One of the most important revelations of my life came to me not when I was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. (From this I have learned one thing: cancer sucks.) No, revelation came to me in a moment, two decades ago, when I had backed myself into a very dark, knotted place with this little doozy of a problem.
I was busy being clever and studying the impact of European colonialism on countries in North Africa, congratulating myself on my keen insights and my super-keen anti-colonial self (oh, my backpack was UNPACKED, baby), when I noticed a little something (in the words of Aimé Césaire: “The idea: an annoying fly.”)
It struck me there were those among the colonizers who genuinely thought they were doing something good (buzz). Something that would diminish suffering in the lives of the people being colonized (buzz buzz). It made little impact on them that those people being “helped” disagreed with the plans of the colonizer (buzzzzzzz). That colonization wrought profound and traumatic and violent changes on the lives and societies of the colonized… this passed them by completely (kersplat).
Here’s the conundrum. If these folks could so fool themselves into believing the idea that they were on the side of right, how was I to know I wasn’t also one of them? A 21st century do-gooder, carrying my white woman’s burden into a world of misunderstanding, erasure, and hurt.
I spent some quality time frozen at the end of that alleyway. Doing nothing seemed like an unacceptable alternative. However, if I were to do something, it needed to be profoundly different.
The first light came to me in the form of this principle, and it has been the true north on my moral compass ever since: human suffering is an evil to be abhorred. We all have an obligation, in as far as we are capable, to work to diminish human suffering (thoughtfully, carefully, as allies). Try as I might, I can find no rational argument for this. It is my leap of faith.
But why? How does this save me from my own hubris? My own do-gooderness?
It was Sigmund Freud who helped me take the next step out of moral paralysis, with his skeptical reaction to the moral precept that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. “Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But, above all, how shall we achieve it?” he wondered.
Like Freud, I share a skepticism of claims that humans are innately altruistic. But embracing the skeptical view can be liberating.
What good does doing good do us? Understanding that self-interest is part of doing good (I feel good, I get accolades for doing good, I gain social status) can help us understand why we need to consider what good we are actually doing other people. Do they think this is a good thing? Is this the suffering that they wish to have allayed? Am I working in concert with people toward a shared end? Can I turn down the halo long enough to hear when I am not actually being helpful?
I am out of the alleyway now and have spent the past decades doing my best to contribute to ending the suffering caused by sexism, racism and misogyny. I have struggled to love my neighbour as I love myself. I have struggled harder to work in a way that creates a platform for my neighbour, for those in distress, to speak their truth to power.
However, my path still had a few bumps ready to throw me off. Ready for action, I rushed enthusiastically into the offices of decision-makers, sure that they would share my dismay at the stupidities wrought by sexism, racism and misogyny. The lost opportunities, the unnecessary barriers, the violence.
Oh and they did. You know, in principle. In theory. “But you know, my dear, all of these things are so important and we only have so much money, we just can’t afford to do everything. Think of the children.” Uh huh.
That’s where the calculator came in. Then the spreadsheets. After several years of listening to these refrains it finally occurred to me ask: is that actually true? Do we really not have enough money to end violence against women, close the pay gap, ensure their economic security?
Well, what do you know. Turns out there is money to be had for these things. Turns out that with a calculator, a passing knowledge of tax policy, and a big love of data, a woman can show you the money. Laying bare the real question, which is: Why aren’t you spending on reducing the barriers to women’s well-being? To their safety? To their security?
You know the rest.
With this, dear neighbours. My own story comes to an end sooner than I would have liked. I can’t sing myself offstage, but I leave a legacy of spreadsheets, graphs and love for you all. And a certainty that somewhere out there, someone is picking up her calculator and forging her own path forward.
Buzz buzz buzz.
A note from the CCPA
Kate McInturff is a tireless feminist activist, researcher, media spokesperson and advocate, who has dedicated her career to fighting the “stupidities wrought by sexism, racism and misogyny.” Kate’s work in the areas of women’s rights, pay equity, feminist economics and government accountability, among others, is always timely, informative and often very funny. She expertly shifts from relatable media pundit to feminist compatriot to policy advocate—passionately testifying to decision-makers about the economic policies that would lift women out of low incomes, narrow the wage gap and address gender-based violence.
Kate’s annual report, “The Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada,” has received broad media coverage in national and local news for four years running, with hundreds of media stories covering the report’s ranking of gender equality across Canada’s largest cities. The report serves as an important reminder that progress on gender equality may be slow—painfully slow at times—but it is absolutely within reach.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is profoundly grateful for Kate’s work and legacy. Not only is Kate beloved and highly respected by her colleagues and collaborators, but her research has helped light the path toward equality in Canada. The CCPA is deeply committed to carrying on this important work, to examining the difference that gender inequality makes (to the economy, to politics, to well-being) and to promoting the solutions that will ultimately realize social and economic justice.
Note: The CCPA mourns the loss of feminist researcher and scholar Kate McInturff, who passed away July 27, 2018. A full statement can be found online here.