Earlier this month, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the peace prize to relatively unknown contenders Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege. These two individuals are leading efforts “to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” While Nadia Murad, who has spoken openly about her rape by the Islamic State and has “shown uncommon courage in recounting her own sufferings and speaking up on behalf of other victims” and Denis Mukwege, who “has spent large parts of his adult life helping the victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo” are certainly deeply worthy recipients, one might wonder about the Nobel Committee’s underlying motivation. Was the award simply a way to recognize good work and open the door of donors to these individuals? Was it a subtle rebuke to thought-to-be Nobel Peace Prize front runner and alleged harasser and sexual assaulter President Donald Trump? Related or not, was it a calculated decision to amplify on a global scale the underlying goals of the #MeToo movement? Or is it meant as a redirection from the Nobel’s own recent #MeToo scandal which caused members to resign over the Swedish academy’s weak response and “likely prompted the academy to ultimately ask both its permanent secretary and another member to step down.”
All of these questions are intriguing, but this last one raises a larger and deeply important question in #MeToo times: how does one distinguish sincere efforts to address a #MeToo problem in an institutional setting from what I term a “pinkwash”?
To think about this question, start by considering traditional “whitewashing.” As a conceptual matter, a whitewash has three essential components: an underlying defect, an attempt to conceal the defect to divert attention, and a failure to fix the underlying defect. By extension, I define pinkwashing as (1) an institution or individual’s deployment and publicity of policies and practices (2) in response to the identification of a #MeToo or sex discrimination related grievance, (3) which does not address the underlying concern of the aggrieved and (4) is intended to establish, maintain, burnish, or restore institutional reputation. Actors who engage in pinkwashing seek to simultaneously prevent the imposition of requested substantive changes to address #MeToo issues and, relatedly, to avoid reputational costs from litigation or other visible allegations of wrongdoing by appearing to be good citizens on social issues. As I explain below, when such pinkwashing ultimately succeeds in changing the conversation, the hypocrisy may constitute an additional harm to the aggrieved.
Why focus on the actions of the institution rather than on the acts of an individual perpetrator, particularly if the institution itself may not have acted unlawfully? Part of #MeToo’s contribution to the conversation on sexual harassment and assault is to shine a spotlight on the way in which institutional structures, policies, and cultures all play an important role in the pervasiveness of sexual harassment or assault. So, for instance, the #MeToo grievance against the Nobel body is not simply that harassment and sexual assaults occurred, but that the institution has a culture that allowed it and that once discovered, members of the Swedish academy sided with the harasser. Relatedly, it is worth noting that the #MeToo grievance is not held simply by those women who may have a legal claim against the harasser or the Nobel body, but the entire community who is affected by the presence and endorsement of a harasser in their midst.
When an institution such as the Nobel Foundation is faced with a #MeToo grievance, it must choose among an extensive, but not unlimited, set of options, given existing legal structures. For instance, it can: deny or admit the validity of the underlying grievance; take responsibility or not; apologize or not; fight or support litigation or other legal processes related to the harasser; provide a public or private settlement; and publicly commit or not to future good behavior on this particular issue. Such talk might be cheap or it might be the beginning of a process to both meaningfully address individual grievances and revamp institutional structures and practices to exceed the legally required remedy.
Should an institution choose not to address the underlying #MeToo grievance, it could also attempt a pinkwash by undertaking actions to redirect the #MeToo conversation. Such actions may, but need not, include gender-specific policies and practices. For instance, I’ve argued that Wal*Mart initiated several pinkwashing policies and practices in the shadow of the Dukes class action litigation including: increases in gender diversity in executive and board membership; additions to the organizational structure that focus on gender diversity; and the creation of a massive initiative to empower female workers and female-owned businesses. All of the identified policies are explicitly tied to gender and seem to represent departures in either size or kind from pre-litigation practices. Yet none of these policies explicitly addresses the underlying complaint of the Dukes plaintiffs—that low-level female employees experienced widespread discrimination in pay and promotion.
Why should we care when an institution engages in pinkwashing and why is it important to be able to identify it? First, #MeToo claimants often desire an acknowledgement or admission of wrongdoing. For those individuals, pursuing legal or internal processes constitutes more than a pursuit of monetary damages or injunctions; they are a mechanism for naming and acknowledging their harms. For those aggrieved who feel they have suffered dignitary insults, full apologies may also be particularly important. This is because a full apology serves to deny the diminishment of the aggrieved and affirms their individual value. In addition, an institution conducting a pinkwash often treats those individuals, usually women, it has harmed as though they are fungible with all other women and treats the concerns of the aggrieved as resolved by any assistance to any women. For instance, when Wal*Mart engaged in a pinkwash, it provided assistance to high level executive women and women in foreign countries, neither of which included the domestic low-wage women who were harmed by Wal*Mart’s employment practices and did not alter the workplace conditions about which they complained. This sleight of hand adds insult to injury.
Most worrisomely, effective pinkwashing allows a wrongdoer to avoid systematically correcting the underlying grievance and also to defuse any reputational damage associated with the identified wrongdoing. Reputational sanctions rely on an appreciation of and attention to the wrongdoing that successful pinkwashes are designed to preclude or overshadow. In so doing, the kind of hypocrisy a pinkwash entails also “frustrates the normative claims of those victims by undermining the language in which they can press their claims and obscuring the validity of those claims to those to whom they are addressed.”
With all those concerns in mind, is the Nobel body engaged in a pinkwash and how would we know? While the award of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize received a great deal of positive coverage (see, for example, here, here, and here), should it be viewed as an attempt to divert attention from the Nobel’s own #MeToo problems coupled with a failure to address the #MeToo grievances against the academy? Well, the early evidence suggested that the Nobel body was not interested in the validity of the underlying grievance with a leader of the Swedish academy “forced out in mid-April after she severed the ties between the organization and the [alleged harasser]” and three other members left the organization “over the handling of the allegations.” The Swedish Academy is in such disarray that it could not give out a Nobel Prize in Literature this year. As far as I can tell (and I suspect the vast majority of coverage is in Swedish), at no point has the Swedish Academy itself admitted the validity of the underlying #MeToo grievances, taken responsibility, or apologized. The larger Nobel Foundation which governs the Swedish Academy did at least acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis with a public statement noting “The Nobel Foundation presumes that the Swedish Academy will now put all its efforts into the task of restoring its credibility as a prize-awarding institution and that the Academy will report the concrete actions that are undertaken. We also assume that all members of the Academy realise that both its extensive reform efforts and its future organisational structure must be characterised by greater openness towards the outside world.” But this vague statement does not even directly acknowledge the #MeToo nature of the crisis or the specific ways in which the Swedish body deserved to lose its credibility. None of this gives me much specific hope for the Nobel’s efforts to address the grievances of #MeToo claimants, but more could be going on behind the scenes. Time will tell.
Still, the Norwegian Nobel body’s choice of award recipient might plausibly be read in a variety of ways. It might be a way to change the conversation. On the other hand, it might be the Norwegian body’s way of delivering a stinging reply to its Swedish brother by acknowledging the deep and pervasive harms of sexual assaults and the need to believe victims, eliminate their stigma, and treat their pain. Again, it may be too early to tell if the Nobel institution as a whole is trying to generate support for internal reform or trying to divert the conversation away from one of its units’ misdoing. My hope is that by defining a pinkwash, we have the tools to check in and seeing if the Nobel is moving in the right direction or needs to be criticized for the additional harms inflicted by a pinkwash.