Friday, 11 August 2017

An Open Letter to Tea Circle about THAT Article

Dear Tea Circle Oxford

I am writing in response to your article “The Myth Myanmar can Afford to Ditch”. This is not intended to be a direct rebuttal to the argument put forth by Brandon Aung Moe, as I understand there are plenty of those in the works, including one forthcoming for Tea Circle itself – rather I want to ask why a platform hosted by an Oxford University programme would publish such a piece in the first place.
Based on your affiliation and the academic credentials of your editorial team, I assume you have the critical thinking and analysis skills necessary to realise that this piece is garbage[1], even under the guise of an “opinion”. The author himself calls into question his credentials early on, but like so many men before him, this does not appear to have bestowed the necessary self-awareness or humility to conduct basic research into the factual relevance of his opinion on before plunging in. The piece shows minimal understanding of the meaning of the word “empowerment”, central to the argument, and makes unfounded blanket generalisations about a diverse country from a position of male and (apparently) Burmese ethnic privilege. Most disturbing is the inflammatory turn taken in the middle, where Brandon Aung Moe decides to label feminist activism which targets representation of women in male-dominated areas as “a virus”. In a country where open political discourse is fragile and contentious, suggesting that women who fight for representation in areas like politics and media are suffering from, or a symptom of, a deadly sickness, is a rhetorical turn which skirts dangerously close to hate speech.
Assuming your editorial staff are familiar with the qualities of a well-researched, intelligent article, this limits the likely explanations for your publishing a piece which is neither. Perhaps you believe that this opinion piece is justified under the terms you set out on your website of “offer[ing a] unique perspective”, in which case I regret to be the one to inform you that unexamined male privilege is extremely common, and Brandon Aung Moe is far from the first man to use this many words to describe his own. You may also be justifying the publication of this piece under the umbrella of platforming Myanmar voices, but suggesting that one has to throw basic integrity to the wind in order to include Myanmar people – even those without traditional academic backgrounds – in a debate is frankly offensive to the millions of intelligent, thoughtful people in this country who are capable writing of interesting and well-supported arguments. I also can’t discount the theory that you were aiming to provoke a strong negative reaction and in doing so “spark a debate” on gender in Myanmar, either for lofty academic purposes or to draw attention to your site (or both). Starting on the controversial side, pushing back against feminism, I guess gives you a better claim to cutting edge independent thinking, as well as giving you the convenient opportunity to suggest that anyone who passionately disagrees with your argument or its quality is just “offended” and needs to calm down and get into the proper spirit of rational debate.
Here’s the sorry truth, though: it’s a waste of everyone’s time to engage with the ideas as presented in this garbage article. By offering your prestigious platform to a man with no qualifications on gender theory or social science beyond “being from Myanmar and having a mother”, you disrespect the entire pool of talented, knowledgeable writers from Myanmar who do have the skills to write intelligently and sensitively from a range of positions on this subject. And you insult the intelligence of everyone with a passing knowledge of these topics by presuming that the debate we should be having is the one in which activists need to fight, over and over again, for the most basic recognition and acceptance of their work. Inevitably, this takes time away from the work itself – which, as has been well documented and is inevitably about to be demonstrated to you in exquisite detail, is real and pressing, and has the potential to save and transform the lives of millions[2].
If this utterly basic debate is truly the one you believe is most worth having – rather than, say, platforming a conversation with actual ground-breaking potential on the state of structural gender inequalities in Myanmar and the challenges inherent in tackling them – then you could at least have done your readers the courtesy of publishing an intelligent piece on the subject[3]. You have instead chosen to contribute to the rich patriarchal tradition of reducing the debate on inequality and diversity to its absolute lowest form, erasing the contributions of anyone in Myanmar who might have wanted to go beyond “Gender Awareness Kindergarten” and setting us back at square one, in which women must once again carve out the basic space to articulate the inequalities and barriers they face, against rhetorical opponents who are enabled in using fallacious, puerile and inconsistent arguments to slow them down. It’s exhausting at best, destructive and idiotic at worst.
I understand that you have your own response piece to this article in the works, but I am not particularly excited to read it, or anything else published on your platform, for as long as this piece remains an indication of what you consider acceptable quality for your site. You can clearly do better, and your failure to do so in this context is insulting and damaging to this debate, and to your own integrity as a source of analysis on Myanmar.

Yours in solidarity,


[1] I have a personal stake in this assumption, as my own undergraduate degree is from Oxford, and I like to think that’s worth writing on my CV.
[2] Of women and men, of course.
[3] Admittedly, from my perspective, a well-argued anti-feminist work would be just as infuriating, but I accept that in theory it’s not an oxymoron.