On a Monday morning back in August, I awoke in a sluggish stupor. This was quite typical post my summer slumbers, which lasted an unhealthy average of 10 hours. Before my feet could hit the floor my thumb had begun its bi-hourly ritual of swiping through my social media feed, desperate to prevent a scenario where the latest holiday pictures of my mild acquaintances were left unacknowledged by way of emoticon reaction. After having scrolled for far longer than can be considered reasonable, I happened on a post titled #RedforKashmir.
The post called for its viewers to spread awareness of the Kashmiri crisis by changing their Instagram DPs, much in the same way that the blue for Sudan movement had done. On seeing this, I couldn’t help but ponder on this new era of social media campaigning.
Was changing my DP really that important? Did spreading ‘awareness’ actually make a difference? Surely there are more effective means of helping those that are being persecuted in the world than giving each of their struggles a colour from the rainbow to hang a hashtag off of? And was I only asking these questions because I felt annoyed at having to remove my own picture again, mere days after reuploading my face over the Sudan blue? Turns out, there was a lot to delve into.
First of all, of course it matters that we use social media to spread the message of others’ suffering. This is especially the case when the victims of an injustice lack the voice to do so themselves. This was what was happening in both the Sudan and Kashmir crises where there were deliberate information blackout attempts by the oppressors as part of a strategy to isolate their victims and normalise their transgressions. Global interest in these issues needs to be kept alive and it is important that we feel a responsibility to take it upon ourselves rather than hope the mainstream media does this for us.
Recruiting social media for this task does have its drawbacks however, with many of the shares and DP changes done out of submission to social expectation or imperiously in a vain attempt to appear ‘woke’ and thereby gain the approval of one’s online following. Such motivations are pitiable and will fail to inspire any meaningful action from that individual beyond the online world, but this does not mean the net-result of this passive social media activism is negative. Though they themselves might not particularly care about the hardships being faced, these armchair activists will help to generate an online environment where mention of the injustice becomes too prevalent to ignore. Further along the pipelines, the message of suffering will reach those capable of a genuinely passionate response and in this way these disingenuous, minor actions may help to yield effective life-saving outcomes. Using your social media to elevate publicity for an under-represented cause may take a small amount of effort but its collective effects can be huge.
Furthermore, increasing recognition of the under-represented sections of global society allows our world view to evolve into one that is more nuanced and less warped by the mainstream media’s imbalanced coverage.
“Human stories” are the ones with the greatest currency for journalists, ones that give the greatest prominence to what events felt like to those that experienced it. But too often the voices of the oppressed and marginalised are reduced to pure testimony, which is then interpreted and contextualised on their behalf by our media giants. Take for example, media coverage of the latest refugee crisis. These new arrivals were framed as strangers to Europe, its traditions and its culture. More sympathetic portrayals tended to paint them as objects of pity, focusing on stories that matched stereotypes of innocence and vulnerability: children, women, families. Hostile coverage in the meanwhile would focus more on the able-bodied or the masses of faceless people at border fences to construct the idea of this antagonistic “other”. Such is seen in The Sun’s front page refugee boat story where there was an emphatic push on this concept of “illegals” seeking a “backdoor”. This kind of representation tends to be narrow and monolithic. It fails to afford its subjects sufficient complexity that is necessary to paint them with the brush of humanity.
So until we can completely rethink the way our media organisations are run – how people are represented, who gets to participate in the decision-making; who gets to speak with authority, or a collective voice – we must embrace the opportunity that social media provides to hear the stories of those that are caught up in crisis, raw and unfiltered.
“ We must embrace the opportunity that social media provides to hear the stories of those that are caught up in crisis, raw and unfiltered.”
But if the aim is to challenge imbalances in our exposure to stories of global crises so that the amount of public attention each gets is proportional to the level of suffering being faced, surely we can’t solely champion one cause at any given time. Of course, the plight of the Kashmiris deserves to be recognised and lessened in whatever way possible by the global community. But don’t the injustices carried out against the Muslim Uighurs in China’s ‘transformation camps’ deserve just as much publicity? What about the Yemeni famine? The fact that worldwide 1.8 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation? The abhorrent neglect of migrant children in US border facilities? Climate change? Spreading awareness and mobilising our communities for any of these or the other thousands of humanitarian causes could make transformative changes to the victims of these tragedies. But how do we choose which causes deserve to be championed?
In changing my DP to #RedforKashmir I would be assenting to the idea of showing unilateral support for the Kashmiris at the expense of being insouciant to injustice elsewhere. Yet to do so is vastly better than to be neglectful of all those injustices, as well as the Kashmiri crisis if I were not to use my social media platform at all because of choice paralysis. It is damn near impossible to be mindful of the hardships being faced world-over but when we take an action to promote recognition of any one problem, especially as part of a wider movement. It is important that we commit ourselves to investing that same level of energy for further injustices as they occur regardless of where and who it affects. This can be hard. I felt my own willingness to campaign for the Kashmiri cause was a feeble shadow of the paroxysm I experienced from myself when I had jumped on the #BlueforSudan movement. Developing our collective stamina for such endeavours must be seen as a moral duty, however. To fail to do so would be to accept our low-attention spans as being worthy adversaries to our empathy.
Beyond the boundaries of our online existences, there also lies the problem of choosing whether to invest our time and effort into the supposedly low stake issues that affect us and our immediate communities, or to instead divert this into taking up the flag for ‘foreign’ ones that are often a hundred-fold more dire. No one could deny that when we act to improve the state of affairs for ourselves and the people within our immediate communities, the struggle to do so feels more authentic. Most of us have only small amounts of the charitable resources – time, energy and wealth – to give. If the contribution is to be a relatively small one, then shouldn’t it be invested in a local cause that would yield the most apparently impactful outcome for the contributor?
Let’s take the example of the “Save Our St. Mary’s” campaign. To most students like myself, it is outrageous that the decision to sell the St Mary’s Medical School Building was taken without any consultation of students or alumni. It is a sign that our opinions and input are not wanted or respected by the heads of the medical school. That we, as a community, are not deserving of a voice when it comes to discussing matters that affect our everyday lives at this University. Such a move is disrespectful, unjust and disruptive to each and every one of us.
But if we were to compare this discomfort to that felt by the 65.6 million individuals who have been forcibly displaced worldwide, it is downright trivial. Trivial to the point that I couldn’t even justify expending the ink that it takes to write about my dissatisfaction. And this while I choose to live in ignorance of far worse hardships resulting from the decision making of our national governmental bodies. Decisions I am in part responsible for because I live in a democracy where my right to political voice is ready for me to exercise. Surely, I should be using that ink to reprimand my government for actively enabling the massacre of Yemeni civilians through their support of arms deals instead?
Though it is important to tackle small injustices as well as bigger ones, we cannot deem it permissible to absolve ourselves of responsibility where it comes to the plight of those that are seemingly far removed from us. Europe has played a key role, historically, in the shaping of a world where power and wealth are unequally distributed. It is because of our unwillingness to challenge the status-quo that it continues to go strong. That makes those who suffer from this arrangement of the world order our responsibility.
“It is because of our unwillingness to challenge the status-quo that it continues to go strong. That makes those who suffer from this arrangement of the world order our responsibility.”
How we choose to fulfil our responsibilities to those that suffer is also hugely important to weigh up. Donations can often feel like a drain, directed at treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause. Though they might ease the suffering and give some reprieve for a period, donations and handouts fail to empower those facing hardship in the long-term. Demanding long-term sustainable solutions before we consider reaching for our pockets might seem expedient but in doing so we prevent charity distracting us from finding the best solution to a problem.
If charities and philanthropists are already working on an issue, regardless of their efficacy, governments will feel less compelled to take action or launch initiatives. For example, when it comes to tackling global poverty, it might be said that offering food packages to starving children prevents our governments from undertaking a complex rethink of the way they organise their economic relationships. This argument was put forward by JA Hobson who believed witnessing generous acts of charity wrongly steered the hearts and minds of a society towards individual reform rather than social reform and therefore weakened their capacity for self-help. Dr. Neil Levy agrees and highlights in his book ‘Against Philanthropy’ that those who are in need of support become vulnerable to the fluctuating wealth or preferences of the wealthy who have no systemic accountability.
This destructive idea of putting emphasis on individual generosity over systematic re-organisation is seen particularly in the case of climate change. On an individual level we are all told that to tackle the climate crisis we need to alter our consumption choices – for example, going vegan and reusing plastic bags. While this will contribute to improving the state of our environment, it will not do it at anywhere near the scale that would be needed to prevent its deterioration. By framing these issues as purely personal choices, politicians are freed from making unpopular decisions and businesses allowed to retain their profits. Deforestation has soared in the Amazon under Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro’s watch. A new report suggests that leases from the Trump administration of public lands and waters for oil and gas drilling could lead to more carbon emissions than the entire European Union contributes in a year. Relying on the conscience of individual shoppers is not a substitute for governmental commitments to introduce the laws, taxes and investment needed to sustainably curb carbon emissions.
We need to put pressure on our governments to do the hard thing, which is so often the right thing, be it in the context of climate change, the war in Yemen or the crisis in Kashmir. We have a huge level of influence in determining the world order and the activities of foreign leadership. We can prosecute those on our soil who are suspected of perpetrating international crimes and stop our financial systems from laundering the profits of genocide through repatriation. We can stand against the US and EU’s policy of appeasement by recognising the situation in Kashmir as an international, not a bilateral, issue and avoid the implications that come with turning a blind-eye to a breach of international law. We can protest when our country and EU members sign treaties which prioritise border control over safe and dignified reception conditions for refugees running from conflicts fuelled by our own arms trading policies.
“We can stand against the US and EU’s policy of appeasement by recognising the situation in Kashmir as an international, not a bilateral, issue and avoid the implications that come with turning a blind-eye to a breach of international law.”
We can act. Where there is no alternative to putting our faith in private charities, we should take steps to ensure they have a sustainable plan of action and can be held accountable. Where we see the pain of the under-represented occupy no more than the fringes of our public consciousness we should use our platforms to pull people’s attention towards it. Where we see our democratically elected governments take action that fails to represent our values on the global stage, we should shame them into re-evaluating what kind of Britain we stand for. Unlike so many parts of the world, the tools to fight injustice do not lie beyond our reach. We must not take them for granted.
My DP right now is #RedforKashmir. It is a tiny act and one that I intend to follow up with more concrete ones. I am not an activist, nor do I intend to be. I know that I am the sort of person who finds comfort in living the conventional life afforded to someone from my upbringing and background. Though unethical on a philosophical level, I know I will always prioritise my own path and those that I know personally. But this does not mean I can’t take action against injustice. Most of the actions I’ve mentioned do not require us to derail our lives, simply to sacrifice a portion of our free-time when we find it. If cutting my 10 hour summer slumbers to 9 will mean I can live with the knowledge that I didn’t sit idle, shrouded by deliberate ignorance, as people suffered, I’m sure I can find a way to choose ‘end’ instead of ‘snooze’.