The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joseph Miles Headshot

Dialogue Must Be a Spur to Activism

Posted: Updated:

Whiteboards have become the most crucial weapon in the battle for social justice since Tumblr was invented. It has become a fortunately common practice in academic circles to stand in some picturesque part of your university holding a whiteboard with either a pro-social justice claim inscribed thereon, or an example of some unpleasant piece of bigotry hurled your way by some socially unreformed reprobate. Various feminist campaigns making use of the humble whiteboard have swept university campuses across the United Kingdom. This was brought to Oxford first by the Women's Campaign, with "I Need Feminism because..." and followed by the "I, Too, Am Oxford" campaign of Skin Deep. Even the frankly insulting attempt by an almost all-white ensemble of other Oxford students to pretend that ethnic minority students do not face genuine discrimination and bigotry was done through the medium of whiteboards. It is forecast that, at the current level of activism, by 2016 there will be a pile of whiteboards outside the Radcliffe Camera that will overtake the Shard as the current largest structure in Great Britain.

These are, of course, perfectly valid concerns. Barely a day goes by without hearing of some outrageous misogynist incident, as well as hundreds of subtler ones. For example, I am sure you are all aware of the Oxford student who was viciously attacked by a man for telling him off for groping her. Apparently the standards of appropriate behaviour are so twisted in some individuals' minds that they consider women to have an obligation to allow themselves be touched by whosoever wishes to do so, and any refusal of permission to do this is a grave insult that can only be repaid with severe physical abuse. The "I, Too, Am Oxford" campaign reveals some shocking cases of casual racism that, having grown up in a fairly racially insensitive area of North Yorkshire, I find it sadly too easy to believe have happened. It does not surprise me in the least that people have considered it appropriate to ask ethnic minorities from London where they are really from. In short, I do not want anyone to come away with the impression that I do not think the people involved in these various campaigns do not have legitimate grievances. They do, and that is what makes things all the more frustrating.

The question I always find myself asking when I read various accounts of and articles about subtle discrimination is "Well yes, that's all very well, but what do you propose we do about it?" It is understandable why this is not an easy question to answer. Though the struggles of women's suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1960s to name just three examples were unquestionably hugely difficult fights that required immense amounts of courage to bring about real change, in at least one sense these were the easiest battles to win. There was a clear problem; for example, Jim Crow legislation that enshrined the subservient status of non-whites in law; and therefore there was a clear solution; namely their repeal. Though the actual battle to bring this change about was incredibly difficult, at least it was clear what the goal was. Now, we live in a world where generally discrimination is explicitly illegal (at least this is the case in the UK). However, there is perfectly good reason to expect that prejudice still rears its ugly head on a regular basis in this country. A few years ago, Nick Clegg highlighted the shocking statistic that young black men are more likely to end up in prison than go to university. In the United States, black offenders are far, far more likely to be issued the death penalty than white offenders who have committed a crime of similar magnitude.

The problem is that the law has changed, but social attitudes have decidedly not. Even if the law is ostensibly fair on the surface, a legacy of patriarchal and colonial oppression that people far more qualified to talk about the subject than I am could no doubt fill you in on has ensured that it is decidedly not fair in its application. Even outside of the law, there are attitudes prevalent that, although it would be monstrous to legislate against, are still deeply unpleasant and offensive. I completely buy the argument, for example, that by constantly asking ethnic minority students where they are really from we give a very strong impression that they do not belong here, and are an outsider in a hostile land. Yet if by social pressure we somehow encourage people to not say these sorts of things, the attitude might still remain; and how do we make sure that people are not acting in subtly bigoted ways? This leads me onto the biggest problem I have with the use of words such as "patriarchy", for example. No doubt we do live in a socioeconomic system that massively benefits men, and unjustifiably so. This has to change. However, though we have a clear conception of what a patriarchy is (i.e. the social system that we live in), there is no mainstream, widely acknowledged idea of what a society free from a cis-hetereonormative oppressive structure would look like. Perhaps it would be like this one with a few significant policy changes, yet not enough to be completely dissimilar. Or perhaps it would be so radically different that it cannot be adequately expressed in terms of the society we have now. Does anybody know? I certainly do not.

I cannot stress enough how much of a problem this is. Again, let me reiterate. I take the issues raised by "I, Too, Am Oxford" and "I Need Feminism because..." incredibly seriously. Nobody except a gang of clueless middle-class white students and someone with access to the OUSU Facebook account and incredibly poor damage control skills could look at these concerns and not think something must be done. However, there seems to be a real lack of any serious ideas about what this something is. The normal justification of most campaigns is that they are starting a "dialogue". If I can be brutally honest, dialogue without a direction is navel-gazing, plain and simple. Yes, we absolutely need a dialogue; but that dialogue absolutely has to be aimed at identifying specific issues. It is impossible to craft a society without various forms of oppression if we do not at least have a rough idea of what one might look like. "I, Too, Am Oxford" and "I Need Feminism because..." should absolutely be commended for opening this dialogue- but it will be an effort tragically wasted if this does not translate into concrete action.