It’s only January, but there’s a lot of madness fulminating around what is now called the “Women’s March on Washington” (WMW), set for January 21 at 10 a.m. on the Washington, D.C. mall, one day after Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Originally dubbed the “Million Women’s March” (MWM), the organizers were forced to change the name because, they were told, they had “culturally appropriated” the name of a 1997 march in Philadelphia organized by and for black women and families. Could it also be that only 181,000 people have officially registered at this writing, and that perhaps they are not comfortable with the name they were assigned at birth? The name of the march may seem unimportant, but the confusion surrounding its name is symbolic of the confusion surrounding its organization, purpose, and its ultimate potential efficacy.
Unlike the participants in the NCAA basketball tournament, the WMW participants don’t seem able to agree on why they are involved, but I for one earnestly want to understand who is marching and why. Much has been written already about the infighting and conflicting goals among the organizers and attendees, which we could analyze from afar, but as a firm believer in first principles and deductive reasoning, I decided first to examine the mission statement of the trans-named march for what it says on its face. After all — paraphrasing Mortimer Adler — if you can’t explain something, then you haven’t understood it yourself.
I had hopes that the mission statement would explain the personnel and purpose of the march, but discovered that it does more to confuse than to clarify. The WMW explanation begins:
The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us — immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault — and our communities are hurting and scared.
I have to admit that had to look up the “I” and the “A” of “LGBTQIA.” (How much longer is that Pinocchioesque acronym going to get, anyway?) Beyond the LGBTQIA line-up, the “many of us” here also includes a lengthy list of otherly-aggrieved folks — almost everyone on the planet, seemingly, except plain old “women.” The word “women” doesn’t even appear in the first paragraph.
So is it a women’s march, or not? And what about the “cisgendered,” those of us who are A-OK with the gender we were assigned at birth? Are we allowed to come if we support the purpose of the march, assuming it is discernible? Causing further confusion last week, the Washington Post mistakenly used the “Mars” pictogram for men instead of that which symbolizes women to accompany an article about the march. “Who” is marching is indeed far from clear. Still Questioning, I guess.
Transitioning into why they are marching, the first paragraph of the mission statement concludes, “We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.” So they are marching because they can’t move forward? That seems oxymoronic on many levels. Of what are they so afraid? It remains unstated.
The second paragraph attempts to elucidate, but defies comprehension with its odd syntax and vague language:
In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.
These three sentences do include subjects and verbs (bolded), but they fall short of identifying whom the marchers are joining, the precise meaning of the “bold” message they are sending, or what it is they intend to do while standing together.
In sentence one, the “we” joins “the champions of human rights… who have come before us,” whoever those champions are. The organizers have posted their own version of Dr. King’s “Six Principles of Nonviolence” on their website — five of them, anyway (leaving #6, about God, out of it) — so we might assume that the organizers are guided by Dr. King’s principles (or at least trying to appease their original detractors). The organizers have revised these principles, however, in ways that leave us questioning how committed they really are to King’s original vision. They seem, for example, to confuse “unearned” suffering with “self-chosen” or “voluntary” suffering.
Sentence two tells us that the march will “send a bold message…that women’s rights are human rights.” What action does that tautological observation demand of “the new government and the world”? This mention is the first in the entire mission statement, by the way, of “women’s rights,” yet the statement never defines that phrase. Are women’s rights a sub-set of other human rights? Different but equally important? Exactly the same? How indeed is anyone to determine what women’s rights are anymore, if even the oldest women’s college in the country, Mount Holyoke, now asserts (in its admissions material) that “traditional binaries around who counts as a man or woman are being challenged by those whose gender identity does not conform to their biology”?
Whoever they are, and regardless of the rights they advocate, they “stand together” for sure in the final sentence, “recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.” Well sheesh, if they can’t figure out if they are women or not, and if they can’t explain what women’s rights are, how in the world will they prioritize who is the most “marginalized” among the permanently aggrieved?
Organizers of the march have emphasized in interviews, such as for a recent Vogue photo shoot, the desire “to organize all the different progressive social justice movements into one intersectional movement.” If the movement is truly “intersectional,” as New Activism Speak seems to demand, won’t every marcher arrogate to the march the violation, indignity, or injustice of his, her, or its own choice? How, then, should we understand the collective goal stated in third and final paragraph: “We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society”?
Nobel Laureate and authority on “crowds,” Elias Canetti, identifies four basic attributes of a “crowd,” one of which is that the crowd needs a direction. “A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them,” he wrote, “drives underground all of the private differing goals, which are fatal to the crowd as such.” The goals expressed by the WMW certainly have the appearance of being “outside and common” (parity and equity?), but their expression, as we have seen, is so vague as to be meaningless. More importantly, what happens to each participant’s “private and differing goals” when the march concludes?
Will those potentially conflicting (“non-intersectional”?) goals find voices and action plans following the march? One attendee, quoted in the Washington Post, revealed her “private and differing” goal when said she was marching because “I absolutely despise Donald Trump and everything he stands for,” which does not exactly typify the peaceful ways in which the organizers say they want to work. As Shikha Dalmia noted in the Week, “prematurely elevating the faux concerns of a hyperactive feminist lobby will make it far more difficult to launch a serious resistance movement” to what she perceives to be the real dangers of a Trump administration.
The NCAA basketball tournament, for all of its March madness, at least has very clear organizing principles, protocols, and goals. We can understand the brackets, the rules, the wins, the losses, and in the end achieve a clear sense of what was or wasn’t accomplished, but a march that aspires to “support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities,” still leaves me wondering what those movements are, what those identities are, and — most importantly — what happens after the crowd disperses on January 21.