21st January 2017, the day of the Women’s March, I was sat at home enjoying a leisurely Saturday. I was scrolling through Instagram, which was full of photos of placards, pussy hats, and masses of people taking over cities all over the world, and I could feel the pride welling up. Pride in being a woman, pride in being British, pride in the statement that we as people won’t accept sexism, racism, denial of human rights and abuse of power. Then there it was: alongside that rising wave of emotion, a sinking feeling of doubt. Why wasn’t I there? Why wasn’t I marching?
I truly and fully believe in the right to protest and freedom of association and it truly and fully makes me rage when people scorn the idea of protesting or dismiss it as futile. Not only is a fundamental right at the heart of our democracy, it is a powerful way that we, as civilians, can get our feelings recognised and voices heard in directly and immediately. From the CND marches of the eighties to the anti-Iraq war protests in 2003 to the 2010 student demos, there’s a rich vein of protesting running through our recent history.
I’ve never participated in a protest before. Let’s run through the above examples: I wasn’t alive for CND so I think gives me a pass. But with the Iraq War protests (although I was thirteen at the time so perhaps a touch too young) and especially the student demos, I didn’t protest because I didn’t feel these issues affected me in a deep enough way and so it was neither necessary nor convenient for me to do so.
At the time of the student demos I was halfway through my degree, and though I voted for the Liberal Democrats in the preceding election cycle primarily because of their education policies, by the time the protests were being organised, the rise in tuition fees would have had no impact on me. I was studying hard, partying a fair bit too, generally making the most of that particular time in my life, and taking time out to protest just didn’t feel urgent enough. I’ve always appreciated how fortunate I am to be born in this country and raised with so many rights and freedoms but it’s only now, to my shame, in the face of issues that do impact my life in a meaningful way that I truly realise the position of privilege I exist in.
I may not feel the direct force of Trump’s policies here in the UK but his decisions have a massive ripple effect on global politics and the insidious policies he advocates are ones that I fundamentally and wholeheartedly disagree with. A man in such a position of power cannot be allowed to roll back women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, minority rights and the principles of common decency. I’m extremely politically aware. I’m a feminist. I make sure I stay on top of current affairs. I always vote and always give it “people died for our right to do this and people are still dying for their right to do this” whenever elections come around. I sign and share petitions. I donate money where I can. I think (or I used to) that I’m the type of person who stands up for what they believe in.
From high school through to a bachelor’s and master’s degree, history as a subject has been one of the defining interests of my life, and during such extensive studying and reading, you can’t help but imagine how you would have fared had you been alive back then. Would you have survived in wartime? Would you have resisted in the face of religious or political oppression? Would you have sacrificed your own personal safety to shelter someone else?
Generally speaking I believe people see the best version of themselves, they perceive themselves to be fair and just, that they would speak up for what is right. As a middle-class white Westerner, I face little risk of personal harm both in my day-to-day life and in terms of my ability to exercise my rights. As a Brit, whilst I may not agree with the government’s policies regarding refugees, Trump, Brexit and so on, I don’t have to contend with political repression. In that sense today bears no comparison to the intense and horrifying struggles of the twentieth century, but in terms of my lifetime, we are living through another extraordinary period of global politics. So do we not have to go to new lengths? If I really cared, would I not be making an extra effort, doing everything in my power to help to fight these injustices?
If everyone only stood up and spoke out to a level that was convenient for them, change would never happen. It takes people to go to above and beyond, and not necessarily in of the size of the act but in that act pushes beyond the boundaries of their normal, comfortable life. What I’m accepting is that I’m not as righteous in reality as I am in my imagination. I resist and push up to a point where it still suits me to do so. Had I been alive fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, I may have been in the passive majority rather than the active minority. And what I’m confronting is the complex relationship between privilege and politics.
If we don’t practice what we preach, does that limit our right to preach even if that preaching necessary? Can I act in response to an issue I feel strongly about but in a way that isn’t disruptive to my life? Does that somehow diminish my voice? Just because we are blessed to be in position of extreme fortune, it doesn’t negate our right to speak out about those who are not. This is typified in the recent trend of celebrities getting called out on social media and in the press for their views on the refugee crisis and having the fact that they live extremely privileged lives thrown back in response. Asking Lily Allen how many refugees she’s going to house in her mansion or telling Gary Lineker to stick to his day job because they display empathy and compassion and concern is totally rank and hugely unhelpful.
There isn’t a hierarchy at work here. Privilege doesn’t negate your right to a political opinion. Some people will always be in a position to do more, whether that’s in terms of time or power or money: that’s the way of the world. But that doesn’t relieve the rest of us from responsibility. It’s a collective effort with each part building and strengthening the entire movement. Protesting, marching, uniting in numbers is amazing, but it doesn’t discount the petitioning, the canvassing, the fundraising, the educating, the debating, the writing or the voting. Yes, on personal level I feel I’m not contributing to the absolute best of my ability, but I am inspired by the efforts of other people the world over. We lift each other up and the more we do, whether that’s chatting with a friend or marching on parliament, the harder it is for them to silence us.
Words: Christina Dean
Illustrations: Tara Presnell