As a movement, “The Pledge” seeks to mobilise the wider community in order to make interpersonal violence both more recognisable and socially unacceptable. Its commitment to personal safety, respect, and placing the onus on the perpetrator lies at the heart of today’s wider campaign to end all forms of gendered and sexual violence. In light of recent criticisms following the campaign, it is worth acknowledging critiques and addressing their value-based judgements, such that the central message of the campaign can continue to resound.
The first critique: that those who would be inclined to commit violent acts are those to whom the campaign fails to reach out. In this instance, the extent to which violence against women has entrenched and camouflaged itself in social norms is astoundingly under recognised. Some men are largely unaware of what is violent, and on the instance that the campaign does reach someone, it affects (to at least some extent) their awareness the way violence is understood. That’s not to say that it’s an acceptable excuse for those who use aggression to say that they are unaware of what they are doing, and therefore are awarded mitigated blame – but it is to say that the understanding people have of what constitutes violence is grossly misunderstood and far too narrow, which is exactly what ‘The Pledge’ aims to fix.
The second critique: that the campaign forces women who have experienced violence, in particular sexual violence, to share their experiences in an act of solidarity, and this could actually work against their recovery. Such a viewpoint that implicitly shames the wider feminist movement for inadvertently pressuring the vulnerable to act in a self-damaging way in order to “prove their commitment to the cause”. To some extent, this is plausible, but from those who have been willing to share their stories, it more often than not works as a form of liberation.
Sexual and gendered violence carries a certain stigma – the stigma that the victim somehow could have prevented it if they had acted differently, or if they had been more assertive at the time, or even after the fact, if they had told someone about it and sought justice. It makes someone feel as though they are to blame – that it’s a dirty secret that no one can and should ever know about, because it would damage whatever perceptions others had of them. In the experience of those who came forward, those who were willing to speak up about their own traumas have received nothing but support and respect for having both the courage to damn the violations against them, and to use their stories as a warning and call for those who may in the future. Furthermore, to paint a picture of the feminist cause as one that works to pressure people into submitting themselves to some skewed image of social justice to achieve a certain agenda is just blatant bigotry and ignorance that fails to recognise just how endemic and serious this issue is. It not only downplays the extent to which this threatens the lives of women every minute of the day, but it also continues to normalise the status quo which, at best, fails to adequately recognise the plight of women.
The third critique: that it creates a sense of false achievement to the extent that people feel less compelled to continue actively participating in the movement for which “The Pledge” stands. To some extent, it creates a false sense of achievement, seeing as many who took “The Pledge” would not necessarily treat is as something they would act upon. But the whole purpose of campaigns like ‘The Pledge’ is to bring matters once thought to exist in the private sphere further into public discourse. Violence is most harmful when it is exclusively private, where victims feel isolated and alone and perpetrators feel secure. Even if the perpetrators don’t take the pledge, people around them certainly will, and thereby continues to de-normalise what was once considered the acceptable status quo. That in and of itself works extremely effectively towards achieving a safer environment in which women can exist and not feel at risk of becoming victims.
Finally, it is important to discuss the opinions of those who believe that an inclusive rather that more aggressive assertion of anti-violence campaigns is just yet another case of ‘pandering’ to the male ego – that to make men feel less vilified and to continue to express ‘but not all men’ before or after making a point about gendered violence is really taking away from the incredibly valuable and important change that educates men out of these harmful norms. And to an extent, this is true. It is important to be bold and steadfast in the face of normalised violence. However, the exclusion of men through aggressive social campaigns that sees them feel helpless and attacked seems counter-productive to achieving a wider social understanding and acceptance. In this way, a balance between accountability for men and cooperation is essential for the success of this cause. “The Pledge” works very hard to achieve this balance.