Power To (All) The People: How Close Are We To Equal Rights?

This is the text of the piece written for Contributoria in June 2014. The piece itself can be read here until June 30 2014. Screenshot evidence of publication can be found here.


2014 has so far been a bit of a mixed bag as far as equal rights are concerned. While there have been an awful amount of things happen that have shown that inequality definitely still exists, there has also been a lot of change instigated by public opinions and outcry.

Now, it’d be naïve to think that this signals the end of equality. But the power that we all have as the people, the public and consumers is something that should not be underestimated.

People vs Inequality

In February, Uganda delivered a massive blow to LGBT rights as president Yoweri Museveni signed off on a bill that made homosexuality a crime punishable by life imprisonment, and also made it a crime to not report somebody as being homosexual. It’s a law that breeds discrimination and hatred.

Just a day after this bill was passed Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper ran an exposé on what it dubbed as ‘Uganda’s 200 Top Homosexuals‘, putting the lives of everybody on the list at the risk of imprisonment or, worse, vigilante violence. LGBT activists All-Out petitioned against the tabloid in response to this, asking telecoms giant Orange to pull advertising within the publication. Thousands of people, including myself, voiced their dissatisfaction and signed the petition.

In early March Orange agreed to pull all advertising within Red Pepper, effectively cutting a large income stream from the tabloid and the country. In doing this Orange have struck back against the anti-LGBT bill and, if other companies follow suit, then we may see Uganda forced to reconsider their laws.

This idea of cutting funding to places that are so outright in their support of anti-equality law is one that could drastically change the world over the coming years. Let’s consider what would have happened if Orange had refused to pull advertising. While they would have been represented more in Uganda, legions of pro-LGBT campaigners would have strongly opposed the company. We saw this in the official statement from All-Out at the time of the petition, “[Orange] are suddenly in danger of becoming known as an “anti-gay” brand in more than 100 countries, if they don’t pull these adverts in just 1 country.

Public perceptions is a key factor to combatting anti-equality laws. No international brand or company particularly wants to be associated with anything that is considered to be promoting or supporting inequality. It’s bad for business, so of course they’ll choose to disassociate themselves. This was proved again recently with Mozilla, whose newly-appointed CEO Brendan Eich was pressured into resigning due to public demand because he had expressed homophobic views in his opposition of gay marriage.

In a less promoted story, Nintendo also recently submitted to public campaigns to alter one of their upcoming games as it lacked same-sex representation. Although nothing could be done to change the game in question (titled ‘Tomodachi Life‘) at the time of the campaign, Nintendo have promised to include same-sex relationships in any future releases in the series. A little victory for people power.

And it’s these little victories that help to add to the overall argument: can people power make a difference to attitudes towards equal rights? Can we, the people, use our collective voices to actually promote equality in the world?

The Problems

Don’t let this article draw attention away from the harsh facts: we’re still a long way from equality. At the time of writing, 77 countries currently have laws in place that make homosexuality a criminal offence – and a number of countries make this crime punishable by death (although the number is barely in double digits, it’s still a significant problem). And that’s without including vigilantes who strongly support these (frankly) outdated views.

Alongside this there is little in the way of equality for women, both in the eastern and western worlds. While women in the west have more rights, a recent report from the US Census Bureau noted that women in the United States were still earning just 77 cents to a male co-worker’s dollar in 2012.

But in spite of these things, we’ve seen a lot of public outcry calling for things to change this year. And surely this can only be a good thing?

The best possible situation is that all of these instances will trigger a snowball effect, with the number of incidences of public opposition to inequality increasing as time goes on. And there is no reason why this couldn’t happen… unless we suddenly stop voicing our opinions.

Is Change Possible?

The way for change to start is by talking about the issues at hand. And, if there is one redeeming factor about the worldwide equal rights argument this year, it’s that we are talking about it. It was with a unified call of disgust that Mozilla pressured Eich into resigning as CEO. It was a public call that caused Orange to think twice about where they are running their advertising. And Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is urging the country to open a dialogue regarding the rights of women in the country. It’s the 21st century, and we are all talking. And not only are we talking, but we’re also typing.

The internet has changed the way that we communicate and, with the rise and rise of social media, the way that we can voice our opinions and be heard. Just take a quick look at any video on YouTube for proof of how easy it is to express opinions.

With the likes of web giants Facebook and Twitter, any event that happens in the world is likely to be commented on by the world. And this provides a huge platform for change. In the long-forgotten pre-digital age of not too long ago, it was significantly more difficult and time-consuming to campaign or petition for change in response to events. Now anybody with a computer and a half-formed view can start a petition online and share it around, thanks to sites like Change.org and the popularity of social media.

As AllOut showed with their Orange petition, if enough people feel strongly about a cause then it won’t take long for it to take off. And with enough people backing something there is absolutely no reason why it can’t make a difference, so long as the campaign is well-thought out.

AllOut’s petition was so successful because it picked its target well. The group themselves said “the more companies that act, the more chance it will make authorities in Uganda think twice about applying the new law aggressively”, knowing that it’s the small parts that have the biggest impact.

As long as people remain willing to voice their opinions productively, and campaigns pick their targets wisely, there is no reason why change cannot be brought on by people power. It may be a slow process and it might take years before anything really happens, but we are closer than ever before to getting equal rights for all. We’re still a long way off but, with people power proving to be such a game-changer so far this year, it might happen sooner than we think.

By Tom Roden

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