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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.