Banning the bomb, smashing the patriarchy: Ray Acheson speaks at TEDx Place des Nations Women!
On 6 December 2018, RCW's Director Ray Acheson spoke at TEDx Place des Nations Women in Geneva, Switzerland about feminism and nuclear weapons! Check out the video on YouTube and the text of the talk below.
Who has the biggest nuclear button?
No seriously! Apparently, this is a real foreign policy question.
This is how 2018 started: with the President of the United States taunting the President of North Korea over the size and virility of his nuclear arsenal.
It sounds like a joke, good material for feminist stand-up comedy.
But it’s also deadly serious.
Because the US President also threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Except, we have seen this fire and fury.
We saw it unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945 by another US President.
We saw it unleashed on the islands of the Pacific, across the Australian outback, in the deserts of New Mexico and Nevada.
We know what the fire and fury looks like.
We know how it melts human beings, turning them into shadows.
We know how it contaminates the earth and the water and our bodies for generations.
Today, about 14,000 nuclear weapons exist in the hands of nine governments.
This is dangerous for all of us. For every person on earth.
Yet, calling out this danger, and demanding disarmament, is ridiculed.
Example: Last year, the vast majority of the world’s governments worked with the Red Cross and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons to ban the bomb. We did it. We adopted a treaty, and ICAN won a Nobel Peace Prize.
But through it all, we were called radical dreamers. By we, I mean activists and diplomats; women, men, non-binary; everyone that was involved in this project. We were told we don’t understand security. We were told we were naive, ridiculous, or my personal favourite, “terminally unserious”.
We were also told that we were being emotional.
Now, this is curious.
How many women in this room have been told you’re being emotional when you’ve raised a point about... anything?
It’s classic patriarchy, right? You’re a woman, so you’re being emotional. “Real men” don’t act out of emotion. “Real men” make hard decisions about hard security.
So let’s think about nuclear weapons in the context.
I think nuclear weapons fit neatly into a feminist understanding of patriarchy, of a social order that privileges men, especially men that conform to a certain kind of masculinity.
A masculinity that equates strength with violence, that equates security with the capacity and willingness to use force.
In this kind of system, you need weapons to be strong and to be secure. More weapons equal more security. Nuclear weapons are the pinnacle of this. They are the ultimate tool of violence, and of dominance and control.
They can destroy entire cities. They can be used to commit genocide. They are used to influence international relations.
They are about power.
This capacity of massive violence is essential for the patriarchy. This is how those in power stay in power.
Now, I’m not talking about individuals or absolutes. I’m not saying all men this or all women that. I’m talking about a system that has constructed norms for male and female behaviour, and that denies anything else—queer, trans, non-binary. It celebrates a kind of violent masculinity and belittles anything it sees as a threat—emotion, cooperation, compassion.
The patriarchy oppresses. Along lines of sex and sexuality, but also, along lines of race and class.
Just look at where nuclear weapons have been tested. On whose land, on whose bodies. Indigenous people. People of colour. Marginalized segments of populations.
Feminism helps us unpack all of this. It helps us see how nuclear weapons are bound up in a system that allows certain people or groups to hold onto power through violence.
It helps us see how the dominant narratives about nuclear weapons are myths, designed to maintain this patriarchal order.
The story goes, nuclear weapons keep us safe. They deter conflict. Prevent war. Make the world stable and secure.
Stable and secure? For whom?
Not for the people who have experienced the fire and fury of nuclear weapons.
Not for the rest of us that live under the threat of one day experiencing it ourselves. Which is everyone on the planet.
The magical thinking of nuclear deterrence says we are safer living with weapons that have the capacity to kill us all than we would be without them.
It’s like, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Again, this is why feminism is so important to thinking about nuclear weapons.
It helps us see how nuclear weapons are about dominance and control.
It helps us see how our social constructions of gender come into play—masculinity, femininity, and our insistence on this binary. How this impacts our ideas about strength, rationality, and credibility when it comes to weapons policy.
Feminism helps us see deterrence theory as gaslighting, as something that totally disregards the lived reality of those who have experienced the fire and fury of nuclear weapons.
And it helps us think about whose security we’re talking about when we talk about nuclear weapons. Whose security matters, what security means, how to build that security.
Feminism helps us engage with nuclear weapons as an issue of social justice.
This means listening to survivors. Learning from those who have been impacted by the use and testing and the massive spending on nuclear weapons.
It means being led by those who understand structural discrimination and institutionalized violence. Women, queer folks, people of colour.
We are at the forefront of antinuclear resistance. We were leaders in government delegations and activist groups working to ban the bomb.
Banning nuclear weapons put the interests and perspectives of the marginalized ahead of the quest for dominance by the most militarily powerful governments in the world.
They were right about one thing. They said by banning the bomb we would disrupt the international order.
We did. That was the point. We mounted a challenge to the patriarchal world order, supposedly ruled with the iron fist of the atomic bomb, and we won.
This is a huge victory.
But the struggle is far from over.
Nuclear weapons still exist. Militarism and violence still dominate. The patriarchy is fighting fiercely for its survival.
And so I urge everyone here to help. To help debunk myths, challenge narratives, and disrupt the supposed natural order of things.
Together, we can work for nuclear abolition as an issue of social justice. We can work for peace and nonviolence. For collective security.
In this work, we are dismantling racism and patriarchy and building something new.