‘Liking’ a charity on Facebook or signing an e-petition is not an extension of resistance; it’s an expression of benign idleness
‘Banal sentimentality and a desire to be patted on the back are behind many of the charity appeals and petition demands we are confronted with.’ Photograph: Simon Belcher/Alamy
We’re living in the age of “change” as an all-purpose concept. What do you want to change? Something. Anything. What matters is that a better world is just an e-petition away and all we have to do is say “Yes we can” and we will. Will what? I don’t know – petition sites, enthusiastic high-street drama school graduates and for-profit organisations are selling us the idea of grand change on a small, case-by-case basis. What’s the issue? Dude, there are issues plural, across the world and we can solve them all.
We can do it because together, they say, as part of a Facebook group, email action or online petition, we are stronger. If enough people in the west get together they will form a righteous team of Davids and will, with high-speed wifi connections, topple all the Goliaths out there. If enough teenagers really care, then that bad man Joseph Kony will be caught by those good Christian people at Invisible Children and Africa will be saved. This is the “charitable-industrial complex” and, as Peter Buffet writes, it transplants what works in one setting “directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms”.
Sites like Change.org and 38 Degrees are said to empower people to do anything from fix a road sign to save the NHS. Change.org, a profit-making operation, claims to have curbed corruption in Indonesia, fought caste discrimination in India, and shut down ex-gay torture clinics in Ecuador. The site may well have helped play a part in all these things but it has essentially followed Facebook’s formula, which goes like this: establish credibility before making cash. Last year, its founder and chief executive Ben Rattray talked about “true empowerment” in a company-wide email which was leaked to the Huffington Post. The email set out a change in advertising policy to allow for solicitations from anyone – however unprogressive – who was willing to pay. Rattray’s “true empowerment” essentially boils down to being empowered to harness the righteous anger of liberals to build a platform, before, like a good Zuckerberg-style free-marketer, opening up that platform to people with real money.
The justification for the organisation’s volte-face runs along the lines of, “Hey, we’re still good guys really, so what makes us lots of money is good for the world.” This time-honoured story is one we know well from the hippie generation, it’s the story of Richard Branson, of Ben & Jerry and others like them. Change.org and others like it have mastered the art of monetising people’s guilt; of turning their small-scale saviour fantasies into hard currency.
Earlier this year, the writer Teju Cole tore apart what he termed the “white saviour industrial complex“. In one post, he wrote: “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” In the next, he said: “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs – including, importantly, the sentimental needs – of white people and Oprah.” This banal sentimentality and desire to be patted on the back are behind many of the charity appeals and petition demands we are confronted with today. Facebook pages mean that people don’t even have to give money anymore. They can just click “Like” and feel the approval of their peer group wash over them in an awesome wave.
In our increasingly atomised, issue-driven political and social climate, small urges are satisfied with the implication that they are bringing about large change. 38 Degrees recently sent out an email that began: “5 cyclists have been killed in just 9 days on London roads. And Boris thinks it’s their fault,” and went on to “demand that London Mayor Boris Johnson acts now to stop this carnage”, as if London’s cyclists (of which I am one) were being mown down in their thousands by crazed zombie drivers in evil Boris-sponsored vans. 38 Degrees places itself firmly on the political left but its campaigns often have more than a touch of the Daily Mail about them.
Perhaps – and I’m going to sound Brandian here – these small urges and interest-specific appeals are simply distracting us from bringing about significant societal change. Internet activism is not an extension of resistance; it’s an expression of benign idleness. In The Society of the Spectacle, the French theorist Guy Debord wrote of “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing”. “Liking” a page or putting your name to an unverified petition is “merely appearing”.
This does not mean that there aren’t people trying to affect vital change. The Rolling Jubilee project, which is affiliated with the Occupy movement, recently bought up the debt of 2,693 people in the United States. Activism can achieve something real and concrete, which means that it can be frightening to those in power. The recent imprisonment of the Anonymous hacker Jeremy Hammond is an example of this. He has been sent down for 10 years for his part in revealing some of the shady and unpleasant aspects of the corporate intelligence industry. In a statement, Hammond said: “Could I have achieved the same goals through legal means? I have tried everything from voting petitions to peaceful protest and have found that those in power do not want the truth to be exposed.”
Like Chelsea Manning, whom he mentions in his statement, Hammond took real risks to expose bad corporate practice and for that he is being rewarded with jail. Signing an e-petition is perfectly understandable and maybe good things occasionally come of it, but Facebook is not going to catch Joseph Kony and we won’t tweet our way to peace in Syria. The business of “helping people” has become slicker and slicker but it patronises us, divides us and ultimately benefits the same old elites.