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.

The ‘F’ Word and Who Owns It

Originally posted as : Who’s Fight is it Anyway – The Clamour for the Voice of Feminism 

On August 12, 2012, a 16-year-old girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was sexually assaulted by two high school football players in the city of Steubenville, Ohio, USA.

The horrifying events that constitute the Steubenville rape case and the backlash to CNN’s coverage of the case’s sentencing have refocused attention on how the U.S. and Western society define gender roles and performance thereof. Now, more than ever, it has become apparent that society still preaches “don’t get raped” rather than the obvious “do not rape”. Not only does society emphasise women as ‘complicit’ victims to the crime being inflicted upon them, but it also casts men as being unable to control their masculine urges. The West has a rape culture problem. One that has been present for centuries, yet still remains.

Why is it that when two teenage boys rape a girl, document it photographically, and use social media to boast about their crime, the media mourns their football careers? It is because it sees two boys, with names, families and lives that it can identify with. Above all, it sees itself and how easy it would be to become the parent of one of those boys sat in that courtroom. It sees context. It sees context to such an extent that it allows it to surpass the actual heinous crime of rape in importance.

This context seems to be exactly what the West is missing when it looks to other cultures. Whether it is mainstream media or feminist organisations, all too frequently the choice is made to place gender roles and what constitutes gender equality within a decidedly Western culture-centric and liberal framework.

It is human nature to fear that which we cannot understand. Western society cannot begin to understand why rape culture continues to exist because it would be forced to admit its failure and vulnerability. Such an admission should be the first step in an already fraught struggle towards equality. In the Steubenville case, the media chose to relocate this fear, shifting it towards the fear that parents should have of how a rape could destroy futures, even if those are the futures of the rapists. To admit that the social climate in Steubenville was so rotten that these boys felt that their crimes weren’t even crimes is to admit that there’s a problem that we haven’t figured out how to solve. And that’s a terrifying prospect.

This peculiar focus that the media chooses when it comes to such issues is also apparent in its treatment of several recent gang rape cases that have occurred in India. Immediate responses were that India had a rape culture problem and was not a safe space for women to be travelling on their own. More importantly, the subtext read that India was incorrigible:   a third world country, with third world problems that they were unlikely to solve.

Yet what is most poignant is the response to each of these situations. After Steubenville, CNN, Fox News, CBS News and others were vilified for their reporting. But the reality for girls like the Steubenville Jane Doe remained the same, as embodied by the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons.  Swiftly after, online hacker group Anonymous placed great pressure on the Canadian government to act or else they themselves would pursue Parson’s rapists.

In India, thousands took to the streets in protest, chanting “enough is enough” and the Indian government has now signed into law stricter anti-rape measures. The political climate around the issue has even escalated to the point where young Indian women under the name “The Red Brigade” are patrolling the streets to make them safer for women like themselves.  Hardly the reaction of an “incorrigible” nation.

When you read the above, did you draw a comparison between the two responses? Chances are you did, because that is exactly what we’ve been taught to do. Western society has decided what equality must look like and transplanted it abroad. Such a comparison is flawed because Northern America is not the same place as India, nor will it ever be. But both suffer from deep-rooted issues of rape culture and distorted views of gender roles. To change these problems, they will require introspection and a fine re-examination of what exactly is going disastrously wrong within their cultures. The solution lies in a culturally sensitive approach. A culturally sensitive approach is something that the broader feminist movement could use a good dose of.

Check Your Privilege

These days, the door to feminist dialogue is clearly labelled “check your privilege”.  In a movement for equality, one must tread lightly not to enforce the oppression of the already oppressed. For a feminist to discriminate against others seems an inherently flawed logic. Fighting for equality while oppressing others seems counteractive. Thus, awareness of one’s privilege (whether it be based on economic standing, ethnic background or religion) is key to understanding why equality is necessary. Issues of privilege and cultural contextualisation are ones that pervade both feminism and feminist discourse in the media and have led to theories of intersectionality. All too frequently we are presented with images of white, Western, women fighting for their equality. This, in itself, is not a problem. It is, however, a problem when these images shift towards those same women fighting for the rights of Muslim women (or any other women for that matter), with total disregard for their opinions.

This is exactly what happened when radical feminist group Femen launched its “Topless Jihad” earlier this year. Initially it was a tribute and show of support for Egyptian blogger Alia Magda Elmahdy, who had posted a nude picture of herself online as an artistic protest against the constraints that she felt Egyptian society was placing on her freedom of expression.  What it became, however, was Femen’s “jihad” to liberate Muslim women from the oppression of their headscarves. The result was a backlash from many of these Muslim Women themselves. They united under the name “Muslimah Pride” and accused Femen of Islamophobia, racism and neo-colonialist views. The struggle for the voice of feminism in this arena had been unleashed.

Although initially Muslimah Pride and Muslim Women Against Femen both provided a much needed check on Femen’s “Topless Jihad”, gradually they fed into a polarisation of the issue of feminism within Islam. The public was forced to choose between two trains of thought – Femen’s “all of Islam is evil and systematically oppresses women” or Muslimah Pride’s “attacking Islam’s anti-feminist aspects isn’t up to white, Western women”. What began as a struggle on the path to abolishing patriarchal oppression soon became a detour to a clamour for the ownership rights to feminism.

The insight that U.S. mainstream media coverage of the Steubenville rape case and the crocodile tears cried for the perpetrators gives us into Western rape culture is a shocking one. It also draws a bizarre parallel between the huge hurdle that feminism must overcome in the West and the ones that feminists are attempting to shatter in Muslim countries.

Fostering a Conversation

Society is based on power, power that has a strong marginalising gaze. If we are unable to see past our own societal constructs, cultural frameworks and norms, we will never achieve equality for all. Femen has succeeded in garnering massive amounts of media attention, but in such a manner that there is no space for discourse. All Muslim women are oppressed, and bare-breasted Western women are donning their capes to save them. That image is one that drips with paternalism, ethnocentrism, and blind cultural insensitivity.

As long as rape culture continues to exist in the West, feminists must seek to examine what the causes thereof are. Without understanding this, yet latching onto an inherently liberal definition of women’s rights and equality, the danger of wreaking havoc abroad looms eerily close.

In Femen’s fight to “liberate” Muslim women from the “oppression” of their headscarves, they have failed to step outside of their Western liberal perception of what exactly oppression is. Yes, there are women who are forced to don a headscarf by their families and by their religion. Yes, Sharia law frequently disadvantages women. No, this does not mean that Islam is an inherently oppressive religion. No, this doesn’t mean that a non-white, non-Western woman automatically needs saving by white feminist crusaders.

If what we seek is equality and a world in which everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion can live their lives free of fear, oppression and discrimination, then we must seek to understand each other. Such goals can only be achieved through inter-cultural communication and exchange of knowledge. Rape culture and oppression should not be defined as normative concepts in order to simplify them, but taken apart as the complex culturally defined phenomena that they are.

The logic of “we know what’s best for you” has failed on countless occasions, and it’s time we learned from our mistakes. Western society and the feminists that have grown from it must come to terms with the flaws that their framework contains. They must seek to overcome these flaws as a means of having a positive impact on gender equality beyond their borders. Feminism should be open to all. To “hijack” it is to fuel division and marginalisation and to regress into the oppression that it seeks to counter. The voice of feminism should be one in which we hear a chorus of all those seeking equality, not simply the solo of those who sing loudest or those easiest to listen to.

Welcome…

… to what will most likely prove to be yet another failed meander onto new blogging territory.

What to expect from this page? Mostly ramblings, perhaps some poetry and then very rarely honest opinions on things that bother me.

Likelihood of this being interesting? Fairly low. Unless I decided to dedicate the whole thing to cat gifs, in which case I expect internet fame within milliseconds.