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Rethinking national days: A call for authentic engagement

Roger Cayless
12 March, 2024

Are global celebrations like International Women's Day superficial acknowledgements that replace substantive change? We scrutinise the pitfalls of tokenism and the oversimplification of complex issues.

There’s a great X account called @paygapapp which, each year, responds to companies’ International Women’s Day tweets by simply posting their publicly available employee pay gap figures. The message is simple, and effective. As the account banner says: Stop posting platitudes. Start fixing the problem.

National days dedicated to specific causes or groups are marked worldwide with much fanfare and good intentions. These days are ostensibly celebrated to honour achievements, raise awareness, and promote inclusivity. However, by turning a blind eye to the complexity of their own causes, such celebrations can be inadvertently platitudinal.

Superficial Acknowledgment vs. Real Change

One of the primary criticisms of national days is their potential for superficial acknowledgement. Celebrating a day dedicated a specific group often involves grand gestures, hugging ourselves, social media campaigns, and promotional events. But do these actions translate to real change?

Unfortunately, in many cases, they do not. Once the day is over, the banners are rolled up, the hashtags fade away, it’s business as usual, with systemic inequalities still firmly in place. This cycle gives an illusion of progress without addressing underlying issues. At best we might say it misses opportunities for substantive change. At worst, it offers platitudinous celebrations that are, frankly, patronising.

The Pitfalls of Tokenism

Tokenism is another significant concern. National days can lead to tokenistic gestures where organisations or individuals make symbolic efforts to appear inclusive or progressive. For example, companies might launch a Women’s Day campaign focusing on female empowerment while failing to address gender disparities in their leadership, pay scales, or workplace culture. This inconsistency between public gestures and actual practice can feel hypocritical to say the least, and suggests that a single day of recognition is an adequate substitute for genuine equality and respect.

Oversimplification of Complex Issues

The complex challenges that national days aim to represent are often reduced to simplified narratives. It’s pretty obvious that the diverse experiences, struggles, and achievements of people with disabilities worldwide, for example, cannot be addressed in a single day. When we reduce these complexities to a one-day celebration, we risk trivialising the issues we seek to highlight, portraying them as solvable with temporary attention rather than requiring ongoing, committed action.

Cultural Homogenisation and Inclusivity

Often part and parcel of oversimplification, a homogenised view of a diverse group is a frequent pitfall of the one day celebration, overshadowing a vast cultural range of experiences. For instance, International Women’s Day often generalises women’s experiences, ignoring the intersectionality of race, class, sexuality, and more, which deeply influence women’s lives differently. This oversimplification can suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to diverse and multifaceted issues.

Moving Forward

This critique does not make the case for abolishing national days altogether. Instead, it argues that we should use the attention they generate to initiate meaningful, sustained efforts that last more than 24 hours. True change requires more than annual celebrations; it demands a commitment to year-round action, policy reform, and cultural shifts that address the root causes of inequality and injustice.

Rather than settling for symbolic gestures, let’s use these occasions to catalyse genuine, lasting progress, ensuring our celebrations are backed by a deep, ongoing commitment to making a real difference in people’s lives.

While the intent behind national days of recognition is usually positive, it is crucial to reflect on their impact critically. Are we content with the performative aspects, or are we committed to the hard work of actual change? To move beyond gestures, our challenge is to transform these days from isolated events into catalysts for enduring advancement and equity.

 

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