It’s been a momentous week for women campaigners with the indictment of Harvey Weinstein and the success of Repeal the 8th, which, once the legislation is completed, will make abortion legal in Ireland. I’ve had a little to do with both issues.
In reaction to the revelations about Weinstein, #MeToo began to trend on Twitter as a way of exposing the number of sexual assaults women across the world have experienced, and I used the hashtag to add my name to the list in solidarity with other sisters across the world. According to Wikipedia the phrase “Me too” was tweeted by Alison Milano around noon on October 15, 2017, and had been used more than 200,000 times by the end of the day, and tweeted more than 500,000 times by October 16 . On Facebook the hashtag was used by more than by 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours. Sending out a tweet with this hashtag was a very small act which had a big effect in terms of raising awareness. This awareness raising began discussions in governments, in Hollywood, the music industry, universities, shop floors, and coffee shops, and made men who had behaved badly speak out in apology, and encouraged some people to report abuse resulting in prosecutions.
The campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which would result in legal abortion was a different kind of campaign, still one begun by women, and with women at the heart of it, but also one where folk knocked on doors and engaged their neighbourhood in a conversation on this very polarised and sensitive subject. Those of us supporting ‘Repeal the 8th who did not live in Ireland posted information on social media explaining our position, but our experience of engagement, however helpful to the cause, was not the same as the door knockers because it lacked in-person conversations where we could be challenged, and challenged to hold your ground respectfully. The ‘Yes’ campaigners I engage with indicate that in the face of aggression this is what the majority managed to do, and, for me, apart from the success of the campaign, this capacity of respectful engagement is a significant achievement.
Social media is a powerful tool, and like all power tools can be dangerous in unskilled hands. Feeling entitled to be insulting and demeaning on social media doesn’t often translate into feeling entitled to do so face to face. The most benign outcome of an insulting face to face encounter on a doorstep is the closing of a door, the more hostile outcome would be getting screamed at and punched; neither would be helpful in changing minds; indeed the more likely outcome would be an entrenched position. We all know this, and yet when I’ve the strength to engage on social media, and Twitter in particular, my feed is awash with deliberate insults and name calling – not blunt truths, simply meanspirited remarks.
Over the past two years of Repeal the 8th I’ve just got on with doing my little bit quietly. My nearest and dearest, and anyone engaging with me on the topic of abortion knows where I stand, but last Saturday while watching the coverage of the referendum from Dublin Castle, and posting my support for Repeal the 8th I became aware of becoming anxious.
I am 59 years old, and was raised Catholic, and absorbed Catholic Church teaching on contraception and abortion as I was growing up. I remember the discussions in the house of Humanae Vitae , Pope Paul IV encyclical outlining church teaching on contraception and abortion; this at a time when I was aware experts were concerned about the population explosion and the earth’s ability to sustain us. I was 12 years old, contraception and abortion weren’t on my horizon as a personal concern, but I do recall feeling relieved to learn the Church would allow an abortion where the life of the mother was in immediate danger, and feeling this was the least they could do. At 12 I knew in myself there was something damaging in this teaching, but I kept my views to myself. Life experience gave meaning to that intuition, but 47 years later I sat in front of a screen feeling anxious because I was afraid of the reactions of family and friends who hadn’t discussed this with me, and didn’t know my views. On a daily basis I read replies on Twitter to people I follow being trolled and threatened by those who disagree with them – this explained my anxiety. The disconnect between speech and body is what makes people entitled to do this, but surely if we wouldn’t say it face to face, we can’t be saying it in a tweet. Those of us who campaign are (mostly) adults, and we have a responsibility to commit ourselves to respectful discourse – social media is a public forum; young folk are listening, and following our example. If we wouldn’t say it in the town square, why are we saying it on social media?
As it turned out I was fortunate with my posts; those who disagreed with me simply didn’t respond, those who did agree with me engaged.
Returning to the women’s campaigns that I began with: I think there will be much to learn from Repeal the 8th, and I’m looking forward to hearing their stories of engagement. Campaigning isn’t just about posters and ralleys; it’s engaging with your friends and family and their friends and family, confidently and respectfully understanding the facts of your position, and listening to the concerns of others.
I believe a woman’s place is in the revolution, and the predisposition for us women to talk, I wonder if this is how the revolution for equality and human rights put into action will be won – by women at kitchen tables, at the school gates and at the neighbourhood barbecues.