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Muddled thinking

By Brian Platt

Melanie Butler is a fellow student at the University of British Columbia. I’ve never met her, but I’ve read her political science thesis paper. Titled “Canadian women and the (re)production of women in Afghanistan,” it takes square aim at the organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WA), arguing that they “reinforce and naturalize the Orientalist logic on which the War on Terror operates.” CW4WA funds teachers’ salaries, provides scholarships for orphaned girls and sells handmade products made by women in Afghanistan. But according to Butler, post-colonial feminist theory tells us that by giving such help to women in the developing world, we treat them as victims and thus sustain “imperialist violence and women’s subordination.” I’m not being unfair. You can look this up for yourself. It was published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

A robust response to Butler’s paper came this March from Alaina Podmorow, the founder of Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan, and a resident of the Okanagan Valley, B.C. “I have just turned 13,” she writes, “and I know there is a lot for me to learn, but I am sure of this one thing: education = peace. No one will ever tell me that Muslim women or any women think it’s okay not to be allowed to get educated. It’s sick and it’s wrong and I don’t care who calls me an Orientalist or whatever, I will keep raising money.” Alaina is pretty much my hero.

One almost has to admire the intellectual gymnastics required to argue that funding schools for Afghan girls is an act of post-colonial oppression. There is something deeply tragic about attending one of the best-funded schools in one of the richest countries in the world, and using that education to deploy fancy words and complex theories to advocate against helping a country where, until recently, it was illegal for a girl to go to class.

But I shouldn’t single Butler out. This kind of muddled thinking pervades my generation of self-styled progressive leftists — and as a denizen of the left, it drives me crazy. “The right to education is universal,” I’ll say, “everywhere, for every person, at all times.” “Yes, but Brian . . .” they respond solemnly, and then proceed to enlighten me about the neo-conservative program to dominate the world, the neo-liberal agenda to smash the welfare state, and corporate schemes to brainwash us with advertising. Today when you urge one of my fellow progressives to support the right to education in Afghanistan, the response you inevitably get is “Yes, but . . .”

This isn’t a screed against complexity. I fully recognize the need for nuance and context. But Alaina’s letter is a shining example of why one must always stay grounded in simple, straightforward principles. Otherwise your argument is all fluff and no foundation, and a 13-year-old with the courage of her convictions can topple the whole thing in one fell swoop. 

 George Orwell expressed it best: “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Arguments that require a glossary to comprehend often substitute obscure ideology for rational deliberation.

I’ll take Alaina’s reasoning over that found in Butler’s paper every single time. Some things are complicated, but let’s not forget the simple truths.

Author's photo
Brian Platt is a master of journalism student at Carleton University.
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