Monday, 16 May 2011

Symbolic Stupidity


Everyone feels an importance to have their voice heard, but increasingly the way this is achieved is through opinion polls and online petitions rather than actual actions. These online petitions do make it easy for many people to feel that their opinion will make a difference, however if anything, they make opinion less significant. There are so many websites that will take your information, but what will they do with it? How will they achieve there goal? Obviously putting pressure on governments who are creating and changing laws, which will directly affect many people’s lives is important, but what difference will sending the government an email, which will be filtered and have an automated reply achieve? If someone really cared that much and really wanted to have their opinion heard why not protest or go out and physically do something?

Recently social websites and personal emails have become inundated with requests to sign petitions to stop the proposed anti-gay changes that are occurring in Uganda. Dozens of websites have taken this cause on and are giving it their support, many offer you a letter outline which you then sign and send to the government officials.1, 2. But thinking logically, why would the government respond to this? Especially an African government in which the email address is likely to simply be set-up to receive this kind of petition, and is not actually causing any inconvenience or even be received by the staff within the government itself. People should not ignore this violation in human rights because your email won’t make a difference, however contacting the United Nations or Amnesty International, which are both large organizations which have the power to make governments take action or impose trade sanctions etc is likely to be far more effective. Is it simply because online petitions are easy and fast, giving you an instant feel good factor, rather than something that involves a lot more time and effort in order to achieve actual change. Other problems with online petitions is there is no guarantee that it will get to the correct person, and then this needs to be someone who can actual make the change demanded for. In the Ugandan situation, it is unlikely there will be anyone within the government or top political party that the petition will actual be sent to or have any effect on at all, an email is simply a message that can be deleted with a click, it is not inconvenient to the life of the person reading it or the government as a whole, and is highly unlikely to change their current opinion. Just because lots of people are angry about the same thing does not mean that complex problems will be solved just because they all send one email.

Furthermore, online petitions can easily be forged and so are essentially useless. It is fine if the signee just wants to vent frustration, but expecting actual social change to come about just because they added their name to an online list is unrealistic. This is a form of Slacktivism -which is the feel good result from supporting an issue without actually having to physically do anything.3 This not only includes online petitions but joining Facebook groups and the wearing of awareness ribbons and bracelets. The rationalists Penn and Teller have a show called Bullsh*t, which addresses the futility of the pink ribbon campaign in the episode entitled Breast Hysteria, they discuss the way companies actually use breast cancer to sell things and to target buyers, the money raised is often used to underwrite the costs of events or just raise awareness, and is not used in a coordinated way in order to actually focus money towards one goal, like research, which will in the long run be the only way to really improve the treatment and detection of cancer. Why then does it have so much support and publicity? Because people can use the fact they wear a pink ribbon or have joined a Facebook group as a way to show the people around them that they care about a certain cause.

Of course the wearing of symbols can be motivated by a variety of factors including social and political reasons, for example the presidential candidates are expected to wear patriotic pins, and this is being used as a symbol, which in no way reflects or is proportional to how patriotic that person actually feels. The same can be seen in the seasonal wearing of poppies in the United Kingdom and Canada during the run up to Remembrance day (Nov 11), which is seen as a patriotic act, a recognition of the lives given during the war and the money raised is supports the troops and their families, but why should people be made to feel guilty if they do not wear a poppy even though they may feel very strongly towards the cause? Why should we want to publicly show we support a cause? Could it be because we want to be congratulated on it and to show we are a moral person, and so gain social standing and acquire friends and relationships with people who also care about the same things. So the motivation for wearing a symbol or being seen to support a cause is very different from actually helping the cause itself. Of course every action a person takes in life has a motivation; otherwise no one would do it, because in some way that action needs to be beneficial to that person, true altruism does not exist. Maybe this can explain why online petitions are so prevalent, it is because we want to be seen to be supporting moral causes and supporting social change, when in fact we really don’t want to invest very much effort in to bringing about the desired changes.
1 http://www.avaaz.org/en
2 http://www.allout.org/
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slacktivism
E Markham (2011). Symbolic Stupidity Blogspot

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