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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy
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We Should All Be Feminists

In one of the many important episodes of the TEDx talk, Adichie alludes to an article she wrote about what it means to be young and a female in Nigeria. People told her that her piece was angry, and she agreed with their judgment: “Of course it was angry. I am angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice as fairness. We should all be angry.”8 Her anger is rooted in her belief in a universal moral principle: justice. Based on this conviction, she believes that, all things being equal, she should not be the only person expressing anger. Every person should be angry. It is important to note that she does not indict people. To the contrary, she indicts the system which she has already identified. It is the system that supports gender as it functions today. She thus expresses hope that the condition she is about to describe would arouse people to indignation and to seek to change the unfair paradigms of relation between men and women: “And I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves.”9 Adichie is not afraid of making reference to universal ideals such as the belief in a fairer world and people’s capacity to dream for that. When she dreams of a world of happier men and happier women, she seeks no more than what we have already identified as human flourishing, a world devoid of needless pain.

Adichie’s simple demand that people dream of, or imagine a fairer world is not different from what Martha Nussbaum and Simon Baron- Cohen had already said about empathy being rooted in the power of the imagination. It is the power of one person to put him- or herself in the position of the other. In asking her audience to dream with her, she prepares them to imaginatively reconstruct the pain of the women she is going to talk about. Nussbaum has pointed out that to imagine the pain of the sufferer, one has to be constantly aware that one is oneself not the sufferer of pain. Imagining the pain of others, we know, can be a very difficult affair. Yet there seems to be no easier or even better way for people to envisage a fairer society unless, of course, one simply obeys society’s norms and rules in strict Kantian deontological format. Dreaming of a better world, or imagining a fair society also recalls John Rawls’s notion of the veil of ignorance. I will return to this later.

Adichie seeks to expose the foundations of unfair structures of society in regard to women. Women are taught from childhood that their position in society is inferior to that of men. They are conditioned not to desire. The degree to which they are taught to accommodate themselves to inferior positions equals the degree to which men perceive themselves as superior, lords:

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man. If you are the bread winner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not. Especially in public. Otherwise you will emasculate him.”10

Iris Marion Young has written about how society’s unjust constraints limit women’s freedom and opportunity.11 She argues that feminine bodies are made to repress or withhold their motile energy, and in that way:

feminine bodily existence frequently projects “I can” and an “I cannot” with respect to the very same end. When the woman enters a task with inhibited intentionality, she projects the possibilities of that task—thus projects an “I can”-but projects them merely as the possibilities of “someone,” and not truly her possibilities—and thus projects an “I cannot”. 12

Young’s ideas were reaffirmed by a popular video commercial that ran during the 2015 Super Bowl, titled “Throw Like a Girl.”13 In the commercial, people are asked to show how girls run, fight and throw. The actors perform inferior versions ofeach ofthese acts. We learn that they are merely acting out society’s sexist images of women. A different version of the same acts are performed, but without sexist connotations. The result is totally different. Girls run, fight, and throw not like girls but like human beings: the way each individual can throw, run, or fight. Adichie expresses the same idea as Young and the Super Bowl commercial with her observation that the African society she speaks of teaches “girls to shrink themselves.” Those societies disable the girls when the girls learn to make themselves smaller and not to have ambition.

To enunciate the inferior roles of girls, society raises them to compete “not for jobs, or for accomplishments” but “for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”14 In teaching girls not to desire, society indirectly lets them feel they are to be desired and that they cannot be masters of their world. Ideally, only masters desire. Objects are desired. Adichie’s ideas on the upbringing of boys and girls tap into the understanding that people could be brought up to hate one another by conditioning, that is, by subjecting them to the ideology of tradition. As I have pointed out in the introduction with reference to De Waal, empathy can be blocked in people by conditioning.15 Fear readily leads to the demonization of others, thus freezing their being in abstractions; it is no surprise that women are feared as sources of temptations and evil— at least judging from mythologies. De Waal’s ideas support Gabriel Marcel’s views on abstractions (patriarchy, culture, tradition, heritage) that hinder us from being fraternal to others.16 Abstractions not only block our empathy towards others because these concepts have already prejudged and packaged them in simplistic categories; they also constrain our thinking and feeling within extremely localized, ethnocentric modules. Empathy, on the other hand, expands our thinking and feeling, and allows us to imagine reality as all-encompassing and allembracing.

Adichie points to the incontestable fact that the disparity and the unfairness in the upbringing of boys and girls have immediate and lasting impacts on their lives:

We teach girls shame. “Close your legs!” “Cover yourself!” We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. Adichie, “ We Should All Be Feminists” (Adichie 2013)

Adichie just falls short of stating that these girls grow up disabled. In her understanding, fairness can defuse the empathy-blockage brought about by patriarchal upbringing. The OED defines fairness as “the quality or condition of being fair.” Being fair is identified as acting “equitably, honestly, impartially, justly.” Being fair also means being free from bias. I admit that it is in the human constitution to think and act in ways that would often benefit our narrower interests: our race, our ethnic group, tribe, family, gender, color, and so on. The demands of community, however, put some checks on that primal instinct of bias. Living together with others of different ethnic or religious abstractions demands that we put ourselves in other people’s positions and then judge our actions and thoughts from that particular point; it implies that we act in such a way that ifwe were to consider our actions from other people’s viewpoints, we would be able to find those actions permissible, justified, and fair. When Adichie demands that we should all be feminists, she projects a system that enables the African woman to raise her daughter in virtuous ways. But first, that system has to be fair to those daughters; it has to first of all recognize them as individuals with distinct wishes and dreams that ought to be taken seriously just as it does those of boys. She suggests that girls cannot be policed more than boys are. How can we restructure that system in order to assure that individual boys and girls get fair treatment from their societies?

 
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