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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
Damien D via Flickr
Column Why is it cringeworthy to get behind a cause?
There seems to be a trend towards stigmatising protesters, writes columnist Lisa McInerney. What are we afraid of? The Bono effect?

THE KONY2012 CAMPAIGN exploded over the Irish corner of the internet last Wednesday morning. I’d gone to bed with feeds full of Mass Effect 3 and Jonathan Franzen, and woken up to reams of Kony2012 links, embedded videos, and passionate status updates.

Must be powerful stuff, I decided, so I watched the video. It’s a beautifully made, very earnest film, and as a campaign with the primary goal of raising awareness of war criminals and child soldiers in Central Africa, it does its job effectively. There’s no doubt that it’s propaganda. The fundamentals of the campaign reflect its makers’ desire to elicit an emotional response from their audience, and no sooner had this emotional response been triggered than the peer-sneer began.

Look at you and your Kony 2012 slogans, said the more worldly amongst us. Easy capture your imagination, isn’t it? Part-time activist simpleton. Even this more haphazard approach had a goal: to make people feel ashamed of their naive, possibly fleeting desire to make the world a better place.

I’m not talking about legitimate criticism and valid deconstruction of the Invisible Children charity and their Kony2012 campaign, which was undoubtedly necessary. It was telling that before I’d read the first of these analyses, I’d seen parody slogans and jpegs designed to poke fun at the first-world sincerity that inspired so many to join the Kony2012 campaign. Had half of my social network stripped the facts from Kony2012 before I’d even realised there was a problem? Nope. They were just giggling at the do-gooders.

There’s a lot of this going on in the last week. As well as the Kony2012 phenomenon, we’ve celebrated International Women’s Day, and seen the dismantling of the Occupy Dame Street camp. Both events have garnered their share of snarking and sniping.

Otherwise sane people questioned the need for a day for women, assuming, perhaps, that if the girl-next-door seemed healthy and happy, gender-based inequality is already well on the road to obliteration. How can a gender warrant its own day? gasped some, as if the cold realities of first-world sexism and developing world torment are but morality plays dreamed up by a bunch of privileged Barbies (and yes, fellas, there is an International Men’s Day).

Is it that we’re all afraid of the Bono effect?

The removal of the Occupy protesters from the Dame Street site was met with as much glee as it was with discussion on the nature of the demonstration. That protest camp was an eyesore, said some; those protesters should have been contributing to the economy instead of sitting on their bums smoking dubious cigarettes. Not all peaceful protest is pretty, though, and not all protesters are dreadlocked, professional miscreants. If we were less likely to pigeonhole and lampoon protesters, there’d be more variety again.

We seem rather too keen on stigmatising protesters and belittling their crusades. I’m quite stumped as to why, really. Is it that we’re all afraid of the Bono effect? That if we are seen to care about those less fortunate, we’ll be scorned for being naive, our new-found global conscience simultaneously too white and too green? I’m going to be very controversial here and ask what’s so awful about Bono anyway?

Criticism of his hypocritical tax-savvy aside, calling attention to the first world’s duty to the developing world surely does far more good than harm. Or have I missed the memo about inaction being the most ethical action of them all?

Action, inaction. In terms of tackling state or financial corruption – the aim of the Occupy movement, as well as many others here in Ireland – we are not only able to get involved, but the duty to instigate change is ours alone. It doesn’t really suit anyone when they loftily detach themselves from issues that are directly affecting their communities; that kind of cynical disengagement is just as tiresome as any soapbox preacher.

In terms of issues that affect the developing world, there’s not a whole lot many of us can do, logically, to help our chosen causes. Throwing money at many international problems is like throwing tenners off a cliff: none of it goes where you want it to, and plenty of it ends right back on the same solid ground you pitched from.

Sneer all you like but at least forwarding an online petition indicates a desire to make the world a better place

I can see why people are sceptical about others’ interest in misery overseas. The applicable idioms come thick and fast – Charity begins at home, Teach a man to fish – but that third world misery is complex, and solutions cannot be wholly provided by first-world do-gooders, doesn’t negate the fact that people actually do care about these things.

Whether or not they’re in a position to help, whether or not their interest is all-too-fleeting, people should not be made feel like morons because they’re empathic towards the plight of people they’ll never meet. Sneer all you like, but at least retweeting a link, or forwarding an online petition, is indicative of a desire to make the world a better place. I have no problem with that.

I haven’t always been so pragmatic about remonstrative sentiment. I’m certainly not immune to rolling my eyes when I see 17 tweets in a row about the very latest fashionable cause. Nor am I immune to responding with contempt – how many of us sighed loud enough to wake the kraken when we received yet another email petition about the impending release of Jamie Bulger’s killers (who were released a decade ago)? Yes, sometimes the constant barrage of well-meaning links and petitions and pleas is incredibly irritating; the fact that there’s a barrage at all means that hitting FWD is an easy way to assuage the guilt of privilege.

That said, one can correct a friend’s misguided campaign without shaming them for being interested in the first place. It shouldn’t be cringeworthy just to get behind a cause, be it a political march, an online petition, or even a shared video. What’s so terrible about loudly questioning the status quo, or trying to interest potential allies in your cause?

Can’t we enact an amnesty for do-gooders?

Perhaps it’s anger, guilt because you believe you’re not doing enough to combat injustice, and you don’t need to be reminded of it. Perhaps it’s an innate mistrust of those who ask questions and dig for details and highlight ways they think our society can improve; fear of nosy people, fear of the damage a man on a mission can do, a hangover from occupation or church domination. Perhaps we’re just lazy and are afraid people will notice if we don’t immediately deflect attention.

Perhaps we’re just mean. Perhaps we genuinely think it a weakness when our friends proffer a complimentary opinion on the Shell To Sea campaign, or ask if we’d sign a petition to safeguard LGTB rights in Russia. Perhaps we intend to continue doing nothing because it doesn’t bother us that evil might triumph. I hope not.

With that, can’t we enact amnesty for do-gooders? Because I can think of at least one thing worse than suffering a deluge of heartfelt philanthropy: being shot down and sneered at every time you stick your head above the parapet of your crumbling, ivory tower.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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