Forget defending against the rise of the right: the left has taken up the offensive

The days of playing defense against attacks on liberal values from the far right have given way to a new leftist strategy in Europe: offense. 

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Forget defending against the rise of the right: the left has taken up the offensive - NewsMavens

-- by Elizabeth Walsh, January 2018

As the #MeToo campaign picks up steam (and backlash), for many, the strategy is no longer defending what’s good about the status quo, but instead breaking silences and demanding change.

In the United Kingdom, Lydia Morrish drew our attention to the many women who are speaking out -- and finally being heard -- over the gender pay gap thanks to Carrie Gracie, the prominent BBC journalist who resigned in protest when it was discovered that she was earning less than her male peers. Following her open letter, the BBC came under fire for trying to keep staff from discussing their salary and attempting to shut down Gracie’s story. Companies with 250 or more workers are now legally obligated to publish employee salaries. As more and more companies make their data public, the outcry continues. 

Long-held silences were broken in Austria as well, where rape allegations from 1974 against one of the country’s most celebrated skiers, Toni Sailer, came to light. Sailer died in 2009, years after he was under investigation in Poland for sexual assault. As Christine Tragler points out, “the fact that it took four decades for the story to comes to light suggests that authorities invested great effort to protect the reputation of a sports star.” But while a more sexist and repressive status quo might have protected Sailer for decades, the #MeToo movement is rooting out the truth and bringing long-held grievances to justice.

Also in Austria, tens of thousands flooded the streets of Vienna to protest a Nazi-like statement made by Interior Minister Herbert Kickl about asylum seekers. Kickl said he wanted “service centers and infrastructure that would allow the authorities to concentrate asylum seekers in one place.” The protests were a manifestation of the divide between the new Austrian government and the growing refusal of the Austrian people to accept far right politics and rhetoric.

It’s not just individuals who are on the offensive when it comes to waging justice: the European Court of Justice is soon to determine whether or not Facebook has an obligation to find and delete abusive speech. Eva Glawischnig of Austria’s Green Party has been regularly subjected to hate speech on Facebook, including from one user who said she should be sent to a gas chamber. Her case has now made it to the European Court of Justice, which will decide whether to shift the burden from victims who must report such abuse to the social media giant. 

But can too much offense backfire?

In Poland, a register of dangerous pedophiles and rapists has been made public. While lists of offenders are common, many argue that they are only effective if classified. Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk argues that the move is both ineffective and demoralizing and points out that therapy has proven to dramatically reduce the risk of repeat offenses. The fear, she writes, is that such lists can actually make communities less safe. 

Finally, there’s the trial taking place in Germany, in which a woman who was kidnapped in Stuttgart in 2011 by her family and then taken to Turkey -- from where they emigrated -- was married against her will. As Daria Sukharchuk explains, the young woman fled her family after arguments about her future. 

Yet, there’s a problem with Sukharchuk’s framing of the story, one that has the potential to fuel right-wing xenophobia. It takes on a superior tone, in which the young woman valiantly “chose a Western lifestyle” and “refused to follow a traditional” one. The article suggests that the kidnapping crime took place because of the family's culture. Conservative ideas about marriage may indeed be Turkish. But kidnapping and drugging a person -- also illegal in Turkey -- are not and it is a mistake to lump them together. This follows a Western tendency to blame crime committed by minorities on culture, but to treat crimes committed by Westerners on an individual basis. Doing so runs the risk of punishing entire ethnic groups or religions for the behavior of individuals, thus stoking prejudice and fear.

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Overall, the stakes are high. By adopting an offensive strategy, liberals can advance their cause, but they can also err and alienate potential allies, hence the importance to focus on tolerance and inclusion more than ever.

**This article was written as part of a NewsMavens collaboration with exceptional freelance women journalists in Europe. Elizabeth Walsh is an American journalist covering women's rights in Europe and the Middle East. Her work has been published by The New York Times, Middle East Eye, United Nations and others. She has a master's degree in international affairs from Sciences Po Paris and speaks English and French. See more of her work at www.elizgwalsh.com.**

MeToo, women's issues

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