If you don’t follow Scott Long’s blog, you really should. Not least because it’s the sole outlet I’ve seen which has attempted to examine the providence of the horrendous images of torture which have been spread far and wide re: Russia and LGBT rights. After the initial, visceral repulsion the first instinct of any thinking person would surely be to ask “what, where, who, why”? The website which initially brought them to people’s attention has had a swift overhaul and now features a prominent button where you can donate money. Its address remains a PO Box in America. Yet almost no-one paused even momentarily before spreading these horrible images. As it happens, Long details a bleak story behind them, albeit one more complex and wide-ranging than we’d been led to believe. It is indeed curious that Russia’s human rights abuses have been elided to LGBT ones, with other issues actively removed from discussion by the idiotic torrent of “if this happened to blacks/Jews/disabled people et al’ comparisons.
Of course it’s odd that Long complains about the “ceaseless circulation of these images of violence” yet embeds so many in his post. They inspire emotional responses – of course they do – which threaten to overwhelm the text. Gore Vidal made an off-the-cuff remark in an interview in 2009 which I think is quite illuminating here:
Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.
He was (perceptively) discussing gay marriage in America yet I think his words have a far wider application. We have seen before how easily stories and images of barbarity are shared and spread without thought. It is almost always done in the name of ‘raising awareness’ but it always and inevitably has an impact (and role) beyond that. It has most definitely been used to justify war, for example. You’ll note, then, that in one of the comments on Long’s piece someone takes him to task for “imperialist propaganda” and observes that it’s oddly convenient that this ongoing story, with roots dating back years, has suddenly blown up when Edward Snowden has exposed a ‘national security’ state in Western countries to rival the best (worst) of the Soviet Union. Snowden has, of course, been forced to flee to Russia to evade the ongoing persecution of whistle-blowers which has been such a brutal hallmark of the Obama administration. Yet in the space of a week more people rallied to the cause (and protest) of ‘LGBT rights in Russia’ than have ever done likewise for Manning and co.
This doesn’t, of course, negate the brutality of what is happening in Russia but it does mean that as Westerners we should take a moment to examine our responses and who they serve. Homophobia is after all not confined to Russia, even at a governmental level. Yet it would not serve our governments well for us to be mobilising against the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE or Bahrain, to name a few. Hell, many of the same gay men who went to protest at the Russian embassy on Saturday were certainly happy to support Eurovision when it was held in the brutal dictatorship of Azerbaijan which has a history of torture, indefinite detentions, kidnappings, politicised arrests and more. Then again, any educated person reading that sentence will have alarm bells going off in their head because the United Kingdom and United States have their own recent (and current) history of these things too.
This complexity is seen by some as detracting from the issue at hand: easily the single largest response to the blog I wrote about this previously was “at least they’re doing something!” I find this dispiriting. Rushing to ‘do something’ is not an inherent good, especially when there is little effort to understand the situation beyond conveniently simple responses. As Long reveals regarding that truly appalling photo of the Western activists recreating one of the torture images with rainbow flags, it can exacerbate situations. It can spread disinformation and fear. It can and is used as propaganda against countries which are not amenable to Western interests. Most importantly, it can (and does) crowd out the voices of those experiencing the reality of the situation who should *always* lead such movements. The bizarre debates in the media and on social media over whether there should be a boycott/ban/change of venue are all conducted by Western voices with zero stake in the outcome who make no reference to views in Russia. It reads like egoism but worse than that, it reads as smug superiority and racism. The speed with which Stephen Fry has distanced himself from his letter, describing it as unrealistic, is staggering. In the middle of all of this confusion, what is the actual point? Why were all of those people waving the bizarrely homophobic placards of Putin-as-effeminate-homosexual and expressing their desire to ‘piss on Putin’? To ‘raise awareness’. To ‘do something’. I pointed out in my last post that the UK sells arms to Russia (amongst many other despotic regimes) and haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere since. Surely that’s something people in the UK could take a lead on today in order to make some material difference, something which doesn’t involve imposing views onto people in a country few of us have set foot in?
I don’t doubt that people feel angered by what’s happening but the speed with which this has become the cause du jour and the drums beating for ‘doing something’ against actually thinking and listening (from many, certainly not all) instantly bring that Vidal quote to mind. They are emotional responses, easily manipulated and prone to self-aggrandisement rather than reflective engagement. It’s not a sign of how ‘civilised’ we are as a people that we spread stories of murder from dubious sources and without the slightest clue of what we’re talking about; on the contrary, that’s a sign of profound and disturbing arrogance.There are people out there who are trying to tread lightly in all of this, very conscious of their position and the dangers of ‘speaking for’ people in Russia and I know some of them were at the protest on Saturday. So yes, thinking about something should never replace campaigning but the two must go together and reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first. Racing to pat ourselves on the back merely for “doing something”, as if this has no possible negative connotation or consequence, is little more than well-intentioned vanity.