When We Are Too Politically Sophisticated to Act: Reflections on #BringBackOurGirls

From the June 2014 PNL #835

by Yanira Rodriguez

On Sunday May 4, approximately 40 members of the Syracuse community rallied in support of the mothers of more than 200 girls who were abducted on April 14 from their school in Chibok, Nigeria. Before, during and after the event I wrestled with the larger political implications of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, but still felt it imperative that this issue had to get louder. I kept thinking of my 12-year-old daughter. I kept thinking of the few girls who managed to escape, running blind in the night, and of the horrors visited upon those who were not able to run. I kept thinking of the countless women here in the US subjected to sexual violence and coerced into silence. Even if there were imperialist motives behind the offers to help find the girls (and I do not dismiss the significance and implications of such agendas), it felt crucial that these girls should not be in the middle of the sordid politics surrounding their abduction.

Soon after the event, we began to see other rallies organized all over the world and an increase in media coverage by traditional and alternative media outlets. In response, Jumoke Balogun1, a Nigerian-American feminist and co-founder of the online journal Compare Afrique, wrote an emphatic critique of US sympathizers. In her piece entitled “Dear Americans, Your Hashtags Won’t #BringBackOurGirls. You Might Actually be Making Things Worse,”2 Balogun rightfully argued that  shows of solidairty from “Americans” could not only lead to further US intervention in the region but also undermine Nigerians’ democratic process. She cited important examples of the growing US military presence3 in Nigeria, examples that in turn revealed that the political maneuverings have been underway long before the abduction of these girls.

Peta Long and Aimee Brill speak to the media
in Columbus Circle on May 4 while
demonstrators gather to bring attention to
the April kidnapping of more than 200
teenage girls from their school in Nigeria.
Photo: Kevin Bott

But the general assumption implicit in Balogun’s argument is all Westerners who mobilize in response to a call to action do so from a place of blind sympathy (a savior complex or more specifically a “white savior complex,”4 which does exist and I do not mean to downplay). Her claims ignored the possibility that people organized from a place of knowledge (or a search for more complete knowledge) and from a place of recognition of their government’s role in national and international strife. In her argument, Balogun also assumed that the North American public is a unified offspring of its government, rather than what she suggested we were seeing in Nigeria: a participatory citizenry ready to challenge an administration that abandons (or misrepresents) them. These assumptions are not without cause.  When Michelle Obama held a #BringBackOurGirls5 sign sporting a pouty face, the irony was not lost on us. The organization Cultures of Resistance6 circulated an alternative image with the first lady holding a sign that read, “nothing will bring back the children murdered by my husband’s drone strikes.”7 These important moments, in which a North American public alongside and engaged with an international public push against the US government’s covert imperialist agendas, speak to the kind of dialectic that is needed and that could not have happened without many having joined the conversation on Nigeria to begin with.

The Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole had also been grappling with the issue of outside support.  On May 9, Cole posted on Twitter “[t]his perhaps is the international community’s role: serve as witness to what Nigerians must mostly do themselves, and amplify Nigerian work.”8 On May 6, in a blog post for the New Yorker titled “Captivity,”9 Cole wrote about the friendship between Muslim and Christian girls, challenging the religious polarity that gets recreated in the media. And as he contested some of the rhetoric that perpetuates division, oppression and war, Cole also appealed to our deepest sense of humanity. His appeal exposed the absurdity of both the media campaign and the inane politics that have created this moment. He wrote:
“They [the girls] are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, …nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives. They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.”

Cole was doing important work at refocusing the conversation (despite the critique that could be levied at all levels) back to the girls. Cole’s tweets and shares also revealed a wrestling with information that at times perpetuated the constructs Cole challenged but allowed for other opportunities.

This kind of dialectic was absent in Balogun’s piece, and the absence points to a less obvious but deep concern: when in our “political sophistication” we privilege our understanding of the “complexity” of issues rather than our indignation before gross human rights violations. Withholding from debate or (like Balogun’s piece) lumping and condemning people who are motivated to take action, in order to separate ourselves from the presumed naiveté of celebrities who put their name to a cause or from “regular” citizens who join causes (again) presumably with blindfolds on, creates a missed opportunity to redirect the conversation.

We miss the opportunity to contest the meanings that “powerholders” want to attribute to our collective actions, and would-be allies are instead stripped of agency and succumb to dominant narratives that seek to disenfranchise them from speaking up.  

The refusal to join a call to action because it has gone “mainstream” also comes with its own set of blinders, as folks are swayed by a different kind of social media bling: snark10 and cynicism. For example, Balogun’s piece was the only post I saw from several friends preceded by comments like #WordTheFuckUp and #RealTalk. But there was no talk, just a blanket reaction/overreliance on an article critical of US intervention used as rationale not to get involved. Again, the inaction signaled a deeper issue where a particular sense of “logic” is privileged over empathy.

And the consequences of staying silent are dire. As of my writing, the majority of the girls remain captive, early outpours of international support are dwindling, and the US and other countries that offered to help search for the girls now claim a need to be “strategic” about their involvement.

As for an “American” public, yes, it is dangerous to act blindly but equally so not to trust our reactions to tyranny.11  And when what we face are systematic and structural means to isolate and criminalize those who speak up, we could always use more people willing to expose their knowledge gaps12 and to contest not only the obvious but more insidious ways power attempts to co-opt our actions. Perhaps then we can begin to address the seemingly simple but tough questions like the one posed by Cole when he tweeted “#BringBackOurGirls, but to where?”

1     http://www.compareafrique.com/about/founders-and-editors/
2     http://www.compareafrique.com/dear-americans-hashtags-wont-bringbackourg...
3     http://www.punchng.com/news/us-drones-spy-on-boko-haram/
4     http://josephboston.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/the-dissonance-of-bring-bac...
5     http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/10/michelle-obama-nigeria-pres...
6     http://www.culturesofresistance.org/
7     http://www.veooz.com/photos/lHAaLpl.html
8     https://twitter.com/tejucole/timelines/462974573135536128
9     http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/05/captivity.html?utm_s...
10     http://www.presenttensejournal.org/volume-3/louie-c-k-s-weird-ethic-kair...
11     http://www.presenttensejournal.org/vol1/in-defense-of-gut-feelings-rheto...
12     see 9

Yanira is a poet and journalist, living in Syracuse for the past seven years. She will join SU’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Doctoral Program in the fall.