The symbolic power of the Nobel Peace Prize

Last Friday,  Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were announced as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

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Before the announcement, there had been speculation that Trump and/or Kim Jong Un and/or Moon Jae-In could win it for their efforts to end the decades-long conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Republican lawmakers wrote to the Nobel committee to nominate Trump, and Moon Jae-In suggested Trump should win it last April. I’m so relieved they didn’t go there. There are so many reasons why Trump shouldn’t be a Nobel laureate–and many of them are highlighted in the laureates who were chosen.

The Nobel committee chose to honor people who campaign against sexual violence, specifically the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mukwege is a doctor who helps victims, and Murad is a survivor who has spoken out for other victims. Their stories are inspiring and heartbreaking, and they absolutely deserve to be better known–their causes deserve this kind of recognition and publicity.

Looking over a list a previous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you can see the symbolic power of the prize–how it designates what issues matter, which voices ought to be heard and better known, who we should be paying attention to.

Sometimes it’s very specific, focusing on one country at one specific point in time, such as the 2015 award to the National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Sometimes it coincides with an anniversary, like the 2012 award to the European Union on its 60th anniversary.

Sometimes, it’s a thinly veiled political statement. We saw that in 2009, when it was awarded to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. At the time, he hadn’t done anything yet–he was a lawyer and community organizer, a law professor, a State Senator and a junior U.S. Senator, and had only been President for 8 months when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote a couple of brilliant bestselling books, made some fantastic speeches, but in terms of actually taking action beyond words, the award was really premature. The main justification seemed to be that he was an inspiring figure who promoted peace and international cooperation. As much as I loved him, I’ll admit that Obama wasn’t an obvious choice. It was clearly political.

In the same way, the decision to highlight campaigners who fight sexual violence is the Nobel Committee’s way of saying #BelieveWomen. It’s a decision not to celebrate a work-in-progress peace agreement between North and South Korea, but rather to honor the achievements of a doctor who’s devoted his career to helping victims of sexual violence, and to honor a woman who has overcome human trafficking and sexual violence, not just surviving it but speaking out for others affected by it. Instead of honoring a politician who’s been accused of sexual violence (and who’s actually bragged about it in a recording we all heard before the 2016 election), the Nobel Committee chose to honor the victims and those who help them.

Vive la resistance!

 

What the Kavanaugh hearings look like from afar

I’ve been following the confirmation hearings closely this week. As I follow a lot of American journalists & politicians on social media, it’s not surprising that the hearings are the top story everyone seems to be talking about.

What is surprising is the fact that it’s also been a huge news story here. The TV in the foyer of my department always shows BBC News, and I keep seeing live coverage of the hearings when I go to and from my office. Last night I was at an event with a mixed international group of friends (Brazil, Bulgaria, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Chile, etc.) and I spoke with some of the other women about the hearings, and about sexual harassment & sexual assault more generally. Everybody’s watching, and I don’t think Americans are really aware of that.

This morning I saw an article in The New York Times with that very title–a quotation from a reader in Belgium, “I don’t think people in the US know how closely we’re watching this”. My favorite comment came from a New Zealander:

“I have visited America more times than I can count and always loved the country, and most of the people I met were friendly, welcoming and open. I watch in despair as America slides back into the Dark Ages and loses its reputation on the international stage. It is really very sad seeing America implode.”

It feels like the stakes are very high now, in the age of Trump and #metoo. During the 2016 campaign, Trump faced many accusations of sexual assault (there’s even a Wikipedia entry to keep track of them all), and even a recording of him boasting about sexual assault released before the election–and still, 62 million people voted for him.

The #metoo movement has shifted the way (most) media talk about sexual assault, and it’s shaping the way a lot of people think about their own experiences, and those of people they know and love, friends and family members–because when half of the people on your social media feed are sharing #metoo stories, you realize how common sexual harassment and sexual assault really are.

We recently watched Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma again, for the first time in many years. As a child, I loved it–my favorite character was Ado Annie and I used to sing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” without really understanding what the lyrics meant. I just thought they were funny, because my family always laughed when I sang it!

Watching it now, in the context of #metoo, I found it much scarier and more disturbing than I ever did as a child. When Laurey is sitting in that wagon with Jud Fry, you can feel how nervous she is. The tension is palpable. She’s thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?” and blaming herself because she told Jud she would go to the party with him (before she caught him peeping into her bedroom–another horrible scene). If anything happens (and it did, of course), she only has herself to blame because she put herself in the situation. That’s the story that victims tell themselves, and that’s why victims don’t tell anybody about their assault, for months, years or even for the rest of their lives.

Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anybody because she was afraid of getting in trouble for being at that party, where no parents were around, for having a beer at age 15, for putting herself in that situation.

When she realized Trump expected her to have sex with him, Stormy Daniels reportedly thought she deserved it for putting herself in that situation:

“I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe… I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”

 

In Oklahoma, Laurey escapes from Jud and finds help at the party–her aunt desperately tries to keep the bidding going when Jud stubbornly outbids everyone else for Laurey’s picnic basket, and Curly, the man she actually loves, sacrifices everything he owns to be the highest bidder. When a grateful Laurey tells Curly about Jud’s attack, he believes her.

He doesn’t say, “Well, you did choose to ride alone with him in his wagon,” or ask “What were you wearing? You were dressed up for a party–don’t you think that you were asking for it?”

Instead, Curly asks Laurey to marry him. He wants to protect her from Jud and prevent anything like that ever happening again (male guardianship is thus presented as the only way to prevent sexual harassment and assault, but putting the patriarchy aside…it’s a nice moment).

The #metoo movement is about honoring survivors’ stories. The new hashtag going around, #BelieveWomen, captures this idea perfectly. Rather than doubting and questioning their accounts, or accusing them of complicity (by wardrobe or drinking or “putting themselves in a bad situation”), it asks us to trust that they are fully capable of accurately interpreting events. They know what happened, and if it’s explained away as “horseplay”, “banter”, “Boys will be boys”, then the terrible acts committed against them are just being reinforced over and over again. The perpetrators are being protected and honored every time we choose not to believe victims’ stories–and there’s no greater honor than a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth.