By Julie Ngalle
Trigger warning: this article mentions sexual assault on children.
What a year it has been! Although from the point of view of a politics student and journalist, this year has been fascinating and very valuable, as a member of society and a human being, I have been in a state of almost constant panic and disappointment. This year’s political troubles, international crises and societal issues provide an insight into what we need to change, improve on and quit doing in 2020. Here is a list of nine game-changing moments and takeaways from 2019 politics.
- Brexit definitely does NOT mean Brexit
Being a French (and therefore EU) citizen who deliberately chose to move to the UK after Brexit and befriended a majority of British people, I of course have had the sentence “Brexit means Brexit” thrown in my face whenever I do something wrong or my friends have had a few drinks. It’s all part of the game, I make fun of them for what I consider to be one of the most irresponsible political decisions of the century so far, and they make fun of the possibility of me being deported any second once it goes through.
But one takeaway from 2019 British politics is that Brexit means possibly everything but Brexit. We are entering 2020 with as much uncertainty about what this decision entails and what the future will hold for all countries involved as we left 2019 with. Moreover, it seems we are all still just as — if not more — clueless about how Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill will affect European countries, their economies and their citizens.
2. People are taking power back into their own hands
Interesting fact, the word democracy comes from the ancient Greek words “demos”, which refers to the people, and “kratos”, meaning power. (I was forced to take ancient Latin and Greek classes for two years and will use every opportunity I am presented with to show it off). Anyways, having looked at this etymology, one can see democracy literally translates to people power. This past year, this definition resonated with many. In France alone, the year began and ended with streets crowded with disgruntled protesters. This example is far from being the only one, with strikes breaking out in over 13 different countries across Latin America and the Middle East, including Chile, Lebanon, Iraq or Venezuela. It is also impossible to forget the violent outbreaks at the Chinese University in Hong-Kong that erupted back in September after a student died in confrontation between protesters and the police, that led to the mass repatriation of students and even more political unrest. Although each country had its specific motives and claims, we find that similarities still emerge between nations: demonstrations seemed to always revolve around issues of corruption, violations of democratic values, and inequality.
Unfortunately, another similarity found in all these different protests were governments’ responses to the cries of their people. Indeed, claims were not always met with an open mind as the increase in protests was followed by a considerable increase in police brutality, violence and deaths. Another example of this is Iran, where just over 208 deaths were reported over a period of only a month. In certain cases thankfully, governments did show their capacity to listen and deliver accordingly with several cases where government officials resigned from their roles after months of strikes. This was for example the case in Iraq and Bolivia, where Prime Ministers backed down from their positions.
3. Gender equality is far from being obtained
It would be unfair, and more importantly absolutely incorrect to say this cause has seen no progress in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, it seems the battle for gender equality is one we will be fighting for a while. Sexism is a mindset that is rooted in society and that most people’s attitudes and opinions are unconsciously shaped around. There are various degrees to which this well-established mindset affects and moulds every aspect of our lives, but however different national contexts are, it can be agreed no country has achieved the goal of equal rights between sexes. In many European countries for example, on paper, women are getting closer to being legally recognised as equal, but it is in our everyday lives, beliefs, and practices that it becomes trickier to live in perfect equality. Double standards and sexist assumptions influence our behaviours on the daily. And in other countries, gender equality issues go far beyond trying to fight an enduring stigma, with women still being restricted to varying degrees in their ability to pursue an education or enter the workforce in 104 countries.
Whatever the social and economic status of each country may be, in a world where female genital mutilation (FGM) is still a tough reality for over 200 million girls and women, where rape victims are still being questioned about their outfits and alcohol consumption at the time of the assault, and where a woman’s professional career is still compromised by the glass ceiling and unequal pay issues, the road towards the abolition of the patriarchy is looking long and tedious.
4. The taboo around sex is still very real
It has always been known and accepted that sex is not the first topic one might think of bringing up at the dinner table. Although we have recently witnessed the decline of this taboo with more shows, podcasts, articles and books tackling the subject, which, no matter to what extent, is a part of all our lives, it does not mean the taboo around sex has disappeared completely.
Society’s relationship to female sexuality demonstrates this, especially with regards to the female orgasm. It is shocking to see the number of men and women that are not aware of how but also the simple fact that women can (and should) have orgasms. And once again, that is speaking for the countries where women are considered to be more than a reproductive organ or a sex toy, allowed to feel pleasure at all. Now, the point here is of course not an attempt at shaming or mocking men, but it is a serious issue that many are so clueless about the female body and female pleasure for parts of, and in some cases, their entire lives.
This example reflects a significantly bigger issue which is simply the relationship we all as a society have to sex. In so many households, and entire cultures, sex is the main taboo, a topic that is never discussed and often made to be something filthy that one should almost be ashamed of. Everyone is of course entitled to their own beliefs and lifestyle, and the point here is not that we should all talk about sex all the time and to everyone, but the more we refuse to talk about it openly in an educational, neutral and candid way, the more dangerous and unpleasurable it will be for many.
Now, putting the pleasure and fun aspect of the issue to the side — even though it is true that talking about it can only be beneficial — the lack of discussion around sex in households, schools and all those institutions where young people build themselves also puts our health and safety at risk. In the United States, lawmakers, who are majoritarily men, spent 2019 voting and implementing laws to make abortion illegal and heavily punishable. But frankly, a more efficient way of trying to reduce the number of abortions and teen pregnancy rates would be to educate the population about sex, safe sex, different types of contraceptives, etc. It would make so much more sense to work harder on taking away the taboo and misinformation about sex rather than women’s rights and freedom to shape their own future. Because in a world where sentences like “pulling out is for pussies” are heard daily and believed by many, making abortion illegal is far from being the best solution.
The same applies to tackling STD and STI rates. Some are life threatening, others just a temporary inconvenience, but all can be avoided. For that to happen however, we as a society need to be dedicating more time on educating each other about them, about the risks and the ways to avoid all these situations, rather than spreading shame in an attempt to dissuade each other from having sex at all. It is not about forcing people out of their comfort zones and beliefs but about making sex an equalitarian, enjoyable, and most importantly safe experience for everyone.
5. The “climate emergency” is actually an emergency
I started working on this article in late November of last year. Just over a month later, Australia is literally burning down. There is honestly nothing that needs to be added to this argument. The next person to state or tweet that “climate change isn’t real”, “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive” (yes Donald Trump, this one’s for you) or use one of the Ice Age movies to make a point will receive a slap in the face. Please recycle. Please reduce your plastic consumption. Please wear an extra layer instead of putting the heating on. Please just make an effort, any effort, it does not cost much. People, animals and the planet should not be dying because we are incapable of getting a grip.
6. Political correctness is frustrating, but also necessary
One of the characteristics of a democratic regime is the holding of elections. With elections comes the responsibility of reading manifestos provided by each party (yes, you should feel a slight discomfort reading this if you vote without doing it). With the announcement of the December General Election, this time came again and upon scanning through UKIP’s thought-provoking manifesto, their 30th point about “free speech and political correctness” caught my attention more than others.
Some of their goals involved revoking the definition of islamophobia considered to be a “made-up word designed to silence discussion and criticism of a particular religion”, “repeal the Equality Act 2010, and shut the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and Government Equality Office for their effects on free speech” and also stated that “sexual abuse of under-age and vulnerable young girls by majority-Pakistani grooming and rape gangs is one of the greatest social scandals in English history, which was silenced for many years due to political correctness.” This can seem like a joke to many, but the reality of it is quite frightening.
Now, it can be argued that political correctness might be getting a bit old. Notably when it comes to humour. It is true that a joke is only funny as long as no one in your audience finds it hurtful. But it is also true that political correctness can and has previously gone a bit far as more and more discourses become offensive and the line between humour and sarcasm on the one hand and rude and immoral ideas on the other has become increasingly blurred. Another point is that what makes politics, but also just human conversations, are opinions, jokes and debates. Exchanges and disagreement. Sharing thoughts that don’t necessarily encourage hate and exclusion even though they cause controversy or discord, or joking about serious issues to bring a taboo or discomfort down are not things that should be discouraged.
However, there is something profoundly right and absolutely necessary about political correctness: accountability. In 2019, you can be racist, homophobic, sexist and more if you want to, but with those opinions that encourage exclusion and division come consequences. Freedom to believe and think whatever we want still and will always exist, but finally, incitement to hatred and discrimination are becoming intolerable. Minorities and social groups that have been shamed, disrespected and silenced for centuries are increasingly liberated and heard. The reason that part of UKIP’s manifesto brings out anger, disdain and disgust is because their objective here is not really about freedom and the higher ground, but rather an attempt to allow oppression again. To go back to a time when discrimination and hate speech were perfectly acceptable, as it was easier for these oppressors to succeed when they could rule over minorities without consequences.
7. Pedophilia is much more widespread than we think
Many grow up being told and believing that sexual attraction for children is firstly, a real and serious illness, and secondly, illegal and severely punishable by law. But most importantly, we grew up being told that it is quite rare, which is what, putting aside the trauma and life destructing consequences it has on the victims, makes it so unacceptable in the first place. Well well well, let me tell you, any of us who grew up hearing and spreading this information are very wrong. Yes, of course, it is sick and twisted, but it is definitely not rare. I won’t even give much attention to all the world-renowned celebrities that have been accused of child molestation (Michael Jackson, Jeffrey Epstein, R. Kelly…), but even in households and certain institutions, pedophilia is something that contaminates and destroys communities to an extent that most of us don’t even realise.
In certain schools in Afghanistan for instance, young boys are referred to and used as Bacha bazi (which means “boy for play”) , forced to perform sexual favours to their teachers or headmasters to secure and keep their place at their school and their grades up. This is something the government is very aware of as it was a tradition for centuries, but although laws and regulations forbidding these acts were implemented, in the last couple of years it was found that the tradition persists in certain establishments and regions. In China, the proportion of girls sold to sex traffickers is constantly increasing, sold to networks that will traffic them until they are considered “too old.” Pedophilia might therefore be much more widespread than we care to acknowledge, a despicable practice that many, too many, turn a blind eye to.
8. Money can officially buy you anything
Food, a rolex, cars that cost more than most people’s rent, your freedom, other people’s silence, you just name it. As Ariana Grande once said “I want it, I got it.” Although that song is an absolute banger, the accuracy of this statement is devastating. Currently, the president of the most powerful country in the world is a man who should be in jail for sexual assault, possible rape and maybe even child molestation (hello point 7). Instead, his money got him to the literal top of the world where he is governing a country through Twitter. And he is far from being the only example proving there is, today, nothing more powerful than wealth. All the monsters that were stated above are perfect examples: they all spent the majority of their lives getting away with their practices, despite the increasing numbers of lawsuits filed against them. And even when the justice system does get involved, most cases were resolved “behind closed doors.” Now, the door might be closed, but we all still know exactly what happened. Today, companies and even individuals have revenues exceeding some countries’ GDP, giving the people in question enough money to buy absolutely anything and everything.
9. Corruption within the media industry is reaching unprecedented levels
This is of course, not a new occurrence, but this year really marked a turning point for the media industry. It took the world over two weeks to become aware that the Amazonian forest was on fire, genocides have been silenced for months all around the globe with notably Cameroon and Sudan, and these are just some of the examples of how easy it is to manipulate and (again) buy the media’s silence. The media industry was built around one main goal: to inform and report on facts. Whether a journalist or media outlet then chooses to take sides, share an opinion or politicise what was reported on is a separate issue, but the primary purpose is to inform the public. In 2019, the media industry considerably failed at that with on one side the fake news that politicians were able to spread on the daily, and on the other all these affairs which the world learnt about weeks, sometimes months after they started happening. Freedom of speech and truthfulness can be added to the list of things that can be bought.
Having said all this though, and before I close this article, it should be noted that there is still hope, not all faith in humanity has been lost, yet. This year, many positive news were reported. Whether it’s the passing of more progressive laws such as in Denmark where suicide rates amongst the LGBTQ+ community dropped by 46% when same-sex marriage became legal, environmental accomplishments such as 2019 being the year the UK’s carbon emissions were the lowest in 131 years, or even for the feminist cause as 11 million girls were saved from forced and early marriage, it is undeniable that many are still making considerable efforts to reduce inequality, injustice and to save the planet. These efforts will nevertheless need to be kept up and increased if we want to see significant change in the next decade.
Julie Ngalle is a Placement year Politics and Economics student at the University of Surrey. She writes here in a personal capacity and not as Head of Marketing for Incite.