness to these injustices, with my firm belief that I have worthwhile things to say about them, and am well-positioned, precisely because of my privileged position, to do something about them?

And alongside that question – indeed, contingent upon it – is the question of how I and others speak about the experience of others. Is a 24-hour music and dance marathon really an appropriate way to express our opposition to global injustice? Is Second Life itself, a virtual place where identity is endlessly slippery and “authenticity” by definition shadowy, an appropriate place to represent the real life horrors of women and children? Many of us will remember some of the controversy surrounding the creation in 2006 of a “virtual Darfur,” a well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt to raise consciousness about another global tragedy. Does trying to capture the very tangible and real tragedies of the physical world within a virtual environment not ultimately trivialize them?

An Installation by Ktystali Robeni

Krystali Robeni’s installation highlighted the importance of women’s voices and self-representation.

I ask these questions not because I feel I have definitive answers for them, but because I think they need to be asked, and because I have not heard them asked of One Billion Rising in Second Life.

I know next to nothing about how this event was planned, what discussions were involved, or how decisions were made. I am delighted to note that among the nonprofits apparently involved in the venture are organizations like The Afghan Women’s Mission and Women Living under Muslim Laws. This says volumes about the conscientiousness of the organizers of the event, and it does much to reassure me that the authentic voices of women from a truly global range of experience were heard, and heeded.

So, again, I congratulate the organizers of One Billion Rising in SL on a wonderfully organized and worthwhile event. And I would argue that if even a few people were educated about global misogyny and violence against women, the event was worthwhile.

But, if we are to continue using Second Life as a means of opening a window into the real life experiences of the disenfranchised, I would also suggest that we need to start talking, openly, and as a community, about the nature of representation and activism in Second Life. And we need to make sure that the voices of those we represent are not merely heeded, but articulated loudly and publicly.


About Laskya Claren

I like to write. I am interested in stuff.
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20 Responses to Whose Voice? Whose Issue? The Problems with SL Activism and One Billion Rising

  1. Pep says:

    Despite OBR being developed out of Ensler’s “entrepreneurial feminism” – which I actually highlighted last year; perhaps my arguments permeated your subconscious – what should be a Hollywood production is the charitable equivalent of an am-dram performance, characterised by enthusiastic amateurs reducing an important issue to a risibly trivial flash-mob prancing around as if auditioning for an advert for deoderant.

    If you are going to try to garner sympathy and provoke action then stating you are going to “dance like a loony” will draw the response that you ARE a loony. Using self-contradictory vocabulary (Fight Violence! Strike Now!) invites justifiable allegations of hypocrisy.

    And as for the ludicrous “gender violence” label… With Facebook announcing it is offering 58 categories of self-description of gender, the hidden focus of male violence towards females is but one of 23505613312828785718294749105150746838288623181811429244206999142400
    00000000000 potential permutations. That would make it very much a minority issue.

    Pep (Well, the amateur statisticians of OBR started it…)

  2. I’m sorry to say that I missed your comments about Ensler last year; I’m sure they would have provoked an interesting discussion.

    I myself do not regret that the productions of OBR, in RL or SL, are not “Hollywood productions,” for reasons that should probably be evident from my post: the voices speaking out against this violence should be coming from those who live with it, and not from production managers and stage directors. In fact, running across my Twitter feed right now are some absolutely wonderful images, coming the South African chapter of OBR, of real men, women, and children from all over the world taking part in the event. They aren’t professionals in any sense; they aren’t even “amateurs.” They are ordinary people taking to the streets to speak out.

    I’m actually going to agree that the language we use to work against violence can be problematic. I don’t think it’s necessarily hypocritical (although I’m sure in individual instances, it can be an index of hypocrisy); rather, I think it embodies the poverty of our vocabulary. It’s as though we sometimes can’t imagine change without also imagining conflict and violence. That speaks, perhaps, to a more deeply rooted problem.

    Facebook’s recent move to increase the options available to those who wish to identify themselves as something other than one of the two conventional gender binaries is important precisely because our culture, as a whole, has real problems thinking beyond those binaries.

    In that context, violence against women is not just a convenient label: it represents a particular problem with its own pathology and symptoms that are very different from those associated with other kinds of violence. That VAW is an enormously important problem does not necessarily mean that it is a more important problem than, say, war, gang violence, etc., etc. It means that it is different from these, and so must be treated differently.

    To support an end to violence against women is not to devalue or ignore other kinds of violence or other kinds of victims. (On the contrary, all the feminists I know are also to some degree pacifists, anti-homophobic, and so forth.) No anti-VAW activist I’ve ever met thinks that violence against men is “ok.” They think that it is different, and requires a different approach and a separate focus.

  3. Pep says:

    I am against vioence. I am against violence against women. I am against rape and sexual violence committed against women. But I am also against propaganda events that claim to be against violence against women and are actually about rape and sexual violence against women committed by men. The photo of the South African Chapter has a banner stating that OBR is about Rape and Sexual Violence. That’s honest. So why can’t the organisers of OBR stop spouting their mealy-mouthed talk of “gender violence” and retract their false statistical analysis (the supposed “Billion” includes a significant proportion of violence which has NO sexual connotations) and say the same? Are they afraid that they will be considered loony feminists?

    Pep (I’m afraid it’s too late for that now.)

    • This seems to me a rather odd statement. The mandate of One Billion Rising is quite clear that it targets all kinds of violence. It views the origins of that violence as not residing in any one gender or particular kind of person, but in systemic and cultural discrimination that perpetuates violence in often insidious ways. I quote from OBR’s web site:

      The campaign is a recognition that we cannot end violence against women without looking at the intersection of poverty, racism, war, the plunder of the environment, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. Impunity lives at the heart of these interlocking forces.

      Nowhere are “men” blamed as such; patriarchy emphatically does not equate in a simple and reductive way with “men” because it is a system that victimizes and limits males just as it does females. At the same time, feminists will happily acknowledge the value of male allies in our attempts to change all of this.

      As for the suggestion that the focus is solely upon rape and sexual violence, a visit to the event yesterday would have demonstrated otherwise. Indeed, a quick scan of my images in this post, which include an installation about religion-based oppression of women and an artistic representation of the narrow cultural confines limiting them, would do the same. Actually, I don’t think I saw a single work that focused narrowly on rape or sexual assault, although domestic violence was certainly addressed.

      OBR — indeed, modern feminism as a whole — sees violence against women in a wide variety of contexts, including religious persecution, the exploitation of immigrant women, the nightmare of third world sweatshops, the neglect and/or systemic abuse of women of indigenous nations . . . I could go on, but you get the point.

  4. primperfect says:

    Hi Lashkya
    Thank you for your very thoughtful piece about One Billion Rising, and the issues it raises – and also for your very kind words about the organisation of the event and the people involved.

    Many of the thoughts you raise, and the problems that can be encountered in organising and being involved in such as event are addressed by you in your post, and I agree with much of what you say.

    Last year, we started One Billion Rising with an event that combined music, art and information. This year, we added poetry in as well – events organised by the very experienced Second Life literary event organiser Jilly Kidd/Adele Ward. The idea of the event is to combine the celebration of music and dance with reflection, inspired by the art installations and the poetry, with a background of information so that people could learn more and be inspired to find out yet more. The information is something that I would like to see expanded in years to come – for example, with the livestreaming of events from around the world, perhaps we could have a media site next year where people could access this through media on a prim.

    Any event is going to have its negative or problematic side – as you point out (and many of the problems you encountered are, I fear perennial). We are also conscious of the paternalistic/maternalistic action of speaking for others, as though they have no voice to raise. One of the reasons we were initially drawn to One Billion Rising was its global nature – the fact that women all over the world were participating. Sometimes this was in small ways, sometimes in large public events – but an amazing number of countries participate. I hope that one of the ways that our version of One Billion Rising contributes is by growing awareness of the global issues involved.

    The problems with language is a very real one – but I’m going to employ a couple of phrases here that might be seen as rather clichéd but do express a thought that guides me – firstly “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. Nothing we do is ever going to be perfect or satisfy everyone (or tick everyone’s boxes). So one has to decide whether to do something is going to be better than doing nothing. It can be dangerous sometimes to believe that an imperfect something is actually better than nothing – each case needs to be considered carefully. In the case of One Billion Rising, I believe that an imperfect something IS better than nothing – if it raises awareness of global issues, if it raises awareness of domestic issues, if it raises debate (as it is doing here). All this is good.

    And the other phrase I’d pick up on is the spoken by Peter Benenson, the English lawyer and founder of Amnesty International, at a Human Rights Day ceremony on 10th December 1961: It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

    Sometimes it seems that we end up worrying whether the candle is tallow (dead animal!) rather than beeswax (sustainable bees!). Obviously, it would be better yet to give everyone electricity (powered by wind or water). But does our inability to do that mean that we shouldn’t light the candle at all?

    On the issues of trivilisation by bringing it to a virtual world … I think the answer is, for me, no – definitely not. The platform is virtual, but the people utlising it are very real. The voices that speak the poems are human voices, the minds and hands that create the art are human minds and hands. What they create is no more trivial for being on a virtual platform than they would be if the human behind the avatar stood on a stage to read the lines, or hung a work painted on canvas on a gallery wall. The information read in a virtual world is a valid and real as the words read in a book or on a website; And the stories that people are inspired to share as a result of this event in a virtual world may be for them as cathartic as speaking to a person in the world outside – being in a virtual world may, for some people, give added confidence.

    I agree that a debate needs to happen – an open and thoughtful debate removed from the mud-slinging and point-scoring that so many internet debates can degenerate into, as we’ve all seen with various forms of social media. And I do think that Second Life can offer opportunities for that. Perhaps we could explore ways of doing that?

    • Thanks for this really thoughtful and comprehensive reply! I am very glad that you understand that I was most certainly not criticizing the motivations and the accomplishments of those involved, nor even the event itself. Rather, as I think you’ve picked up, I’m articulating some (for me) troublesome questions that relate not only to some responses to the RL event, but also to my own personal work in SL in the past. The questions are uncomfortable for me precisely because they also implicate me.

      I do agree with a great deal of what you say here. In particular, I want to say that the issue of “trivialization” tends, I think, to be brought up primarily by those who don’t really understand what a virtual world like SL is, or how it functions. But I do think we have to be particularly careful, in that context, to ensure that the activism here doesn’t seem like role-playing or, worse still, game-playing.

      I very much like the idea of a media centre, of bringing in a live stream of the event elsewhere, and of enriching the quantity and quality of the information. One of the really wonderful things about OBR has been to watch the images and responses from around the world on my Twitter feed. The main advantage of these sorts of additions is that they would, of course, bring those real voices into the Second Life event. They would very much help “authenticate” (please note the scare quotes!) OBR in SL, and of course also make it more effective as an exercise in consciousness-raising. Finally, they would contribute to the community-building that is one of the main points of a global event like this.

      As for the debate: yes. And there is no reason why it can’t be civil and respectful, despite the fact that even the RL debate surrounding Ensler and OBR has on occasion degenerated to a kind of name-calling or even trolling. This is too important to sabotage by talking past or over, rather than to, each other.

      • Ima Rang says:

        “In particular, I want to say that the issue of “trivialization” tends, I think, to be brought up primarily by those who don’t really understand what a virtual world like SL is, or how it functions. But I do think we have to be particularly careful, in that context, to ensure that the activism here doesn’t seem like role-playing or, worse still, game-playing.”

        I am one of those who frequently indicates that OBR held in SL serves to trivialize, and I do so because I understand completely what a virtual world like SL is and how it functions. “Your world, your imagination” suggest fantasy worlds and not a platform for the 3D depictions of Terra realities. Perhaps when the number of sims that promote social reforms outnumber the forced rape, kidnapping, fetish, escort, BDSM, Gor, and Vor sims my opinion regarding trivialization will change. That is not likely to happen. It could also be suggested that the relatively insignificant number of attendees to the OBR event as compared to the number of users logged during the 24 hour period also indicates that the event itself is considered trivial as it does not fit into the entertainment/escape from reality theme that virtual worlds promote.

        I have also been rather outspoken in that I am against all violence and I don’t readily support campaigns that serve one gender over or at the exclusion of the other. To say that the violence experienced by women is special and must be recognized and handled differently than violence experienced by men is, IMO, introducing the concept of affording inequality of efforts when convenient and otherwise damning half of the population for inequality of efforts when we, women, want something like money, power, recognition, etc.

  5. Pep says:

    I am reluctant to encumber your blog further with my views when the discussion would be much more illuminating if it was between yourself and commentators such as [redacted] and [redacted], but I would say that I have reviewed the whole of the http://www.onebillionrising.org website, and can find absolutely no mention of concern for violence of women on men.

    Pep (which effectively refutes your contention that “The mandate of One Billion Rising is quite clear that it targets all kinds of violence.”) PS The only quote you offer in support of that contention sounds like something a Miss Universe contestant might say.

  6. Pep says:

    PS Was this [ http://www.onebillionrising.org/share/privilege-longer-relevant-justice/ ] you? It seems to reflect your views, without being so prolix.

  7. Pep says:

    Pep (Redact this…)

    • Neither of the two people mentioned in your post has, so far as I can ascertain, any direct connection with OBR; their identities are therefore irrelevant to the theme of this post. Indeed, I myself am unsure of whom you are referring to in one of the cases. There are, of course, a great many venues available for discussions about the views and/or behaviours of particular individuals, but this, I’m afraid, is not one of them.

      I remain puzzled as to why you should be surprised that there are no references to violence perpetrated by women against men. Of course such violence occurs and needs to be addressed, but complaining that you can’t find mention of it on the One Billion Rising web site is like going to into a bakery and complaining loudly that they don’t sell fresh vegetables and that, moreover, this is clear evidence that they discriminate against zucchini.

      The post to which you link in your second comment is indeed one that is resonant, although it is not exactly what I’ve been talking about here.

  8. Pep says:

    I think it’s more like going into a bakery and complaining that they only sell wholemeal loaves, not sliced white.

    Pep (You know, the sort of bakery that unilaterally decides what bread you should be eating.)

  9. @Ima

    Thanks for your comments; I appreciate the feedback.

    Activists who use Second Life as a platform are trying to do many things here, but most obviously there are employing it as a means of “getting the good word out.” Yes, there’s a great deal of noise here that interferes with that task, but then that’s true on most forms of social media as well. I don’t know of anyone who suggests that activists shouldn’t use Facebook because it’s stuffed to o’er-brimming with lolcats and the boozy moonings and candid party pics of adolescents.

    Mostly, activists here are trying to get the word out to people already within Second Life: it’s not a very good platform for reaching broader audiences. Both activists and target audience are composed of people who themselves hold a wide range of views about what Second Life is about, most commonly (if simplistically) expressed in Henrik Bennetsen’s notion of “augmentationist” vs. “immersionist.” I actually know from experience that there are many activists from the immersionist camp, but the point is that not everyone thinks that Second Life is primarily about fantasy. Educators certainly don’t, and “education” is, after all, one of the central points of these events.

    Where I worry a bit is not in the juxtaposition of “serious” activism with “playful” (or violent) fantasy, but rather in the potential situation in which an activist event itself is perceived as being positioned along that “immersionist” and “augmentationist” spectrum. If a Second Life activist event mimics too closely “real life,” without demonstrating an awareness of the difference that being virtual makes, then there is some danger that it is going to be perceived as a kind of role play by those from outside SL, and possibly even by some within.

    I think that to avoid that kind of trivialization a really concerted effort needs to be made to swing the event from the “immersionist” side of things over to the “augmentationist.” There are a number of possible ways to do this: one would be to bring “RL” directly into the event through live feeds, and such. I think that this is an important discussion to have.

    With regard to your other objection, I am afraid that I don’t think that events like OBR give a “special” status to violence against women, anymore than a cancer research fundraising campaign gives “special” status to cancer. Does raising awareness and/or money for cancer research imply that heart disease or ALS are “less” important? I personally don’t think so.

    There are a number of reasons why such fundraising campaigns aren’t bundled all together into an equalizing “Campaign against Disease” or “Campaign against Death by Natural Causes,” but the most important is that the pathologies and symptoms, and hence the nature of the research itself, is different from disease to disease.

    So too with violence against women. It is not more “important” than, say, the deaths caused by war, or gang violence, or violence against men: it is different, with different root causes, manifestations, and (hence) cures. That is why it is separate, and not because activists who advocate against such violence are dismissing or denigrating other kinds of violence. A campaign against “violence” simply encompasses too much ground to be really comprehensible.

    With regard to the activists themselves, few of them (that I know) work only on one issue. When I organized events in SL, our partners included a broad range of activist groups including (to name just a few examples) Amnesty International, Indigenous Rights groups, and even a group of US veterans for peace. They were working to help combat violence against women, but that was most certainly not all that they were doing. As for those like myself who were working from within feminist groups — well, we too do other forms of advocacy as well. So when, in 2011 (I think) I built an information centre in Second Life for victims of RL abuse, it included a section for violence against men that included contact information for assistance for male victims of abuse as well.

    My point is that OBR and similar events are most properly seen within the context of larger concerns and issues.

  10. primperfect says:

    Hi Laskya

    I think you raise some interesting points here about fantasy/realism (not ‘reality’ as that’s a term commonly applied to the outer-world).

    If we take not OBR (which is a single event and, I would argue, positioned closely on the augmentation side – although using immersibve elements to enhance that – such as not just listening to music but dancing as well) but RFL, which is a whole series of events related to one single nonprofit-driven goal, we end up with some fascinating case studies. Because we have events within that which act as reflections (or augmentations) of real life events, such as the Science Fiction Convention, where people with real life roles in the Science Fiction community will either “come inworld” or will adress an inworld audience from an external position. This year, something similar is being done with Fiction for a Cure, which will feature out-world authors and inworld groups. Could one see these sort of events as comparable to online conferences, or even real world conferences?

    Then there are events that probably relate solely to the inworld audience and which may involve some element of rolepaly – such as the Home and Garden Expo or Fashion for Life. On one level it is pure roleplay to need a home and furnishings for one’s virtual environment – and yet on another level, creating a level of personalisation happens across most online media – from Facebook pages to websites to Twitter streams, and the Home and Garden Expo could be see as a particularly elaborate equivalent of choosing a screen saver. And Fashion for Life is perhaps a more extreme example of the same with the roleplay that swirls around the fashion world with SL models, the blogs that post detailed images of what “we” wear and how “we” look.

    And then there are the events that may no attempt at realisim, like the huge and very popular Fantasy Faire, where the goods on sale tend to the Not Possible in Real Life, the avatars equally so, and the police are tinies. Or the Breedables Fair, where eye-watering sums exchange hands for virtual cats and horses.

    Yet the money that is raised from all of these is as real as you will get from rattling a collecting tin of a street corner. And the stories you will hear from all of these events are of the same loss and survival that you will hear from friends and family in the outer world.

    And it all concludes in a Relay weekend with a track to walk that mimics the Relay for Life events in the real world … and yet is wholly different – the physical effort becomes a finger on a series of buttons, and the walkers will include dragons and unicorns, small furry creatures and willowy elves. And yet the level of fundraising each year puts Second Life in the top fifty fundraising events.

    Which is why I think that the construction of the whole Relay for Life with Second Life is a phenomenon that offers a rewarding field of study and discussion.


    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Saffia.

      I think Relay for Life is an interesting comparison, but it’s complicated by the fact that I think the identity stakes are higher in the case of violence against women. Certainly cancer research can be political, but not anything like the degree that VAW is, so it is wise, I think, to be correspondingly more careful. And while I take entirely your distinction between “reality” and “realism,” one of the dangers of the latter term is that it is most usually applied to mean “like the real,” i.e., a form of fictional representation. Thus, a novel uses “realism,” which is really a set of conventions understood and accepted by readers, to create the illusion that the events depicted did, or at least actually could, occur. And I think “illusion” is exactly what we want to avoid. So what is needed, perhaps, is an approach that we acknowledge is not “reality” (because it is virtual), but also not merely “realistic.”

      All that said, I think your case studies are interesting and worthwhile. Something like what you describe for the Science Fiction Convention — bringing people in-world, or via live streaming — would work very well, in all sorts of ways. An important component of that should be ensuring, to the best degree possible, that those brought in were representative of the global dimensions of the problem, and the search for solutions. (The supposed lack of such representation is, of course, a major part of the criticism that has been directed against the real-life OBR movement from within the activist community.)

      I agree that even those events further along the “immersionist” end of the spectrum are valuable and worthwhile. for a number of reasons. First, they can, as you say, generate a great deal of engagement (and, although OBR is not about fundraising, the L$s raised by things like the Breedables Fair certainly indicate the degree to which immersive events can attract an audience). And, imaginatively conceived and planned, they can have an important and powerful symbolic value as well.

      I think the key to approaching “immersionist” components is to be very careful about the possible implications and readings that might come from those activities. For instance, at a VAW event I helped organize in 2011, one of the suggestions was to feature a fashion show. Fashion shows are certainly always a good draw in SL, but most of those involved in organizing the event felt, in the context of an attempt to highlight the brutalization of women, that parading elegantly-dressed female avatars across a stage conveyed the wrong message. In other contexts, of course, a fashion show might be a brilliant strategy. In this instance, though, it did seem too much like “playing” at dealing with the issues.

      So, yes, I do like your model of a “mixed” event such as RFL. I’d like to suggest, as a sort of supplement to your model, that two keys to making this strategy work, on either end of the augmentationist-immersionist spectrum, are

      1) To bring real life witnesses from a global context (be they activists, scholars, or simply affected women) into the event somehow. This should probably include at the planning stages, to ensure that those voices were heard in the design; the input of those women, or at least the fact of their having contributed, should be very public. (Again, I’m thinking about the criticisms levelled against OBR in RL.)

      2) To be careful that those “immersionist” portions of the programme avoid seeming to “represent” or trivialize the issue and those whom it affects.

      Many thanks for your thoughts, Saffia! I think that we’re coming close to a model that would set my mind, anyway, much at ease regarding the issues of representation in OBR in SL, and that would generally make this an even more effective and worthwhile event than it already is.

  11. hqas says:

    Pleasure. Earlier I was reading through your wonderful article where you have raised many logical and practical queries related to the branding of OBR and its limitations. I am quite a critique of white feminists advocation for us colored women feminists, throw in Muslim more drama. I think you are getting my meaning, while Pakistan joined OBR from 2012, the biggest query I had in trying to mobilize groups for VDay included:
    1. So Ma’am Eve wants us to dance on roads, does she think its the US/West?
    2. How stupid to become a dancing joke when we have already national scale campaigns on VAW issues.
    3. In most areas, girls,boys, women and even elders refused to dance to the tunes of western doctrine.
    In 2013, we did peaceful rallies, vigil, street theatre, ethnic puppet shows, television drama stories, public speeches as part of our contribution to OBR.
    5. While Pakistan is struggling with horrible terrorist activities, sectarian violence by damn Taliban’s funded by external countries, its a joke to tell us to dance in public owing to security issues. If one bomb had hit my girl vigil, Ma’am Eve and west would have used that event to reinforce how bad Pakistan really is, without taking any responsibility for there ignorant campaign.

  12. hqas says:

    I really liked your arguments and your work, some day would like to collaborate.

  13. Pep says:

    “Street theatre and ethnic puppet shows”? Boal’s spirit lives on in Pakistan, it seems.
    Pep (must look more carefully at what entertains the American tourists in Covent Garden.)

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