There is now barely a day that goes by without me receiving at least one e-mail inviting me to sign a petition about some issue or another. From the government’s e-petitions to organisations like 38 Degrees and Avaaz and campaigns such as If, we are bombarded with demands to join the movement, pledge to the cause, make the change. They spread quickly and easily across Facebook and Twitter, frequently with the imploring assertion that taking 30 seconds from your life can make a real difference to an issue. I’ve certainly shared them myself – and it’s because of this that I can understand the appeal. It feels more meaningful to share them than to post ironic Youtube videos of American reality shows or pictures of cats. Yet it increasingly seems that the ubiquity of e-petitions is doing more harm than good.
I’ve written before about ‘clicktivism’ and the danger of facile engagement via the internet. There are unfortunately many people who don’t bother to question something if it chimes with and/or suits their own sense of identity. This is nowhere more obvious than in the shallow memes which I wrote about in those two blogs but I think this is also instructive regarding the relationship many have with e-petitions. No matter how well meaning an organisation (or movement) is, no matter how much information they make available, there are going to be a lot of people who sign a petition because they think it sounds ‘right’ and not because they’ve actually bothered to investigate the issue at hand. The startling plethora of petitions which have repeatedly sprung up in the past 18 months or so regarding gay rights in Uganda is a good example. Clearly it was a real issue, yet it was also obvious from much of the rhetoric that many had engaged no further than the few sentences which tended to accompany the petitions. After all, some of the most prominent petition sites had previously claimed to have stopped the bill. Many were unaware that voices inside Uganda and beyond urged extreme caution with regards to public statements and petitions and worried about the clamour to end Western aid to one of the poorest countries in the world. The links between American evangelicals and Ugandan homophobia remained largely unknown, as did Uganda’s history of British colonial rule and Western support for brutal dictators such as Idi Amin when it suited (and indeed current American involvement). The numerous voices arguing that the bill was a diversion tactic (supported by Wikileaks) went almost unheard. Instead there was frequently the sense that people just believed Uganda to be an innately broken, backward country which, when combined with the belief that Westerners spending 10 seconds entering their e-mail address can meaningfully dictate policy there, results in a dangerous, Orientalist fantasy.
The Uganda Bill petitions were unavoidable for a couple of weeks, much like the even bigger Kony campaign (also Uganda-related) earlier in the year. The Bill, like Kony, is still around – as are the issues of poverty, mortality, gender inequality and more which Uganda faces. Yet the e-petitions have moved on and so our attention has too. It’s difficult, of course, for a privileged white Brit sitting at a laptop to seriously begin to understand some of these issues. In this regard the Uganda Bill was a perfect storm for e-petitions, pushing buttons of identity politics and barbaric African nations without demanding any wider attempts at contextualisation or comprehension, or any thought further than ‘this is bad, my signing this is good’. We should ask ourselves why it feels so instinctively right – why we think ‘well it’s better than doing nothing’ rather than asking ourselves if we truly care and what that would really involve. We would rather have the quick philanthropic buzz of signing it, sharing it and then clicking onto the next Facebook post. It creates the sense of doing something without really doing much of anything.
Petitions are one tool amongst many and they have a place yet their growth seems largely connected to the narcissism and atomisation of social media rather than any increased social awareness or empathy. The new If campaign tackles the enormous and complex problem of world hunger, declaring that joining the campaign can be the “beginning of the end” of the problem. Yet how many people signing up to it will spend any time investigating this issue? More than that, how many will investigate it beyond the uncontroversial platitudes pushed by the supportive celebrities? It’s a campaign which already has the support of the Prime Minister while his government simultaneously exacerbates the problem. This great War on Want statement looks at just a few of the problems with the campaign (which I won’t repeat) but one of its greatest dangers is its idea that we in the West can ‘solve’ world hunger simply by signing petitions to our leaders. We’ve seen time and time again that this doesn’t work. Our leaders rely on the fact that we have a flimsy involvement which will either drift off entirely or be satisfied with some positive sounding announcements (and anyone who doesn’t already know that these will definitely come is naive in the extreme). The If campaign is already guaranteed to be a success on its own terms. In terms of confronting the ‘market forces’, the ‘economic development policies’, the ‘trade liberalisation’, the history of colonialism and exploitation, the continuing Western greed regarding wealth, resources and energy to name but a few major aspects of the capitalist infrastructure, it will be a dismal failure, just as Make Poverty History (which I was an enthusiastic supporter of) ultimately was before it.
This isn’t an argument in favour of doing nothing, which I’m sure is how some would (will) present it. However it’s most definitely not the case that ‘doing something’ is always better than doing nothing. Sometimes doing ‘something’ is not only completely ineffectual, it’s harmful. It releases the pressure, convincing everyone that something is being done, that everything is fine and all we need is some well-intentioned tinkering to make things better. It pushes the idea that our Western democracies are fundamentally benign and just need to be pushed in the right direction, whether it be ‘saving the NHS’ or ‘saving gay people in Uganda’. If we truly care about these things we need to face the fact that we have a responsibility to engage, to educate ourselves about them, to think about them for more than 30 seconds. We need to ask ourselves why we are so quick to put our faith in petitions and to share them so widely. We need to consider the consequences of this and of our wider inaction which it arguably facilitates. I’m e-petitioned out.