Monday, 23 November 2015

So you #standwithparis…?

One of the interesting things about social media is that it's so emotionally open. Anyone can turn up, express a depth of emotion – positive, negative, baffled – which will be echoed widely, with no entry or exit costs. It's become a means of easily identifying oneself with a cause or stance without consequences.

For instance, here's the Twitter avatar of a company called Accusoft, whose promoted tweet turned up on my timeline a day or so after the attacks in Paris.

I forget quite which one it was, but here are a couple more. Their avatar remains a tricolour with their corporate logo stamped on top (the symbolism is quite clear to me, but not perhaps to them), but the action of feeding promoted tweets into a timeline shortly after a mass murder, complete with appropriated flag didn't convey solidarity to me: it conveyed the opportunist appropriation of grief to sell products. 

Here's one of their tweets which purports to be a little more reflective, but it's so bland as to be meaningless, and immediately subverted by the stream reverting to promotional stock-photography type:

Does this really mean anything? Is it simply a PR office telling the boss that they need to look caring? Will it encourage these corporations to start paying taxes to improve security (yes, that is a trick question)?

However, this isn't one of my normal anti-corporate rants. These organisations are lazy and cynical, but so are an awful lot of people, many of them friends of mine. Try a search for #IStandWith on Twitter and you'll get tens of thousands of examples, ranging from people 'standing with' rescued dogs to the city of Paris. Many of them are good caring people expressing themselves in public as best they can. Here's a selection (which all appeared together just like this) ranging from the helpful to the banal to the sinister.

Once we've agreed that these sentiments are honestly and deeply felt, we have to ask whether they're any more meaningful than Accusoft's appropriation of grief. In short: are there consequences to 'standing with' anything or anyone? The point of 'standing with' is, as far as I can tell, to associate oneself with the oppressed and sharing their struggle. The image I have in my head is of civil rights activists joining Rosa Parks or the school children being bussed in Alabama, and sharing the beatings and abused meted out by the police. I'm also reminded of the late Simon Hoggart's political maxim that any speech which proclaims the speaker's unwavering devotion to motherhood, apple pie, happy children, clouds or freedom is just so much humbug because it's impossible to imagine anyone seriously opposing such things.

Because social media allows us to publicly endorse popular opinions without consequences, 'standing with' becomes little more than a form of smug self-indulgence. ISIS is unlikely to be keeping a list of people who stand with Paris, whereas Rosa Parks was arrested and her friends harassed and beaten. People: stop metaphorically #standingwith things. All you'll get is the emotional reinforcement of your personally-curated echo chamber, the lowest common denominator of community empathy rather than any meaningful form of political or emotional engagement. The same thing can be said for #jesuiswhatever and the other variations: they are in Baudrillardian terms simulations of unity without meaningful symbolic exchange. It's like going to a rugby match and shouting in pain when a player is tackled. I don't mean that those expressing the sentiment aren't genuinely pained by what's happened to our fellow human beings: I am horrified and moved too. But that's not quite the same as claiming to 'stand with' those who were directly or indirectly affected. It is in fact a denial of the reality of their suffering by inserting one's own distanced feelings into the situation by loudly and publicly associating oneself with an unjustifiable claim to be a participant. If I were a Parisian, or a loved one of the deceased, I'd be revolted by the armchair bravery of those claiming to be standing with me from behind their keyboard.

Yes I know this sounds harsh and unempathetic and dismissive of other peoples' feelings, but I do think that the facility by which these memes circulate promotes the sense that we've done something by expressing the shallowest sentiments. Life is hard and complicated and requires complicated responses, not emotional spasms.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Yes I know this sounds harsh and unempathetic and dismissive of other peoples' feelings

A pox on 'feelings'. If you're expressing feelings in public, the question you need to ask yourself is whether what you're emitting is an uncontrollable howl of anguish. If it's not - and if you've got time to think about it, it probably isn't - then you should ask yourself whether you're actually doing anything with it, helping people or writing something that will help make sense of things or whatever. If the answer to that is No, the chances are it's not a genuine emotional response but a narcissistic self-staged performance of emotion - and unsympathetic dismissal is all they deserve.