The fourth edition of the global event took place simultaneously in cities around the world and in D.C. at the French Embassy.
By B.L. Wilson
The Night of Ideas, a global event in its fourth edition, arrived in Washington, D.C., organized by the French Embassy and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
An all-night marathon held simultaneously in scores of cities around the world such as Johannesburg, Vancouver and Helsinki, and five cities in the United States, brought together scholars, artists and civil society organizations for discussions that this year in D.C. included the George Washington University Debate & Literary Society.
Opening the Thursday night happening, French Ambassador Gerard Araud explained that Night of Ideas was an opportunity for France to spread its “vice… the love of debating anything …to innocent people around the world.”
This year’s theme, “Facing Our Time,” was addressed by keynote speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the celebrated Nigerian author and feminist, who spoke about the effect digital media has on critical thinking and the capacity for empathy.
Ms. Adichie, who said she does not engage in social media, described the daily bombardment of news programs, films, articles, podcasts and books as so much “to consume that sometimes I do not want to consume anything at all.”
“The ethos of social media speaks to everything that is easy, fast and often ill considered,” she said, including a quickness to condemn, pontificate and be outraged without making an effort to understand what is true.
She said she worries that social media may lead to “the death of critical thinking and consequently empathy,” which are central to addressing other issues such as inequality, race, gender and economics in a world where knowledge is constantly evolving and everyone’s story is different.
“The truth of the human condition is this,” according to Ms. Adichie, “There is much we do not know. There is much we cannot explain, and this is the reason for kindness and for considering the other person’s story.”
Keynote speaker for the Night of Ideas DC was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (William Atkins/GW Today)
In a session called “21st Century Feminism’s Greatest Challenges, Perspectives from Generation Z,” Ms. Adichie’s views on feminism served as an inspiration to members of the GW Debate and Literary Society, which regularly partners with the French Embassy on an annual debate series, the outgrowth of a historical relationship.
The students tackled the challenge 21st century feminism faces from historically having excluded minorities, social constructs of gender, sexual violence against women and the globalization of feminism.
First-year student Hailey Knowles noted that since the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights in the United States in 1848, black women have been forced to go to the back of the line or stand on the sidelines, contributing to a split that was seen among women voters in the 2016 elections.
“We saw 52 percent of white women [voting] for Donald Trump, while only 4 percent of black women did,” she said. “If we continue to cover our ears to the words of our sisters, these divisions will never make real political transformation toward women’s rights.”
Human nature has been warped, said Samantha Ross, a sophomore, by societal expectations of how both women and men are supposed to behave. She described growing up in a liberal household where she was taught to accept diversity and to give back to society but also given dolls and very specific ideas of what it means to be a woman.
“By having these expectations passed down generation to generation,” she said, “it is hard to switch the narrative that a woman too can be president and a man can be a stay at home dad.” She argued that this “oppression is visible in the wage gap, the fight over abortion rights and the lack of women in positions of power today.”
Patriarchy and toxic masculinity is linked to one of the greatest challenges faced by modern day feminism—violence against women and rape, according to Felicia Kalkman, a senior. “Women are beginning to fight back,” she said. “I’m proud to be part of a generation that will not just stand by and watch while our sisters suffer in silence.”
Anish Anandaram, a junior, said that digital media has globalized the fight against patriarchy and toxic masculinity. In places like his home country of India, women are taking a cue from the “#MeToo” movement in the United States, he said, and have brought down powerful men by bringing to light sexual violations and misconduct.
“I am personally struck by the realization that we are so far apart, yet we have never been closer together on the global struggle for equality,” he said.
Paul Hayes, director of the GWU Debate & Literary Society, said the group’s participation “epitomizes our society's mission, using debate, dialogue and deliberation as tools for engagement, service, and scholarship.”
“It was an honor,” he said, “to follow a speaker of Adichie's global stature and a privilege for our students to perform their arguments on feminism's greatest challenges before a crowd of this size. We're grateful to the Embassy of France and the Hirshhorn for the opportunity.”