Home Features With us or against us: the danger of black or white thinking

With us or against us: the danger of black or white thinking


Sophie Harrison, Online Books Editor, considers the delicate line between promoting  your views and pushing them to the point of alienating people from the original cause.

We only need to look at the Paris attacks earlier this year, to recognise the vital importance of free speech. Nonetheless, for every person who can feel empowered by a standpoint, there is someone who can feel imposed upon. There is a delicate line between promoting your views, and pushing them too far.

Recent incidences, involving the subjects of veganism, racism and feminism, have strayed precariously close to this line. I will stress, from the outset, that I respect all three movements. Yet I have seen how markedly forceful approaches, ultimately caused more partition than promotion.

Vegan Roast Image Credit: Kate Burgess
Vegan Roast – Do you have to be a vegan to support animal rights?
Image Credit: Kate Burgess

The most recent example, which prompted me to write this piece, regarded the topic of animal rights. A debate was started on a Facebook page, which included the argument that people cannot be pro-animal welfare unless they are vegan. People posted graphic cartoon images and directed heated criticism towards people who, despite not being vegan, campaigned for animal sanctuaries in their spare time. For me, the most upsetting was the suggestion that you cannot love animals, if you are not a vegan.

I am a dog owner, adore animals and donate money each month to the Donkey Sanctuary. I also eat meat and consume dairy products. The latter has been especially important for me in recovery from an eating disorder that compromised bone health. I posted a carefully thought-out comment in this Facebook thread, and the responses acknowledged that my case was an “exception”. Nonetheless, it still enforced that my “end goal should be veganism”.

I will not become a vegan. I respect people who do, but I know that it would require too much restriction of foods that I have previously avoided. The debate became growingly aggressive in tone, and I did feel that views were being enforced upon me. I fail to see how they think this tactic is effectual? It hides the middle ground.

My second example, The HeForShe campaign, seeks to unearth it. I will be the first to admit the campaign is not flawless, but I think it can do so much to progress the liberation of female rights. People do have a right to criticize it, and I have read very articulate pieces exploring this.

Nonetheless an experience last year showed a less moderate side. A friend informed me that an article I had written on the campaign had been posted on a society page. I was thrilled; sharing awareness of this campaign is a key aim. When I visited the page, and read the comments, delight was displaced with discomfort. People remarked that my understanding of feminism was “crude” and “simple”, while referring to me as “she” – despite my name being at the bottom of the article.

Emma Watson's UN speech launched HeForShe - Photo: Social News Daily
Emma Watson’s UN speech launched HeForShe – Photo: Social News Daily

I was supporting a campaign for feminism. Inwardly, I felt mortified; I wanted to edit the piece. Censor myself. Yet, outwardly, I stood my ground, and I am glad I did. The diversity of feminism is why I love the “this is what a feminist looks like” shirt. It is not a one-size-fits-all movement.

Emma Watson’s question, “how can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” received much criticism in the media, but I agree with her. Moreover, my experience showed how it is not just men who can feel isolated from the feminist conversation. I sat there, a woman, and perversely felt as though I did not have a voice.

Positive discourses are emasculated by the smallest discrepancies. One article response to the campaign lambasted the “gender inequality” within the Harry Potter series, citing lack of female characters as courageous as Harry…. I wonder what Emma Watson would say to that? If we are going to tear apart JK Rowling for inequality – the author whose book, The Casual Vacancy, was denounced a “socialist manifesto” (Daily Mail) for its unbarred societal criticism – E.L. James should see fifty storms of grey descend. Seeing Harry Potter singled out for gender inequality shocked me.

Good intentions are being discredited. My final example is a case in point for this: Benedict Cumberbatch’s widely condemned use of the term “coloured”, on a US chat show in January.

The actor’s full statement said: “I think as far as coloured actors go… a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change. We’re not representative enough in our culture of different races”.

Taken out of context, by the media, it does sound bad. Yet this overshadowed a whole discussion for racial equality. ITV News broadcaster Charlene White tweeted: “Benedict Cumberbatch on lack of opps for black actors in UK. For me tho, undermined by him calling them ‘colored’…”

I do not endorse what Cumberbatch said. However, I would not go as far as to say this one word  “undermined” all else. White was, arguably, the one undermining his point.

Benedict Cumberbatch sporting his feminist t-shirt - Image: ELLE
Should Benedict Cumberbatch’s slip up undermine his intentions? – Image: ELLE

Cumberbatch did what I felt compelled to do, and backtracked on his statement: “The most shaming aspect of this for me is that I was talking about racial inequality”. This apology in itself saddened me, because he said it himself; he was talking about racial inequality. The media made it into an issue greater than the true issue at hand. Correct terminology does need to be used, but employment equality is the bigger fight.

The media could not see this; they wanted a story. The Daily Mail, who ran an article on Cumberbatch’s descendency from slave owners, in 2014, wrote last month: “The actor’s slip of the tongue is especially troubling considering his family history.” One tweet read: “don’t understand how the word “coloured” came out of descendant-of-slave-owner Cumberbatch’s mouth”.

The dog owner is an animal hater. The feminist is pro-male. The racial equality advocate is a “descendant of a slave-owner”. Where is the equality and empathy for which these groups campaign?

Selma star David Olewoyo, on Cumber-gate, put it perfectly: “To attack him for a term, as opposed to what he was actually saying… is indicative of the age we live in where people are looking for sound bites as opposed to substance.” Vital energy is wasted finding issues, rather than creating solutions.

“It is time we all perceived gender as a spectrum rather than two sets of opposing ideals”. Emma Watson’s statement rings true for all rights movements. It is not a case of male or female, vegan or animal hater, black or white. Not holding the exact views on a subject, as someone else, does not make you the enemy of it.

Views have a spectrum; as long as they point in the direction of some greater good, they warrant respect.

Sophie Harrison, Online Books Editor

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