2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

This article was sent to me by @wotyougot and feeds into some things I’d been mulling over re: social media and television/films for a while. It shouldn’t seem like a particular insight to say that social media is having a big effect on the way we watch things but, in this age of cultural poptimism, it’s a statement which many will take instant umbrage with. For these people social media can only be a force for good and the kids (ie us, vicariously) are alright. It’s surely difficult to argue, however, that the live-tweeting of a show like Question Time is about much more than affirming your self-image and chasing the buzz of a retweet. I speak as someone who used to do it and understands the pleasure of having a pithy comment about that week’s reactionary panel member shared far and wide. It’s a long way from actually being about politics.

This piece speaks about the ‘social media buzz’ behind many of the most popular current shows and I think a large part of what it’s getting at is that the impulses which drive #BBCQT live-tweeting are now to be fond across television. In short, we reward shows which affirm our self-image. If this doesn’t require much effort on our part and lends itself to pithy social media updates, all the better. Question Time’s facile presentation of politics clearly fits this criteria, as we already know what we think and what the ‘right’ things to say are in order to receive validation. ‘Reality tv’ in general fits the bill, whether that be The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother or Ru Paul’s Drag Race. These shows make no real demands on our attention or even our thinking: they offer quick reward for minimal engagement. It’s arguable that the next step beyond this is the recent trend for verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, in shows like Girls and Looking. These shows offer idyllic reflections of their target audiences – that’s you on screen but you’re funnier, more profound and more attractive. Even the conflict, breakdowns and drama in these shows is an Instagram-filtered gentle masochism which never threatens to disrupt our projections.

Looking is a step beyond even Girls in these regards – its sole creative impulse appears to be this reflection, whether that be gay men of a certain class or a liberal audience who implicitly feel that they deserve cookies for watching a show about gays. I thought that the latter was very evident in responses to Weekend, the previous film from Andrew Haigh (director of Looking), though viewing figures for Looking suggest that its efforts to replicate this on television are falling flat. It’s not surprising, really – having your liberal self-image confirmed in a 90 minute film is one thing but an eight-hour tv show has to offer you something more. Looking fails spectacularly in this regard, being almost entirely free of both straight characters and female characters. It’s notable, however, that its main character is a video game-playing geek, as perhaps the most obvious examples of the trends I’m speaking of are the shows aimed at self-identified ‘geeks’ (Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who). Looking is actually being rather clever in drawing upon the increasing dominance of the ‘geek’ in gay culture but the portrayal is too particular to flatter a general audience.

We can similarly speculate as to whether a wide current audience would care to watch a long television series about slavery featuring a predominantly black cast. Would this offer the same convenient affirmations which people have been finding in 12 Years A Slave? Over the past few weeks I’ve noted that people feel compelled to take to social media and inform everyone of how affected they were by this film, more than any other I can previously recall. It doesn’t require much thought to see how this fits into the trends I’m discussing here. The Brad Pitt character is a personification of the film’s appeal for many ‘liberal’ viewers and the emotional affectation which has so often been following viewings is a performance of self-image. The film is instrumentalised to show how humane and liberal we are. Then it’s onto the next thing.

As the Flavorwire piece notes, if a show acquires a ‘buzz’ it can get away with being a bit slower and more interesting. There’s a clear lineage of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad which are too sprawling to be easily compartmentalised but which became totemic of being a certain kind of person (it’s no coincidence that The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of them). It’s easy, then, to congratulate ourselves for watching ‘difficult’ shows but it’s certainly more difficult for ones which don’t offer facile affirmation to garner wider attention. This occurred to me while watching Rectify over Christmas. While garnering massive critical acclaim, it’s a show which is still largely-unheard of and it’s easy to see why: it’s slow and virtually impenetrable for a ‘social media viewer’, offering almost zero hooks in that regard. All it can hope for in terms of achieving wider attention, then, is to reach a certain critical mass (pun intended) where viewing it becomes a potent signifier.

It’s worth briefly noting here that this trend doesn’t only work in terms of liking something. The ‘Twitter hateathon’ which accompanies Sherlock these days is emblematic of the process working in a different way, where despising a show confirms your self-image. This is not to say that Sherlock isn’t worthy of critique but that is something far-removed from deliberately tuning in to live-tweet 90 minutes of snark.

Social media hasn’t invented the impulses which lie behind all of this, of course. It has merely, as this piece notes, accelerated and cemented them, drawing them out of more and more of us. I noted at the end of my piece on Question Time that the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” written about by Antony Lerman offered an inspiring riposte to the social media-isation of critical engagement. Clearly there is no small irony in writing about that on Tumblr, yet it remains something to heed. Television and film have a massive amount of value to offer us and, on the whole, that value is not GIF-able.

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.

The Great Beauty

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.

This quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, keeps popping into my head since I watched The Great Beauty a couple of evenings ago. It stands in direct contrast to one of the central scenes in the film, where the protagonist Jep demolishes the hypocrisies of a friend by noting that:

We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking about nonsense, about trivial matters, because we don’t want to revel in our pettiness.

This may sound like an appealing self-awareness, a deflating of self-importance. In the course of the film, however, Jep comes to realise that in attempting to pre-empt and avoid his own untruths, he has ended up avoiding life. The Great Beauty is not something which comes along but rather the experience itself:

This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore…let this novel begin.

It has been a recurring trope of the film that Jep once wrote a serious novel and has since written interviews. People ask him several times why he doesn’t write again. He is shown revelling at the centre of extravagant, hedonistic parties, surrounded by people who chase the lustre of ostentatious ‘creativity’. We see an unsuccessful actor who suddenly announces she is now a writer, then mid-thought decides that she might direct a film. Jep’s friend spends much of the film chasing a dream of staging his own play, though it seems to be a dream heavily inspired by his pursuit of aforementioned ‘actor’. In the course of his writing Jep encounters a couple of dreadful artists: a self-indulgent performance artist who speaks about herself in the third-person and who waffles about ‘vibrations’, and a young girl who dramatically hurls pots of paint at a canvas. It is all nothing and Jep is no-one, a cipher at the heart of the sound and fury. As we see in the final lines of the quote above, Jep comes to realise this and endeavours to confront life in all its complex beauty and horror, figuratively signalled by his decision to write a novel again.

In the middle of nothing it’s easy to be anything. Everyone in Jep’s life performs for one another, avoiding sincerity and seeking validation for their self-image. Jep’s own journey is set in motion by the death of an old girlfriend, his first love. Having avoided his own past for so long, he finds that the roots of who he has become offer redemption. This is paralleled by his friend who, realising that his play is dreadful and his audience are politely indulging him, dramatically decides to return to his home village after decades away. “Rome has really disappointed me”, he offers as explanation.

It will be obvious to many by now that while Rome is an integral part of the film I saw many parallels with London within it. Only last week I found myself telling an old acquaintance whom I’d bumped into in Glasgow that it was so easy to get lost in London and not even realise it. So easy to surround yourself with people who unthinkingly reflect your self-image back at you and demand that you do the same, allowing you to believe that you are what you want to be. I think this is part of why going back home for Christmas is so difficult for many here – it threatens to puncture the illusion, confronts us with a very real history of ourselves in contrast to the ‘self-made’ people we have become.  We must look at ourselves with some attempt at honesty and humility, not so that we can revel in triviality to avoid the discomforts of sincerity but rather so we can look life squarely in the face and begin to understand what lies beyond its appealing, deceptive surfaces. Only then can we grow, only then can we truly immerse ourselves in what life has to offer.

Heck, it even brings to mind the final words of the 11th Doctor:

We all change. When you think about, it we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s OK. That’s good. Gotta keep it moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.

Something Rotten: Mugabe’s Son, Tom Daley and Gay Identity

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We’ve seen before how quickly and widely misinformation can spread if it fits the right narrative. This is undoubtedly true in broad terms but I’ve tended to write about it with a particular, personal regard for LGBT issues. Because, truly, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It seems increasingly unavoidable to me that the mainstream LGBT (for which read: overwhelmingly white gay male) ‘community’ is underpinned by a collective delusion based on a peculiar mix of victimhood and self-regard. Critical thought is notable by its absence. The Maria Miller and ‘hanged gay men in Iran’ memes went unchecked and were widely shared because they reflected these ‘values’. They assured us that we were oppressed. It’s noticeable that much of this comes from  gay people who are privileged in many other ways – intersectionality requires us to be aware not only of the many different ways in which people can be oppressed but, crucially, the ways in which we may oppress others. Where is the cachet in this? There is none and so it’s largely absent and, if raised, derided. Instead we face a seemingly endless parade of stories detailing how awful things are for us, with the truth being largely irrelevant. A story about a ‘teenage gay couple’ kicked out of McDonalds while ‘celebrating their anniversary’ went viral – it turned out they weren’t a couple, weren’t gay and weren’t even kicked out. Evidence of the awful homophobia faced by a waitress in America travelled around the world in hours – it now appears that it was a cruel hoax perpetrated by the waitress herself. The corrections to these stories are, of course, never shared with remotely the same zeal. Where’s the fun in truth if it doesn’t victimise us? Indeed, given that those of us living in the ‘democratic’ West face less and less problems due to our sexuality, there’s been a marked upswing in stories about how awful things are for gay people in other countries. Aside from serving the narrative these stories have the added bonus of being difficult to check. So there is little to no engagement with the people who actually live in these countries, little to no efforts made to listen to them and be led by them. Instead their oppressions become ours and we do with them what we like.

We saw this on Thursday when a ‘story’ about Robert Mugabe’s son being gay quickly spread across the internet. Despite originating on a website no-one had ever heard of, relying on suspiciously vague sources and being about a son who doesn’t actually exist, the report got as far as being reported on one of the main LGBT news sites in the UK (now altered to try and save their embarrassment.) People began to realize that the story was a hoax within the hour…yet even today I can still see it being shared. At a glance you can understand the appeal of the story – notorious homophobe has gay child. Karma! If you think about it, though, it’s actually a pretty twisted one. If it had turned out to be true you would imagine that life for the son would have been pretty difficult and there’s something rather perverse in celebrating homosexuality as a ‘punishment’. Yet this was irrelevant to the ‘lol gotcha!’ angle from which people were reporting it. Now, of course, the story has nothing to offer us and so the treatment of gay people in Zimbabwe will be forgotten until the next e-petition. As for discussion of wider issues in Zimbabwe – a non-starter.

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The concern with our own sexual identity rather than with the truth can also be seen today in the response to Tom Daley’s rather low-key assertion that he’s in a relationship with another man. Daley explained that he was motivated to speak out to correct misconceptions, stated that it shouldn’t be a big deal and went to pains to point out that he was still attracted to girls. This rather measured approach was almost immediately lost in a frenzy of ‘Tom Daley is gay!’, ‘Tom Daley is one of us!’  and ‘Tom Daley is so brave!’ hysteria. There was almost instant recourse to that favoured trope, the tormented gay kid, to emphasis the earth-shattering importance of the ‘announcement’. Daley’s concern with misrepresentation and his avoidance of labelling himself became irrelevant; indeed, while some have stated that he’s ‘come out’ as ‘bisexual’, others have dismissed this and claimed him as ‘gay’ (Pink News did and have since altered the headline). The crucial thing is that he’s no longer ‘Tom Daley, diver’ but rather ‘Tom Daley, LIKES MEN, IS BRAVE’. The need to align this calm announcement with the victim narrative is unsurprising but is instructive of the patronising and simplistic way in which we handle these matters. We can’t even grant teenagers the right to identify themselves (or, indeed, to not identify as anything). We can only deal in absolutes and, regardless of Daley’s wishes, he’s now a gay role model who can save other gays. His sexuality isn’t his any more – somebody think of the children!

What the hell is going on? We trample over facts with complete disregard and dehumanise anyone who ventures a sexual interest of any kind in their own sex, all to maintain the particular notions of sexuality which our identities rely on. How can this possibly be viewed as a good thing? Who exactly is it supposed to be helping? If we’re in the business of imagining kids who need saviours, it’s perfectly conceivable that someone struggling with their sexuality will be repelled by the strict, delineated identities which we deal in. You will be gay, it will be the core of your being and you will be a victim. This is what the transgressive defiance of Stonewall has transmuted into and it’s ugly. Rather than spending all of our time looking for homophobic bogeymen we should take the time to think about our own attitudes and the assumptions about sexuality which underpin them. As I’ve written before, the kind of world we speak of wanting seems to be one in which people can be whomever they want in terms of sexuality; our rhetoric and actions, however, completely contradict this and demands clear (and oppositional) identities. We can do better than this. We can be better than this. More and more it seems that the approach of Western gay politics is in many ways a barrier to ‘equality’.

EDIT – 12/12/13 An edit to include a particularly egregious illustration of the above from noted gay neocon Andrew Sullivan. Apparently Sullivan knows Tom Daley’s sexuality better than Tom himself does. Quite some feat! You can hardly get a better example of the dehumanizing that I wrote about than Sullivan’s hideous bet that “Daley will never have a sexual relationship with a woman again.” Placing bets on the future sexual activity of teenagers – doesn’t it make you proud?

Sullivan knows that Daley can’t possibly be attracted to women because saying so is a “a classic bridging mechanism” – one that he deployed too. Yes, Sullivan said he fancied women and men but didn’t really, so everyone else who says so is clearly lying. As arguments go that’s up there with the attacks on trans people which go ‘well I liked playing with dolls but I didn’t have to change my gender to do it!” It’s not just unsophisticated, it’s downright stupid.

Sullivan also wheels out that hoary old argument about how male bisexuality isn’t really a thing “because male sexuality is much cruder, simpler and more binary than female.”  Leaving aside the role of gay men like Sullivan in perpetuating this with their sneering demands that people ‘take sides’, his dire analysis that this state of affairs is “much more nature than nurture” completely neglects the role played by patriarchal society. I wrote a bit about that here but suffice to say, given that science has yet to provide any semblance of a clear ‘explanation’ for sexuality, I don’t have much faith that Sullivan has much of a foundation for his assertions beyond his own prejudices.

 As I wrote above – Daley’s sexuality isn’t his anymore and while Buzzfeed and HuffPo may trawl the internet for the inevitable homophobic responses, any sophisticated analysis has to take account of the unhelpful prejudices found in many gay people.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged…Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns

Her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.

Even when I disagree with her, bell hooks is an inspiration: a fiercely intelligent thinker and cultural critic who forces you to critically examine aspects of society, and of yourself, which you may not even have consciously thought about before. This piece on Sheryl Sandberg and ‘faux-feminism’ really hit home. brilliantly articulating some inchoate thoughts I’ve had about feminism, yes, but also (and more prominently for me personally) about the ‘gay rights’ movement, which so many of its critiques could be applied to. I’ve been inching my way forward in that regard over the past year or so, much of it inspired by the responses of the ‘gay movement’ to the issues of gay marriage and of Chelsea Manning.

The central theme here has to be the failure of imagination of these movements, the conservatism which sees them as vehicles for people to take their place at the table with ‘successful’ members of the prevailing power structure. The primary role of class in causing and perpetuating inequalities and injustices is almost always elided (and, as hooks notes, race is usually absent too – this is certainly true of gay politics). If these concerns are present, they are hand-wringing liberal concerns where those firmly ensconced at the table fret over how to best improve the opportunities for ‘the disadvantaged’ to join them. The myth of meritocracy underlies everything, the sense that if we can just sort out certain kinds of sexism, racism, homophobia, then the most able will always be able to work their way to the ‘top’. As for questioning the stratifications which even mean there is a ‘top’, or asking what it means for society to do the things involved in being part of it – don’t even go there. Why we fight is not for a truly transformational human emancipation but rather to make it easier for talented, intelligent folk from ‘minorities’ to achieve success. The fact that these folk are overwhelmingly of a particular class – well, it may be unfortunate but it’s never going to be the point.

This failure to, as hooks puts it, dig deep means that as high-profile movements both feminism and gay ‘liberation’ can seem horribly one-dimensional and even harmful. Writing as a gay man I’ve addressed what I see as the horror of thinking that being directly marketed to is in any way liberatory. More widely I’ve seen how the gay movement has been commandeered by people of privileged backgrounds who, being unable or unwilling to address substantive issues of class and social justice, instead fixate on facile notions of inequality which affect the lives only of people like themselves (if that, at times). Seeking out the ways in which being gay might put you at even the slightest disadvantage of reaching the neoliberal top and being blinkered to all other concerns results in a truly counter-productive fixation on ‘gay’ as an all-encompassing, immutable identity; an identity which must, no matter how privileged you may be, be inextricably linked to victimhood. This is something which I’ve noticed with a certain strand of feminism also – a strand which bell hooks tackles here and which unfortunately is enormously popular at the moment. At its most egregious this trend, in both movements, finds men and women in positions of great power and/or wealth actively exploiting their perceived victimhood in order to further their own positions – whether that be writing endlessly about their exploitation without ever venturing beyond the most superficial analysis or actively using their ‘disadvantage’ to conflate legitimate criticism with sexist/homophobic abuse.

On a macro level, meanwhile, hooks notes how feminist rhetoric has been instrumentalised and used by, for example, Western governments to provide cover for their imperialism. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention in the past year will easily see that the same use is being made of gay rights. Indeed, less than 2 weeks ago I wrote about the instrumentalisation of homosexuality as a tool for marketing and for leveraging profit” while the ongoing saga of Russia’s anti-gay laws has revealed the arrogant cultural superiority of many in the gay movement.

hooks ends by observing that the ambition of feminism must be to “change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone”; this must surely be the goal of any emancipatory movement, including those seeking ‘gay liberation’. Such liberation surely can’t mean the ‘freedom’ to enjoy your privilege and even become one of the 1% while deploying your one-dimensional minority status to combat criticism when it suits; it can’t mean ignoring the immiseration of millions in favour of being ‘represented’ at the higher levels of amoral corporations; it can’t mean not only disregarding the myriad barriers which hold countless people back but refusing to understand that their removal does not necessarily challenge the wider oppressive system. Dig deep, then, is an important message far beyond feminism and it’s one we should all heed.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

How ‘LGBT Awards’ Ceremonies Dehumanise and Devalue

It has been noted that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” A general point, this could nonetheless have been written specifically about much of the LGBT media which drowns in adverts, advertorials and fluff pieces about celebrities. Gay Star News goes that bit further and is increasingly little more than press releases and ‘features’ which are clearly paid for, in lieu of any original content. It shares with Pink News the tendency to report on anything, anywhere which happens to somehow involve a gay person – a trait sent up by Fagburn here – and a lack of critical thought which at times makes it (and PN) seem like satire.

I’ve written previously about the increasing tendency for marketing to use homosexuality (rarely bisexuality, never transexuality until recently) as an effective, easily-ticked box in marketing campaigns. Aside from flattering the liberalness of many, such a move is certain to be grabbed on by the gay media. Where they go, many gay people follow and all analysis falls away in the face of a trite appreciation that a person or organisation has ‘supported’ the community. As we’ve seen, this leads to the horror of gay magazines lauding men who’ve assaulted their wives, gay charities associating themselves with ethically repugnant companies like Barclays and (in the latest and perhaps most egregious example) Pink News associating itself with one of the world’s biggest manufacturers/dealers in weapons of death and destruction. There is no activity, indeed no crime, too horrendous that the gay media won’t eagerly accept your cash (or your flesh) and sprinkle some of their pinkwashing powers over you.

The association of Stonewall and Pink News with Barclays and BAE Systems respectively comes as part of their award ceremonies. It’s no great insight to say that the vast majority of award ceremonies are nothing more than extensions of the PR industry; given the convergence of marketing with ‘gay visibility’ the gay media has been slowly cottoning onto the fact that they’re an easy way to get coverage and, more importantly, cash.  The Stonewall Awards came first in 2006 and though they at least ostensibly serve some purpose (to “celebrate those who have had a positive or negative impact on the lives of British lesbian, gay and bisexual people”) it was quickly obvious that they were a facile and craven embarrassment. This was (and is) not only due to their willingness to endorse supremely dodgy people and organisations but also the fact that all you really need to do in order to stand a good chance of winning is to do or say something ‘nice’ concerning the gays. The ‘Broadcast of the Year’ in its second year was Hollyoaks, for God’s sake.

Attitude Magazine was paying attention and their own award ceremony came in 2008. This sublime piece of nonsense barely even pretends to be little more than marketing – certainly this year their association with various companies (primarily a branch of the tax-dodging, union busting, asset-stripping Virgin) seemed to be the central point (aside from the fact that it helps to flog some magazines). So banal and transparent are these ‘awards’ that their attempt this year to obtain some gravitas on the back of the campaigns around Alan Turing by giving him a special award seemed almost insulting.

This year Pink News has joined the fray, meaning we have three of these absurd spectacles in the space of a few weeks. It takes a lot to make the Stonewall Awards look good but the Pink News Awards somehow managed it. Having no information about how nominations are arrived at, the three awards voted for by readers mixed hilarity (‘Advertising Campaign of the Year’ literally seemed to mean ‘featured some gays’) and idiocy (‘Parliamentary Speech of the Year’ ignored everything any politician had said which wasn’t about gay marriage) with a peculiar, and largely unremarked on, self-interest. Two of the groups nominated for ‘Community Group of the Year’ had seen Ben Cohen (owner of Pink News) involved in their creation and both concerned gay marriage, a particular hobby horse of Cohen and PN in the past year (Nick Clegg, perhaps the most despised politician in the country, received a ‘Special Award’ for his ‘work on gay marriage’). The videos from the nominated ‘Equality Network, Scotland’ on gay marriage had all ‘premiered on Pink News’. Most notably (and curiously), there was an unheralded ‘judged award’ (judged by whom and on what basis, we’re not told) for “Business Network of the Year”. I mean…what? Who even conceives of such an ‘award’? Perhaps someone who sits on the board of the winning ‘network’ Intertech with responsibility for ‘Media and PR’. That’s a pretty massive coincidence, right?! Pink News itself doesn’t make the link.

(27-10 edit – Ben Cohen has drawn attention to the list of judges here and stated that he did draw attention to his link with Intertech, but only in the room and edited out of the video by the director. He also explained that nominations were decided by “the pinknews team and board”. Funnily enough, BAE Systems and Pink News are both listed as ‘supporters’ of Intertech here. But then, as Ben said: “it’s up to us how we do the awards. They’re ours. If you want to do your own you can of course!”)

This perfectly illustrates why I care about this stuff – it’s not just random grumbling. Under the pretext of ‘supporting the LGBT community’ or ‘promoting equality’ or whatever, marketing and self-advantage is advanced with almost zero criticism. People and organisations involved in at best dubious, at worst reprehensible activities are given a sheen of liberal respectability. In short, these absurd awards further the instrumentalisation of homosexuality as a tool for marketing and for leveraging profit. Gay people become one-dimensional beings, of interest only because of their sexuality (and ostensibly only interested in this themselves). Further, it robs ‘equality’ of all meaning – the phrase becomes little more than ‘can already-privileged white gay people advantageously access and exploit existing structures to their own ends’? These awards, birthed from the gloopy neoliberal swamp that is most of our gay media, dehumanise, degrade and in a very real sense devalue equality.

The Circle

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Social media becomes an ever more dominant part of our lives and yet so few people seem to seriously contemplate it and how they use it. We see this not only in rampant and rewarded narcissism (as Horning says in the quote above, on social media we can show off and it’s okay) but in instances like the Paris Brown affair. The “totalizing system” is such that I found myself asking a friend last week “if it’s not on Facebook, did it actually happen?” It goes beyond merely sharing photos of our nights out, checking in at a gig or posting our thoughts on the latest episode of ‘Mad Men’ into experiences actually becoming subservient to their expression on social media. They become means by which we can further express our personalities online (and so find them both reflected back at us and affirmed). Not only does it seem that the offline space to develop becomes ever smaller but the desire to do this recedes.

The above quote, taken from here, is one of many efforts I’ve made to reflect on social media and its impact on our lives. I was perhaps too hesitant when I wrote that “few people seem to seriously contemplate it”…in actual fact it seems that such serious contemplation is actively (but almost unconsciously) seen as a bad thing. Katherine St Asaph began her response to this piece by declaring “I shouldn’t even be responding to something that uses the “social media increases narcissism!” study as its kicker”. Such instant dismissal of any notion that social media could have negative impacts is typical of the discussion around it and it’s fitting that it came in a dialogue around One Direction. Like 1D, social media is identified with youth and as such is attributed the qualities of being youthful and exciting; to parse either in a critical manner is to be condescending, snobbish and, worst of all, old. Any person, organisation or brand attempting to reach a ‘younger’ audience will invariably find themselves quickly drowning in hashtags, Vines and Tumblrs. Yet this focus on marketing obscures the fundamental reality that the main product of social media is ourselves – its value relies on monetising relationships which were previously mediated off-line and, further, in inventing new relationships (between ourselves and other people, ourselves and brands, ourselves and pop stars etc). Capitalism’s survival depends on its vampiric ability to encroach onto and transform more and more aspects of our daily lives. Our ‘inner self’ does not escape this – we’ve seen that work has become more and more a question of ‘emotional labour‘ and, conversely, our personalities have been turned into business and profit.

It’s staggering how quickly Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like have transformed much of our reality and the flood shows no sign of abating. Google Glass seeks to augment reality and make us cyborg-like beings, permanently wired in and switched on. From our televisions to our online shopping we are more and more willing to share our habits in order to receive personalised services which seek to tell us about media and products which we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. We all walk around with devices which identify our location at every second of every day. We don’t mind this. We don’t mind this to the degree that when it’s revealed that our ‘national security’ agencies routinely monitor this data along with our calls, e-mails etc it inspires little more than a mass shrug. And certainly we can identify a lot of ‘good’ in this technology – I’m writing this on Tumblr and will post it to my Twitter which I’ll read on my phone, I’m in no position to be superior – but the point is that we’re surrounded by messages telling us about that good. Thinking about the bad is, as noted, kinda beyond the pale.

Which brings us neatly to The Circle, the new novel from Dave Eggers. Eggers is the kind of guy it’s easy to hate: talented, prolific, accomplished, involved in charity work and an archetypal upper middle-class liberal. Fortunately for him, his books are a joy to read, as effortless to get through as gently warm water. In recent months I stormed through the incredible What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and last year’s A Hologram for the King, a book which manages to make gripping reading from a lot of sitting around in a tent pitched in a Saudi Arabian desert. It was a fortuitous coincidence that Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, turned out to be due for publication only a few weeks after I finished the latter.

The Circle will widely be described as a satire aimed at Google and the titular tech company does indeed share many similarities with everyone’s favourite ‘Don’t Be Evil’ conglomerate. It also draws on aspects of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon yet the satire of the novel goes far beyond the behaviour of any of these companies or our own relationship with them; instead it concerns the very nature of humanity. That the book is a dystopian vision of the near future (a blend of 1984, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Brave New World) is writ large, so much so that the strokes can seem laughably broad: it seems certain that many readers will be put off by what initially seems like caricature. I myself wasn’t initially sure…yet there is one particular scene, quite early in the novel, which so pitch-perfectly captures the weird, hysterical neediness fostered by social media event invites and their ‘wandering around a minefield in a blindfold’ politics that I found myself grinning widely at its brilliance. From there on in I submitted to the book and found myself hooked, staying up far later than I should to read it and looking forward to my commute just so that I could snatch some more pages.

The audacious capturing of many of the hilarious but equally sinister aspects of social media, and our relationship with modern technology, continues apace. Clicktivism and e-petitions are ruthlessly skewered, as is the embarrassing desire of our politicians to associate themselves with these exciting tech companies. One of the main sparks for the march towards a totalitarian ‘openness’ turns out to be an anti-internet troll campaign and the eagerness to trade-off privacy for ‘safety’ is a recurring theme. The inherent insincerity of relationships conducted almost entirely on social media looms large, as does the diminishing effects of being able (and expected) to pass comment on every person who crosses our screens. The fascistic strand of the unthinking cult of ‘positivity’ leaps from every page. Overarching all of this is the question of human experience and personality – what does it mean to be ‘you’? Are we more or less ourselves when we construct an online identity, share our experiences there and encounter people and things which we never could in ‘real life’? Is there any value in secrecy, in lies, in retreating from the world – and is social media itself this retreat?

The book is far from perfect and its sledgehammer subtlety does initially jar; yet at every point where I found myself beginning to roll my eyes I realised that I knew people who would eagerly pursue the course of action described. Obvious, then, but only in the sense that it describes what already exists and pushes it further to make its point. In fact, it could be said that this forceful signposting reflects the decline of critical thinking which has in part been fostered by social media and ‘positivity’. Spend 10 seconds on the page of any online marketing/media company and try not to feel nauseous at the insipid horror on display – you don’t have a personality but rather a ‘personal brand’ and how this is perceived is what matters. As such, the appearance of being caring, being intelligent, being funny, being human is key. Sign those petitions, post those videos, tear down those X Factor contestants and rack up the likes and retweets. Then you’ll know people care. You’ll know you made a difference. The Circle seems overblown because it has to be – the signifier is replacing the signified and the hellish results of that are laid bare in an all-too-appropriate manner. If you’ve ever found yourself checking your Facebook to see if something you posted five minutes ago has been liked, looked forward to a tv show because of the witty comments you hope to tweet about it or taken photos of an experience because you thought it would play great on your profiles – read this book.