If you’ve turned on the television or talked to another person or opened up literally any social media platform in the past week, you might have heard that Gillette had some new commercials? The commercials challenge toxic masculinity, launching a new slogan “the best a man can be.” The apparent challenge to patriarchy launched by Gillette has resulted in extreme backlash across many conservative sectors. While the backlash is grossly disturbing, I personally find myself wondering why a corporation like Gillette would do something like this, as nice as it is to see socially responsible narratives being promoted. While I was thinking about all this, I received a promotional email in
my inbox from Keds (pictured at the right) supporting Saturday’s Women’s March. A feel-good moment of connection, helpfully linked to sneakers (you know, for marching).
All of this has me thinking about the stories we tell, who tells them, and why they are told. As I reflect on this (and a subsequent example I will get to shortly), I want to make connections on politics, social justice, and nursing. Thinking about discourse, there are two imperatives for nursing. The first is that we must critically engage with the sociopolitical and cultural discourses of our time and commit to inserting nursing into this milieu. Nurses must keep their fingers on the pulse of politics and society. We are not victims of circumstance. We can help write our own narrative and fashion our own future. This leads more broadly to the imperative that nurses identify the discourses of nursing, understand how they are manifest, explicate their meaning, and interrogate these discourses for how they are being deployed. Nurses, in all roles, must grapple with the stories we tell and how we fit into the broader context.
Friday, I was sitting next to a colleague at an annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy held jointly between three institutions of higher learning in my community, Augusta University, Paine College, and Augusta Technical College. A choir composed of members from each institution provided a lovely soundtrack and dignitaries from each organization said a few words as the program started. The opening sequence played out according to the program until the president of one of the institutions recognized Rick Allen, a U.S. representative from our fair burg, in the audience. In impromptu fashion, the politician was invited to the podium where he hailed the work that MLK, Jr. was able to accomplish in dismantling prejudice, inspired and guided by the hand of God.
These words were spoken by a representative who voted to partially repeal the Affordable Care Act and curtail reproductive freedom, who ran on a platform to increase domestic oil drilling, buttress domestic security, and restore so-called market-driven solutions [sic] for healthcare. I was horrified. Allen is affiliated with a grossly-troubled national GOP party where mainline party ideology routinely veers into xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and sexism.
This occurred in a state – Dr. King’s home state – where election and voting justice is enormously problematic. Georgia’s recent gubernatorial race, for example, featured prominently in recent midterm news coverage because of endemic voter suppression that disproportionately impacted Black voters. For this man to be invited – and then accept and speak – to the podium for a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration hosted by a triumvirate of institutes of higher education marks something troubling but something important.
Clearly, the narrative of Dr. King’s accomplishments has permeated the national imaginary, a shared vision we can all access. And it feels good to celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of MLK. His birthdate is a national holiday, after all. But I think it is important that we resist the cooptation of King’s legacy. I invite you to recognize the tension inherent in the invocation of King’s legacy of dismantling prejudice and building equity by an elected official who is at the same time helping keep the federal government shut down by actively advocating for a border wall and working to undermine the expansion of healthcare access, two clear challenges to equity and justice in the United States. Celebrating King’s vision demands that we work toward justice and equity, critically interrogating the systems around us that precipitate injustice. The work is not accomplished in what we say alone, but what we do, how we do it, and who we include. It is also critical that we recall that King was assassinated for his work and beliefs. He died for his beloved cause. This is where it becomes quite challenging to reconcile Allen’s admittedly innocuous comments with the order of the day.
All three of these examples – Keds’ Empower Campaign, Gillette’s Be a Man Campaign, and Mr. Allen’s remarks at the MLK day event – have me thinking about discourses and rhetoric. What we say matters. Who says it and why they say it matters. It feels good to relish positive messages like those shared by all three of these examples. It gives me hope, in some respects, that some aspects of social justice have achieved sufficient currency to be embraced in a broad way, as we see with international corporations like Keds and Gillette. But it must also prompt us, as nurses, to critically reflect.
Is it respectful to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy that Rick Allen invokes King’s achievements in light of the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic actions of the GOP? A border wall, immigrant children dying in detention, and unpaid federal workers are not consistent with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to “make real the promises of democracy.” Likewise, Keds and Gillette are putting messages out there that are nice and that feel good. And if that works for you, take from it what you can because it is good. But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, what is Keds standing for? What has Gillette committed to do? These narratives of social justice, I would argue, are being deployed for aims other than the surface meaning of the words. Publically connecting with King’s legacy while having an ideological platform and voting record that defaults to the side of exclusion and injustice is politically salient but obscures a deeply disordered political terrain. Gillette encouraging men to be their best, at the end of the day, is also encouraging people to buy their razors. Keds may nominally support women and their marches, but surely this is also about their sneaker sales numbers. Are these examples of social movements co-opted to capitalist ends?
I leave you with this thought, from Dr. King himself, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Nurses are often encouraged – through discourse, pedagogy, tradition, and culture – to remain neutral and silent (you can check out more about my thoughts on that here). But we have a duty to speak up, even when it is hard, uncomfortable, or challenging, which is how I have found myself writing this piece today. Our ability to advocate meaningfully for the patients we serve, for ourselves, and for our communities is predicated on critical engagement with politics, policy, culture, and discourse. So in addition to our duty to speak up, we have a duty to stay current, to stay vigilant. We can, we should, and we must interrogate the ways our stories are told, their meaning and context, and how they are being used. This mandate is true whether we are talking about national politics or changing unit policies in the hospital. This is one way we as nurses engage in our call to justice.
Jess Dillard-Wright is a radical nurse, midwife, nurse educator, and PhD student living in the South. She has three kids, an old dog named Pearl, and a partner Devi.
Very special thanks to Vanessa Shields-Haas and Jane Hopkins Walsh who were instrumental in getting this pulled together. We are greater than the sum of our parts.