Don’t Click the Guilt Away – How Online Activism Has Sedated Rather Than Empowered Us

Originally posted as part of Distilled Magazine’s Issue #4

“Everyone’s bad. There’s noth­ing we can do. Let’s just stay at home and have tea.” That was the sen­ti­ment expressed in Adam Cur­tis’ 2009 short film The Rise of Oh-Dearism. In it, he chron­i­cled how he believed the West­ern pub­lic had become over­whelmed with images of poverty and despair across their bor­ders since the Biafran cri­sis, cul­mi­nat­ing in a sense of dread and apa­thy in which every new NGO cam­paign or news report about far-away tragedy trig­gered a reac­tion of “Oh Dear… well let’s just stay at home and have tea”.

“Never fear!” we cried with the advent of the inter­net. Knowl­edge is power, is it not? With a uni­verse of infor­ma­tion now at our fin­ger­tips, we would escape such apa­thy, open the doors to online activism and embrace an Era of New Pos­si­bil­i­ties! Unfor­tu­nately, the rift between the pos­si­bil­i­ties and the real­ity of online activism is enor­mous. Rather than open the por­tals of cross-global com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ignite the fires of out­rage at ris­ing inequal­ity and per­sis­tent pre­ventable poverty and death, it has given this gen­er­a­tion an easy cop-out. With one sim­ple click of a mouse, you can now ‘like’ or ‘share’ infor­ma­tion from advo­cacy groups and NGOs and wipe our con­science clean. What had the pos­si­bil­ity of becom­ing a means, has grounded to a halt, becom­ing an end.

Case and point was the now infa­mous viral video Kony2012 by the orga­ni­za­tion Invis­i­ble Chil­dren. On one day alone, forty-two of my Face­book friends had posted the video to their walls. It would go on to exceed 1 mil­lion views on YouTube. Now this piece is not going to be an analy­sis of the neo-colonial under­tones of the video (advo­cat­ing for a white Amer­i­can sav­iour to embark on an epic jour­ney to the dark heart of Africa return­ing with war­lord Joseph Kony’s head on a stake) because that horse has been blud­geoned to death. What it is, how­ever, is a reflec­tion on what the inter­net has done for this generation’s sense of activism. Let’s ask the ques­tion why when see­ing dis­as­ter unfold before our eyes, all we can do is ‘like’ and ‘share’, and then we’re content.

Tinted Win­dows

When Michael Pol­lan coined the con­cept of the glass abat­toir, he could hardly have expected what glass screens have done to West­ern soci­ety. He imag­ined that if we took those areas in which the hor­rors of the world were being per­pe­trated, and cased them in glass, things would change. We would look in, be appalled at what was unfold­ing before our eyes and sub­se­quently be com­pelled to act against them. Pol­lan thought mak­ing us eye-witness to dis­as­ter would prompt shock, out­rage, and most impor­tantly, action. These hopes were iden­ti­cal to the pos­si­bil­i­ties that the inter­net offered. Peo­ple on one side of the globe would now be directly con­fronted with the suf­fer­ing of those at the other end, with a sim­ple click.

The real­ity has been the oppo­site. All the world is a glass cage, and we can watch the less for­tu­nate from the com­fort of our cushy homes. We mar­vel at the spec­ta­cle and rejoice in our priv­i­lege, rather than tak­ing actual action. Now, this gen­er­a­tion is not lazy. It is not apa­thetic. It is not the ‘Me Gen­er­a­tion’ that oth­ers make it out to be. It sim­ply would not recog­nise gen­uine activism if it pepper-sprayed us in the eyes. It is not that we do not want to act, it is that we think we already are. Online activism has slipped into click­tivism, allow­ing us to feel that shar­ing a video equals tak­ing to the streets.

Show us how much you care

Infor­ma­tion is meant to empower. Yet, the inter­net has brought on such a smor­gas­bord of infor­ma­tion, that it seems to have sedated us, lulled us into a false sense of accept­ing the sta­tus quo. Although it offers the amaz­ing pos­si­bil­ity of con­nect­ing to those a hemi­sphere away, we have failed to use it for that. Instead we seem to be reblog­ging gifs of babies lick­ing lemons and pho­to­shop­ping a danc­ing Bey­oncé into the she-Hulk.

So where did it all go wrong? And why is the real­ity of our internet-usage so dis­heart­en­ing? Zuckerman’s ’cute cat the­ory of inter­net activism‘ would have us believ­ing that plat­forms such as Tum­blr, Twit­ter, Face­book and Insta­gram could eas­ily be con­verted to active spaces of mean­ing­ful activism as well as being used to share images of cute cats. It would seem, how­ever, that these plat­forms have made inter­net activism too easy. We have become con­vinced that buy­ing a (RED) iPod or shar­ing the image of an African child-soldier is equal to directly improv­ing the lives of oth­ers. This story has become all about the ‘self’ and not about the dis­tant ‘other’. Our human­i­tar­i­an­ism is no longer about a shared human­ity, but about a con­structed pub­lic persona.

The dan­ger of the highly pub­lic ‘glass’ soci­ety that we live in is that not only can we wit­ness the lives of oth­ers, they can also look right back. This has set in motion an indi­vid­u­al­is­ing trend. Our online lives are open for all to see, and that brings pres­sure along with it. Because you would not want to be the one friend that did not share that video of beau­ti­ful spo­ken word poetry against xeno­pho­bia, would you?

The com­bi­na­tion of social net­work­ing with sites like UpWor­thy have welded a double-edged sword of aware­ness and self-importance. By call­ing upon view­ers to share their videos, which are by turns heart­break­ing, hilar­i­ous and inspir­ing, it has mas­tered the art of the ‘cute cat the­ory’. Show me a video of a young African Amer­i­can boy speak­ing up against racism or a rap­per stand­ing up for same-sex mar­riage equal­ity and you have piqued my inter­ests and pos­si­bly broad­ened my mind on cer­tain top­ics. What you’ve also done is preach to the choir. Lik­ing and shar­ing cer­tain causes fos­ters a self-congratulatory online com­mu­nity, rather than one that is open to debate.

On the other hand, the inter­net also allows for imme­di­ate, and some­times anony­mous, response. Rather than feed­ing peace­ful, civil and informed dis­course, this fre­quently descends into mud-flinging, name-calling and trolling. Thus, click­tivism takes on two forms – preach­ing to the choir or anchor­ing down. Either you share the video that all your friends have shared for fear of being the odd one out, or you pre­pare to bat­tle it out in the com­ments sec­tion, prefer­ably by pour­ing cement into your own boots. Ideas need com­mu­ni­ties to flour­ish, and these con­stant bat­tles have caused our sense of com­mu­nity to crumble.

Shat­ter­ing the Pane

Now, open­ing that win­dow has not been dis­as­trous on all fronts. Sites like Kiva, Avaaz and Kick­starter (crit­i­cism of their sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to abuse aside) have made it pos­si­ble for projects to reach an audi­ence and receive fund­ing quickly and effi­ciently. When used prop­erly, the inter­net allows you to be parted with your money far eas­ier than when some­one rings your door­bell or stops you in the street. Thus now we are fools eas­ily parted from our money: to good causes, but fools nonetheless.

Such sites may be cir­cum­vent­ing the usual pot­holes of bureau­cracy, cor­rup­tion and issues of trans­parency, but they are per­pet­u­ated rather than chang­ing how the West views the Global South. Know­ing that your $5 will con­tribute to set­ting up a social entre­pre­neur­ship for mar­gin­alised women in Dji­bouti may soothe your con­science and improve their stan­dard of liv­ing, but it is a drop in the ocean. As long as the inter­net is not used to stim­u­late thought about why exactly those women in Dji­bouti have a sub-par stan­dard of liv­ing in the first place, the prob­lem remains, the dis­course unchanged and the global inequal­ity unwavering.

If any­thing, online activism has become the end, rather than the means, for those grow­ing up with the inter­net. Future rev­o­lu­tions will not be tele­vised by the West. They will be tweeted, and that’s all they will be. As long as our expe­ri­ence of unfair­ness is medi­ated by screens, our soci­ety may be con­structed by panes of glass, but that glass also pro­vides us with safety. Know­ing that you will never have to actu­ally expe­ri­ence what is hap­pen­ing to oth­ers is the biggest obsta­cle to online activism.

The cur­rent real­ity of online activism does not have to be per­ma­nent. The realm of pos­si­bil­i­ties that the inter­net has to offer remains vast; all it has to do is call for offline action. We have to come to terms with the con­text of the videos we see and the processes that lead to the suf­fer­ing we “share” before change will be brought about. The time has come for us to put our lofty words into prac­tice and trans­late our online actions into offline change . We must bury the arm­chairs of our smug, shal­low human­i­tar­i­an­ism and cease using the inter­net as a self-obsessed pat on our own backs. Away from the screens and into the light is where the real change will take place.


Pulling the Trigger

Originally posted on PinpointPolitics as:  Pulling the Trigger: Justifying Gun Ownership After A Year of Mass Shootings

The invention of the firearm in 12th Century China was the first step towards a separation of emotion from killing. The more automatic firearms became, the easier it was to kill an enemy. Long gone are the days when having blood on one’s hands was literal rather than figurative, and perhaps so too are the days in which we mourn the death of any and all.

The AR-15 style rifle, main weapon of choice for Adam Lanza in his murder of 20 children and 6 adults in the December 2012 Newtown shooting, is capable of firing 45 rounds per minute in semi-automatic mode. The civilian counterpart to the weapons used by the police and military, this Bushmaster rifle is designed to kill with the same amount of physical exertion required to open a can of Coke.

Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency in 2008, there have been 30 gun-related events termed “mass shootings”, fatally injuring 266 people.  In that same time-period, it can be estimated that over 200,000 people have died due to U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. While these figures cannot be compared – one indicates gun violence in a domestic national setting, while the other references casualties of war – we must ask ourselves when death warrants publicised mourning and when it has already become part of a numbing pattern that plays into our apathy.

President Obama personifies this striking dichotomy. In his post-Newtown press conference he spoke of how, upon hearing the news, he immediately reacted as a parent rather than as a president. Though this is understandable, it is indicative of America’s split morality when it comes to its perception of death. When white, middle-class American children have their lives taken from them before they could even truly begin, a nation weeps. When hundreds of Pakistani children won’t live to see another day due to drone strikes, the silence is deafening.

Having been awarded a general ‘F’ for his actions against gun violence in the US during his first term, Obama has also been widely criticised for continuing military involvement in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. And when the individual right to bear arms to promote freedom is placed on a pedestal at home, the leap towards the right to impose freedom by using arms abroad suddenly becomes far smaller. A glance at the U.S.’s division over gun control provides the basis for tolerance for their overseas exploits.

This is not a call to arms for us to march into the streets demanding the end to all gun violence and ushering in an age of global pacifism. No such delusion is being entertained. This is however the moment to reflect on what appears to be the unravelling of our moral fibre. It seems that we have entered an era of complacent apathy when it comes to death.

Whose death matters, anyway?

It says a great deal about a nation’s moral compass when we see who deserves media attention and who doesn’t. If every gun related death in the US – 32,163 in 2011 alone (bringing the annual rate of gun deaths in 2011 to 10.3 per 100,000 people) – were to be mentioned in the media, little else would receive airtime. Yet, it can hardly be ignored that school shootings in predominantly black neighbourhoods are filed under ‘gang warfare’, never to see the light of the 8 o’clock news. Terrifyingly, those who dominate the airwaves are actually those pulling the trigger.

After shootings, news networks immediately leap to publish as much information as possible on the killer. Though this may aid in opening debate up to issues other than simply gun restriction (mental healthcare for example), it seems to feed into a glorification of those who tread the line of society’s margin. Certain sociological theories would claim that those characters are a necessary evil to allow society to define its moral and ethical codes. Yet, when your television grazes over the death of thousands in a distant country and spends hours profiling one man, it adds to the abstraction of death. We see only the killer and never the victims.

Following the Newtown Shooting, the debate on American gun laws has resurfaced. With many calling for the outright banning of private gun ownership, and the pro-gun lobby going as far as calling for an armed teacher in every classroom. A brief glance at the Obama administration’s website that caters to public petitions shows the immense divide in public opinion over gun laws and restriction. The most popular petitions on the subject range from banning the ownership of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons, deporting Piers Morgan to the UK over his outspoken anti-gun stance, and upholding the Second Amendment at any cost.

The issue of the Second Amendment is one that dominates the gun violence debate. The pro-gun lobby and much of the Republican electorate insist that it is their right to be armed, as they have the right to protect themselves and the right to live in a free country that ensures these rights in its constitution. Yet these rights are enshrined in a constitution written at a time when the weapons of choice were bayonets rather than semi-automatic assault rifles, and gun violence was necessary to establish a government rather than to protect your family from gun-toting killers on shooting sprees because the country has failed to provide them with adequate mental healthcare.

According to the pro-gun lobby, these individual rights exist to preserve the common good. And whether he agrees with that line of thought or not, President Obama is quick to pacify those who fear that their right to bear arms will be revoked:  “Look, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. This country has a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s been handed down from generation to generation.”

Obama has promised “meaningful action” will be taken vis-à-vis gun violence. As of yet, this has entailed charging Vice President Biden with finding a solution to the problem. Biden’s task force, however, has been met with strong opposition from the NRA, and seems to already be willing to settle for less.

At the heart of this debate is the question of where individual rights must be constrained for the greater national good and, leading on from this, the question of whether gun ownership should continue to be a right preserved in the Constitution. We must ask ourselves at what cost should all of these rights be preserved, and to what lengths must they be protected. Therein lies the conflict of opinions central to the debate: Although some argue that more guns, rather than less, are the answer, the case study of Australia’s successful end to gun violence indicates the opposite.

 Where have our morals gone?

There exists a growing distance between citizens of Western democracies and a normative ethics pertaining to death. To argue that this is a negative thing seems ridiculous. Yet we mustn’t forget the horrors that exist in the world, lest we perpetuate them. Without light there is no dark; without death, no life.

Are we becoming a generation whose moral compass now points to a North of our own creation, where what is “right” and what is “wrong” is subject mainly to our own ability to justify actions that never directly affect our lives? A generation alienated from the worth and cost of human life. A generation who can identify the world’s evils, and subsequently watch them unfold. We are becoming apathetic armchair activists, and the time has come to decide where the line is drawn when we say “enough is enough”.

It is most certainly a romantic generalisation and characteristic of false nostalgia to assume that our moral compasses were far more precise in the past. Yet we cannot ignore the significant impact that technological advances have had on facilitating a distancing of life’s difficult truths. Our moral vision has tunnelled, leaving suffering on the periphery comfortably blurred.  There are certain painful realities that we’d rather not face. Unfortunately, it seems that we are succeeding.