Nicholas Kristof spoke to a packed crowd at Pickard Theater last night about his 2009 book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” The book—co-authored by his wife, Sheryl WuDunn—explores what Kristof refers to as “the central moral challenge of the 21st century,” combatting the oppression and effective enslavement of women and girls around the world.
Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his coverage of the genocide in Sudan, the other for a book he wrote with WuDunn on the pro-democracy movement in China.
Kristof relied heavily on anecdotes to illustrate the book’s themes. He described the young Chinese girl who inspired the book and was the centerpiece of a frontpage article in The New York Times. The girl’s parents decided that the cost of her education—a mere $13—was not worth the investment. In response, an outraged reader sent Kristof a check for $10,000.
Kristof used the funds to guarantee the young girl—and many others in her village—a spot in their local school, and when he discovered that a bank error had misrepresented the size of the check—actually intended to be only $100—he convinced the bank to make up the difference.
The girl completed school and became an accountant, and Kristof says her story is representative of the transformative power of education for women.
“It was an experiment in what happens when you invest in girls’ education in one area and not in others. This village has been transformed,” Kristof said, noting that nearby villages without coeducation did not undergo the same transformation.
Kristof characterized sex trafficking as a modern form of slavery in his lecture, using another anecdote to illustrate the point. He recalled purchasing two young Cambodian prostitutes, and freeing them from the brothel where they worked. Kristof was shocked to receive a receipt for his purchase.
“When you get a written receipt for buying a human in the 21st century, something is profoundly wrong,” he told the audience.
Kristof included the gut-wrenching stories and jarring images in his book to make it into an instrument of change, and not a mere informational tool.
“When you make people spill their coffee in the morning, that is when you can make change,” he said.
Kristof acknowledged that an over-reliance on these “spilled coffee” moments can trivialize larger issues,
“What I try to do is find the anecdotes that are the most moving, the most compelling. They also have to be representative; they have to tell the larger story,” he said.
Invisible Children’s short film “Kony 2012,” used emotional anecdotes to depict the struggle against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Critics accused the film of simplifying the conflict and affording far-removed viewers an unrealistic sense of identification with its victims. Kristof was hesitant to compare his book’s style to that of the film.
“There are a million differences, but I think that Invisible Children was very effective in their storytelling,” he said. “I think that, on balance, Invisible Children did good; I think that Joseph Kony is under more pressure than if that had not been made.”
In his lecture, Kristof said that deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak made great strides in women’s rights, suggesting that the interests of democracy did not always align with the advancement of women. He said that he did not mean to imply that Mubarak’s dictatorship was preferable to a more democratic regime.
“The point I was trying to make was that a more democratic Egypt might not be as enlightened on female genital mutilation, for example, as Mubarak,” he said. “At the end of the day I think we’re better off with a more democratic government, even if it’s less enlightened on some issues.”
The Guardian criticized Kristof’s book for treating globalism as a solution in the women’s rights movement, while failing to acknowledge its negative effects.
“The authors have no critique of globalism to offer, nor do they appear to grasp how western economic power keeps the developing world too poor to develop,” Germaine Greer wrote in her review.
Kristof disagreed with Greer’s assessment of globalism’s effect on the women’s rights movement, but acknowledged possible negative effects.
“In general I think [globalism] has been helpful for women. It has created more opportunities, created more jobs, especially in the trade sector, and brought more attitudes promoting women’s education and women’s equality,” he said. “It can also be a problem. Girls get trafficked from one nation to another.”
Education was a recurring theme in Kristof’s presentation. He emphasized not only the education of young girls in developing countries, but also the educational opportunities available to Bowdoin students, especially the opportunity to study outside of Brunswick.
“I would encourage you to get out of your comfort zone. Go with a herd of other students to London, and you’ll be less challenged than if you went alone to the wrong neighborhood in Portland,” he said.
Although the lecture covered complex and often depressing topics, there were also moments of levity. Asked how he continued his work despite all the horror he has witnessed, Kristof responded with one word.
“Prozac,” he said.