By Eimear Sparks.
Last weekend, Verona hosted the World Congress of Families, a global gathering of religious fundamentalists and representatives of right-wing movements, including the Italian government, who seek to restore ‘the natural order’. Their tactics include denying women access to contraceptive and abortion care, putting in place impediments to divorce, and opposing LGBTQI rights of any kind.
Described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-LGBT hate group”, the Congress provoked a furore among students, families, NGOs and progressive activists from across Europe, with tens of thousands flocking to Verona to march against the oppressive values of the meeting.
While these progressive voices claimed the streets outside, participants inside the conference were unperturbed and even encouraged by the criticism. They spoke freely of their xenophobic, anti-women and anti-LGBTQI agenda and railed against those who would deny them their “free [hate] speech”.
It was a safe space for hate speech and quackery, where dodgy statistics and pseudoscience were used to score points against marginalised groups. Speakers demonstrated a startling and dangerous lack of clarity in their terminology where “the media”, “the left” and “the EU” were used interchangeably, united only in their status as “enemy”.
Each component of this “enemy” was considered complicit in a coordinated cultural revolution seeking to destroy “European” (read: white and Christian) civilization through the imposition of LGBTQI and feminist values.
So far, so grimly predictable. More interesting, however, was the criticism levelled at Europe’s economic system, and how this was rolled up with the Congress’s attack on human rights. Several speakers blamed the imagined EU-media-leftist-industrial-complex for the 2008 bank bail-out and accelerated financialisation.
European politicians such as Matteo Salvini (Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister), Giorgia Meloni (leader of Brothers of Italy) and far-right French MEP Nicolas Bay attacked the individualism of modern society, which they claimed meant people were valued only as consumers. As such, human rights movements were interpreted as allies to the neoliberal agenda of capitalist leaders, which would come as a surprise to most of the left-wing activists out protesting fascism in Verona that weekend.
At times, this critique of the current economic order had bizarre overlaps with feminist thinking. There was broad agreement that many Europeans live in societies where women can no longer afford to have children, thanks to austerity and childcare costs.
But that’s as far as the feminist parallels ran: according to participants, feminists want to shame women who wanted to have families and force them instead to continue working. Speakers co-opted feminist language of self-determination, stating that women’s right to choose not to have an abortion should be privileged.
The use of pro-choice language in this way hinges on a deliberate misunderstanding of feminist values concerning equal opportunity. For feminists, ‘choice’ has always been about self-determination and the prioritisation of women’s wellbeing, in whatever direction that might be. What’s more, participants’ concern for mothers’ freedom from financial burden seemed hollow considering discussion of how it related to demographic decline.
The procreation of white, Christian families was considered key in counteracting a decline in Europe’s population, and politicians such as Hungary’s Minister for Family, Youth and International Affairs, Katalin Novak, presented the incentives she was offering to women to have children, to uproarious applause. Financial support for mothers seemed less about privileging women’s choice, and more about racist, longer-term demographic goals.
It was also necessary to unpack what speakers at the Congress meant by “individualism”. Talk of the economic dimension to this term quickly fell away when speakers ploughed ahead with their oppressive agenda. They presented individualisation as the result of an ideology that, in its vision of inclusivity, had forced people to shed identities as Christians, nationalists and family members. As such, the identities of ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘daughter’ and ‘son’ were no longer privileged, and risked being replaced by the terms ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’.
It is, of course, unsurprising that in spite of an ostensible yearning for family and community, participants were steadfast in their efforts to exclude and deny protection to families that do not consist of a man, woman, and their (preferably numerous) cis children.
So what can the left take from the World Congress of Families? Rhetoric at the event was often so jumbled and ill-defined that nuance was hard to grasp, but nuance isn’t the point. What we know is that the Congress and its supporters are striving towards a world premised on the erasure of LGBTQI individuals, a handmaid’s-tale vision for the role of women and the hegemony of white Christianity – and that anyone contesting this agenda is an enemy to their cause. As such, for the Congress, differences between capitalists and progressives, NGOs and the media are not necessary to demarcate.
What we also see is an accelerated co-option of the language of the left. We have known for a long time that rights-based language has been adopted by the anti-rights movements, and many of us have observed the use of words such as ‘love’ and ‘equality’ by anti-choice, anti-LGBTQI movements. We must now stand firm – not only by our values, but by our language, so that words such as ‘love,’ ‘rights,’ ‘choice’ and ‘equality’ are not corrupted by hate.
Eimear Sparks is an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights and a current member of the SheDecides 25×25 young leaders. She has experience campaigning for abortion rights in several contexts, including during the Repeal the 8th campaign and with Women on Waves during their campaign in Mexico in 2017.
Photo above by Martina Šalov.