Refugees are People – Alternatives to a Photo

To call the image of Aylan Kurdi ‘tragic’ doesn’t seem to be enough. The word can’t carry the necessary levels of revulsion, horror, anger, upset, not only at the image itself but at the fact it has gone ‘viral’ today. To even write that in the context of a dead three-year old boy feels so, so wrong.

Aylan and his family, hailing from Kobanî in Syria, were attempting to get to Canada, where his aunt Teema and other family members lived. The authorities in Canada had already rejected an application for refugee status made by the family, with the fact that the UN does not register Syrian-Kurdish refugees in Turkey as refugees and the Turkish state does not give them exit visas cited as ‘complexities’ leading to the decision.

Aylan’s father, Abdullah, survived. We don’t know what he thinks about his son’s corpse making front pages around the globe and popping up on social media sandwiched between Buzzfeed lists and the Miley Cyrus/Nicki Minaj ‘beef’. Who knows if anyone has even asked him? He may plan to take the bodies of Aylan, Aylan’s brother Galip and their mother Rehan back to Kobanî but the image will endure long after even Abdullah is dead. It belongs to us now, weaponised as a means to ‘make people care’.

It’s said 11 other people died in the drowning which claimed Aylan. The UNHCR states that over 2,500 have died in recent months attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Fortress Europe. Amnesty states that over 1,700 died in the same circumstances in the period January-April. In Syria and Iraq alone, some 15 million people have been displaced (to elsewhere within and externally) in the past few years, while poverty, war and persecution has led millions to flee Libya, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and more. This is not a new problem – the UNHR stated in June that the number of people displaced in the world was at its highest point since World War II –  yet Aylan’s image is being shared with a previously unseen sense of urgency and purpose.

Clearly some good will come from this, yet it is profoundly troubling that we as a society instrumentalise the image of a dead child in order to ‘make people care’. Without wishing to diminish the complexity of the situation, the countries contibuting directly to the refugee crisis are almost without exception ones which have been subject to colonial, imperialist interference by the countries now hand-wringing over how many refugees to take, scrapping sea rescue operations and whether to use gunboats to deter the people from coming. Decisions have been made in afternoon meetings which have wreaked havoc on the lives of people thousands of miles away. Now we replicate this mindset, taking it upon ourselves to share images of death in order to ‘help’. Whether dead or alive, it would appear that we like our ‘victims’ to be silent and subservient. Contrast the spreading of Aylan’s image with the response to images of the on-air news shooting in the USA or of Western victims of ISIS – the latter is widely seen as morally reprehensible and met with condemnation. The bodies of ‘Westerners’ are seen as worthy of dignity and respect, not to be used as propaganda in order to ‘raise awareness’ (a motive which, in a dark irony, ISIS almost certainly uses to justify its own sharing of brutalities). It’s a mindset and dynamic present in the ebola outbreak, where images of dying black bodies contrasted with ‘human stories’ of Western victims. The racism at its core of this mindset is underlined by its presence within countries like the USA when it comes to sharing images of black victims of violence:

Though these images highlight and often expose injustice, they show human beings at some of their most vulnerable moments. Personally, if I am ever murdered or beaten, I don’t want it to become a public spectacle for critique, entertainment and observance. We consume these images for public debate and recycle them as energy to push our protests, whether it is for a protest sign or to hear Peter King say, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t talk.” In our observance of incidents, we rarely stop to ask ourselves what the victim would think of our gaze.

The common thread here is that, however well-intentioned the sharing of the images are, the people in them are seen as ‘the other’, as fundamentally different from ourselves. They are seen as weaker, less able to speak for themselves, less complicated human beings, lacking in their own agency. They are seen as people ‘we’ need to save and if they keep quiet while we do it, all the better. One fundamental problem here is that it presents the problem as a humanitarian one, rather than a political one – we need to save them but there is far less focus on how we contribute to the creation of the issue in the first place.

Yet it’s clear that sharing such images can feel like doing something (and a common response to the above criticisms is ‘well what are you doing about it?) Their sharing may reflect a deeply-ingrained insidious mindset (which none of us are untouched by) but can come from a place of impotence, a sense of our own powerlessness. Here are some ideas for what we can do instead of sharing such images:

1 – If you want to post about this on social media, use that small platform to amplify the voices of those directly affected. There are interviews in newspapers, sites devoted to documenting the stories of those at the Calais camp, organisations led by migrants which seek to strengthen their own voices, events like Refugee Week and groups like Counterpoint Arts which seek to support the expression of people who have been migrants or refugees. Make an effort to find these voices – however imperfectly framed they may be (e.g. filtered through a Guardian interview) it is infinitely better in promoting our common humanity.

2 – Wherever possible, use ‘people’ instead of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’. The latter terms aren’t to be shied away from but language matters here.

3 – Support and be led-by organisations already working in this field. Refugee Action, Migrant Rights, the Red Cross, Asylum Aid, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Refugee Council, Refugee Legal Centre, Music Against Borders, Doctors of the World, Asylum Welcome, Calais – People to People Solidarity, Scottish Refugee Council, the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Refugee Women’s Association, Student Action for Refugees. There will be many more, including local groups. I’m sure all could use your donations but get in touch if you want to help and listen to what’s needed.

4 – Educate yourself about the facts of immigration and asylum. Some of the organisations above are good places to start with this but this brief book is a great primer. This is a brilliant read on the UK’s long, rich foundation of immigration while this makes a level-headed positive case for its benefits. There are already strong myths which have taken hold regarding the current ‘crisis’.

5 – Educate yourself about government policy on immigration and asylum. Understanding this exposes the stark hypocrisy of politicians like Yvette Cooper, who supported every aspect of New Labour’s regressive asylum policy. The Migration Observatory has a lot of good briefings while organisations like Liberty tackle the UK’s egregious policies. There are briefings on different aspects, such as the labour market, and pieces which tackle the common myths head-on. Understand the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ but ask reject the narrative of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.

6 – Understanding the political context of immigration and asylum, make links to other issues. The current ‘debate’ is intertwined with Islamophobia and wider racism. It is linked to our foreign policy, with London Review of Books articles on our role in Syria and Iraq being a wealth of information. It is linked to the arms trade and our support for despotic regimes. It is linked to climate change. It is linked to our history of colonialism. It is linked to the politics of trade, debt and aid. Re-politicise the images we are seeing and understand our own agency here.

7 – With this knowledge, try and influence the ‘debate’ in your own way. Speaking up whenever the people around us are engaging in anti-immigrant sentiment is difficult and uncomfortable but one small way in which we can directly make a difference. Call out the media when it repeats myths, makes factually incorrect statements and perpetuates stereotypes. Write to politicians at every level demanding they fight the poisonous atmosphere around this issue. IfListen to and support those affected. Support those working in linked areas.

All of us living in countries such as the UK benefit from Fortress Europe. Understanding the violence inherent in that fortress is essential but it doesn’t mean we have to feel powerless and reduce our action to further dehumanising people or signing a petition. I probably wouldn’t have written this if the photos of Aylan hadn’t appeared everywhere but that doesn’t mean the photos should be uncritically accepted as ‘making a positive difference’. We need to educate ourselves and keep fighting this fight, long after these photos have vanished from the public consciousness into Google’s archives.

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#FreedomTo Say No To Barclays at #PrideinLondon

If it wasn’t already basic Marketing 101, I could swear that Barclays had a strategy document hidden away somewhere with a title like ‘Pinkwashing: It’s Piss Easy’. I’ve written a few times previously about their involvement with Stonewall, who seem happy to get into bed with any company which bats an eyelash at them even if its commitment is somewhat half-hearted. This week saw Barclays’ use of the LGBT community to bolster its image reach new depths with the launch of an advertising campaign built around its sponsorship of London Pride. Its Spectrum group, dedicated to ‘diversity and inclusion’, has been encouraging the use of #FreedomTo on social media and merrily tweeting images like these:

I find it interesting that any explicit reference to or portrayal of LGBT people on these adverts is muted – in fact, it would be easy enough to entirely miss that this was an LGBT-focused campaign rather than some generic, asinine message. This is particularly noticeable in their risible ‘GAYTMs’:

What are these?! I fail to see how sub-Hallmark sentiments written on some terrible patterns which have escaped from adorning bus seats suggest ‘LGBT Pride’ in any way whatsoever. And yet they’ve inspired adoring responses:

It doesn’t stop there. If looking at insipid messages, terrible graphic design and portrayals of LGBT life which wouldn’t scare the most virulent homophobe don’t make you proud enough you can actually adorn yourself in some marketing:

As space hijackers tweeted, what was once a riot is now a “contactless adventure”! Branding yourself in this way even seems to get you access to a ‘private’ area of Pride in Golden Square, something listed on both the Pride and‘bpay’ sites but with no further information provided. Possibly because an area reserved for people who prostrate themselves before a corporate sponsor isn’t exactly in keeping with the radical origins of Pride.

Not that Barclays, or Pride, would know it. The exchange beneath this tweet is illuminating. When someone complains that this branding is ‘not in the spirit of Pride’, Barclays responds that the event couldn’t even happen ‘without the financial support of Corporates”. The Pride account then chips in, saying that “only corporate sponsorship” allows the event to have “a unique meaning for everyone who comes along”. To complete the unholy triumvirate, an employee of Stonewall pops up to insist that “corporate support is vital to pride” and enquire as to how else it would be funded. The message is clear – the ungrateful oink who deigned to question the corporate branding of Pride should shut up. Barclays are doing the queers a favour! The fact that Pride events happened without such sponsorship for many years, and continue to happen today, is presumably irrelevant. The notion that Pride could have an ethical sponsorship policy is ludicrous because…reasons. Even more absurd is the idea that Pride probably doesn’t really need a series of stages (costing in excess of £200,000) featuring a bunch of terrible acts no-one has heard of. Lest we forget, Pride is held around the anniversary of the Stonewall riots (bang on the day this year, in fact). It rather sticks in the craw that this event, commonly held to be the beginning of the modern radical LGBT liberation movement, is now an excuse for a company as mired in scandal, sleaze and immorality as Barclays to apply an easy gloss to its image. Any doubt that this is the main purpose behind their sponsorship should be put to rest by this odious interview in the Evening Standard, which glosses over “slashing jobs or preserving sky-high pay” to provide a Pride-based platform for the Barclays CEO to trumpet the company’s “ethical dimension” and its ‘diversity’. That’s quite handy just weeks after you’ve announced the sacking of almost 20,000 people. It’s handy when your bank has been the single largest supporter of the arms trade in the UK sector, profiting from the support and sale of arms to not-exactly-LGBT-friendly regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Uganda and supporting the manufacture of drones. It helps in avoiding unfortunate questions about your bank’s seemingly endless scandals, from Libor to money-laundering/sanction-busting to unwarranted bonuses to helping cause and profiting from the hunger and malnutrition of millions. Barclays is no friend of the LGBT community. It’s no friend of most of humanity. We owe it no gratitude and we certainly owe no loyalty to Pride in assisting with its pinkwashing. Instead, let’s in a small but meaningful way show them that we value the roots of Pride. We value liberation for everyone and will not allow our dignity to be commodified in the name of an abhorrent bank. The #freedomto say ‘not in our name’ is where real pride lies.

On being ‘Opinionated’ and ‘Contrary’

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A few weeks ago I read and was struck by a Counterpunch blog by Missy Comley Beattie called ‘I’m Obnoxious’. I was struck by it because I recognised myself as someone too “incompetent to do anything except express frustration with such intensity I’ve become un-fun”. I too have had the internal discussion, telling myself to just let it go for once, just shut up.

The piece has been in my mind again over the past couple of weeks owing to a couple of chats I’ve had with friends and some interactions I’ve seen online. The chats seemed to stem from my recent blog about e-petitions which really riled some people: a friend who shared it on his Facebook was told “shame on you!” for doing so. Many seemed to take the piece as a bad-natured attack on the good intentions of people who perhaps weren’t particularly engaged with the world – the line of reasoning that e-petitions ‘raise awareness’ was certainly the most common rejoinder. The fact that I explicitly didn’t attack e-petitions as a concept in themselves but rather the way in which they are most commonly used was completely lost but, I wondered, was that due to my tone?

Following from this, the chats with some friends were strange and uncomfortable. I was told that it wasn’t ‘my place’ to ‘correct people’, that it seemed like I had a chip on my shoulder, that I was too contrary, too opinionated. I had to ‘respect’ that people had different experiences and journeys and learned in different ways. The natural instinct when faced with this is, of course, to become defensive and shut down, which I was conscious of and tried to avoid (I failed). I’ve thought a lot since about what was said, however, because it really gets to the core of a lot of the things I’ve been writing about for the past couple of years.

I’ve written, for example, about relationships being spaces where “we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us”, a kind of narcissism where we make no effort to develop empathy. Make no mistake, empathy clearly isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to us – it’s something we practice and it’s arguably in decline. It’s easy to go from this to speaking about the rightward drift of politics in the Western world but here I’m interested in how this manifests in small, daily ways. Empathy isn’t just about feeling compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, it’s also respecting others as equals. I don’t even mean people in Uganda or Russia here, though clearly that’s relevant – I just mean the people you interact with on a daily basis. Part of that respect is surely feeling able to debate and challenge in the understanding that each has something to offer?

Now, believe me, I completely understand and still fall victim to the impulse to want to ‘win’ a debate when challenged. Indeed a big part of the reason why I’ve written about this stuff so much is that I recognise myself from a few years ago as one of those people who had the ‘right’ opinions and enjoyed the approval of peers for frequently voicing them. Yet as soon as I started moving away from this (kicked off by the Johann Hari plagiarism business and the responses to the London riots) the response was furious and fascinating. Terry Pratchett once wrote that:

People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.

That sounds arrogant, I know, but I don’t take ‘new things’ to mean that you are blowing the mind of the sheeple with your FACTS. Rather it just means having thoughts and opinions which go against the dominant and expected – and in the past few years, I’ve seen time and time again that many people really do not like it when this happens. Hence my interest when I discovered Sara Ahmed’s concept of ‘bad feeling‘ where anyone ‘out of line with an affective community’ is pathologised and alienated. The problem becomes them rather than anything they are saying.

Of course, tone is relevant and it’s all too easy to come across as arrogant and superior. On the other hand, however, we feel little concern for this when arguing about popular culture. We’ll happily insult each other’s taste in music, films, books and argue to the bitter end about them. We as a culture have little problem with mocking and belittling celebrities whom we perceive to be there ‘for us’.  Yet this is all done with a safe, ironic distance where we don’t really think what we’re saying is important. Once we’re onto ‘serious’ topics like politics, this goes out the window.

Instead it is replaced with a very odd dynamic where we feel absolutely entitled to our opinions and to enjoy the approval and validation which can come from expressing them, but are unwilling to have them seriously challenged. This is particularly noticeable on social media where people will write indignant statuses about Vladmir Putin or whatever, rack up the ‘likes’ ‘retweets’ and approving comments, and woe betide anyone who breaks the consensus. It’s perceived to be better to keep quiet than to challenge any of these opinions, as they are almost viewed as being the essential ‘core’ of the person expressing them. This is even true if the opinion contains flatly incorrect statements. The response to having these challenged is never ‘perhaps I should read more about this’, it’s always ‘this person is a dick for pointing this out’. This has been one of the core impulses at the bottom of the ‘rows’ over intersectionality, with the challenged frequently resorting to claiming that they are being ‘bullied’. The idea is that the people challenging them don’t really care about the issue at hand but instead just want to prove their superiority.

Social media is obviously a particular example because so much social context is missing that it’s a lot easier for an exchange to become adversarial. Yet the ‘real life’ contexts where we feel able to debate these things shrink ever further, as avoiding ‘serious’ subjects becomes expected of you not only at work but increasingly in social interactions. So many of us vent on social media – and that is surely why it matters that we feel able to challenge, debate, even argue? Is it really the end of the world if that happens? If we can try to remove our ego from the equation as much as possible, this seems to be one of the only ways we are ever going to progress in our understanding of the world. As we progress, we then think of different ways of expressing ourselves. We don’t have to have strident opinions on everything – instead we can seek out informed opinions on those things we know little about. For all the talk of me being opinionated etc, I do my utmost to avoid spouting off about things I know nothing about. You won’t have found me telling everyone what I think about the situation in Ukraine over the past few weeks, for example. Instead I’ve just been reading as much about it as I can. This urge to speak about everything is one of my big problems with the commentariat and also where much of my ‘contrariness’ comes from. I write because it helps me think things through (and yes, I largely enjoy sharing that work with people afterwards) so I tend to see no point in writing variations on dominant themes, even though this would be a much easier way to an audience. There are enough people out there writing good things on issues they know far more about than I do so, in the end, my blog is always a personal one. My tone is perhaps more belligerent than necessary a lot of the time but I think that’s partly a response to my experiences described above, where people really have responded with fury to me changing my mind about certain things. Perhaps you do internalise this and make it a part of your identity to head it off. I’ve lost friends over it and am well aware that I’m perceived by many to be a bit of an over-opinionated bitter dick. But I’m trying. I don’t want to ever reach a position where I feel that I know everything and don’t need to keep pushing myself forward. However bad it may sometimes feel, I want to keep being challenged and keep being reminded that I am not my opinions which, in the end, really don’t matter all that much. So I apologise if I know you and you ever feel like I’m being superior with you.  Akala put it best in the brilliant Find No Enemy:

It may sound like I’m bitter but in fact, truth be told, I am quite the opposite
I wake everyday and am overwhelmed
Just to be alive and be like no one else
And the sheer weight of the thought of space
Is enough to keep my little ego in place
All that we chase and try to replace all along it was right in our face
The only way we can ever change anything
Is to look in the mirror and find no enemy

The Real Cynicism Behind E-Petitions

I’ve already made my feelings about e-petitions clear and don’t wish to repeat my complaints but, dear God, I feel like I’m drowning in the fucking things. Increasingly it seems like the first response to any perceived injustice in the world is to rush to the computer and create an e-petition. The sad thing is that I haven’t always been so averse to them – no-one would have to convince me that they could play a part in engaged activism. Yet I think the way they are deployed is often counter-productive, even harmful. At the core of this harm is a profound and lazy arrogance. It’s completely absurd that any of us could sit at our computers and dot around the world, from e-petition to e-petition, and feel that we are ‘making a difference’. It’s even more ridiculous that we would feel that we had a right to do this. It would be charitable to say that the way e-petitions are wheeled out against non-Western countries carries an implicit message that they are barbaric and inhumane – because it often seems that this is the explicit intent. Those countries are bad; they do bad things; we enlightened Westerners need to save the poor people of those countries. Sign the petition! Read the paragraph of explanatory text and share, share, share! Don’t make the slightest effort to actually learn and think about what’s happening. Don’t engage with anyone within the countries we’re petitioning. Don’t consider for a second the West’s brutal and bloody history in almost all of these countries. Don’t dwell on the fact that our countries have been and continue to be built on the backs of the ‘developing world’ or that ‘aid’ could be more accurately called ‘reparations’ if it didn’t come with so many strings attached. Don’t get angry about the fact that our own governments and businesses continue to support and arm brutal regimes provided they are amenable to ‘our’ interests. And don’t for a second display the slightest self-awareness and focus on the shit our own governments do in our own countries. Instead, let’s tell ourselves we live in a comic book world of clear good and clear evil, where the good guys can fix things by entering their e-mail addresses.

Whenever I complain about e-petitions the response is predictable: “well what do you do about it?” As if signing a fucking e-petition is an unquestionable good and thinking that maybe we should shut the hell up, listen and learn is enabling tyranny. No, the truly fucked up position is one where we don’t hold our own governments, corporations and NGOs to account but instead unthinkingly buy into the notion that we are the saviours of a world that is otherwise populated by savages who don’t speak our language and more often than not don’t share our skin colour. The real arrogance is not in questioning the efficacy of a petition against the government of Uganda or Russia but in believing that these countries are so slack-jawed that they would be dictated to by 200,000 Westerners who’ve read a couple of articles in-between posting pop videos and memes.

There is a deep sense here that the people of these countries are lesser and beholden to superior Westerners, not only in terms of their politics but also with regards to their activism. The words of Ugandan activists like Sexual Minorities Uganda, led by Frank Mugisha, aren’t ringing around the world and there isn’t a clamour to support them. Instead everyone is sharing the umpteenth petition from AllOut.org, an American organisation which has already demonstrated that it has a shaky understanding of what’s happening at best while turning the situation into a fundraising opportunity. As you’ll see from that link, it’s not exactly the most transparent organisation when it comes to how it spends its money, much of which comes from donations. AllOut’s own website notes that:

All Out is a combined effort of two organizations – Purpose Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization focused on changing policy, and Purpose Foundation, a related 501(c)(3) charitable organization focused on education and changing culture.

Purpose Action had revenue of $1.78 million in 2012 and spent $334,657 campaigning for gay marriage in America and on engaging ‘more than 1,000,000 people globally on LGBT equality issues’. The latter presumably means…e-petitions. There is nothing about grants to organisations within countries like Uganda, Russia or Cameroon which give AllOut its most high-profile campaigns. It spent over $200,000 on ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ costs, and over $120,000 on the salary of its President.

Then there is Purpose Foundation which had revenue of over $1,000,000 and spent $1.2 million. Over $500,000 of this was on salaries and, again, ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ claim over $300,000.

Where things get really interesting is with the existence of a third organisation – Purpose Campaigns LLC. This is a consultancy firm which is FOR-PROFIT. It claims credit for AllOut, as well as Avaaz, on its website, where it also lists clear links with the World Economic Forum renowned for its Davos meetings of the world elite. Fascinatingly, both Purpose Action and Purpose Foundation employed Purpose Campaigns for ‘contracted services’ of over $120,000 (that I can see). All three organisations may share board members but don’t fret – apparently these people ‘did not participate’ in the decisions to hire themselves. Phew!

Even more fascinatingly, Purpose Campaigns were paid almost $400,000 by American billionaire conservative Pete Peterson to scaremonger about the American deficit and fuel his interests in dismantling Medicaid and other ‘safety net’ programmes. As that last link surmises, they appear to have been hired precisely because their progressive image made them a Trojan horse for the message – and that public image relies overwhelmingly on sites like Avaaz and AllOut.

It’s clear, then, that the people behind these sites not only have a massive material interest in pushing them but do almost nothing substantial in order to support the activists around the world whom they raise funds on the back of. If the neo-imperialistic overtones of these e-petitions weren’t clear before, they certainly are now. It should also be clear that e-petitions aren’t necessarily ‘doing something’. They aren’t necessarily useful. They aren’t necessarily informative or educational. They can be the cynical tools of clever people who get rich from them. Next time you read about something in some far-off country which shocks you, don’t click on the inevitable e-petition link. Go do some reading of your own and, if you truly want to help, devote time to educating yourself about the situation and what helping really means.

Some Quick Thoughts on Channel 4’s Hunted

I tried not to pre-judge Hunted, an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches about homophobia in Russia, broadcast tonight. I really did. Yet having just watched it I have to attempt to articulate the despair it induced in me.

The issue of homophobia in Russia has captured a massive international audience in the past year, in no small part due to the interventions of celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Harvey Fierstein. As stories of the hardships faced by Russia’s LGBT (but really mainly gay male) community have dramatically increased there have been concomitant protests in countless Western cities, boycotts of Russian vodka, a near-endless litany of e-petitions and a growing industry in ‘concern porn’ where any individual or company speaking about the issue is seemingly guaranteed a disproportionate amount of attention, no matter how irrelevant their intervention. I wrote previously about a lot of my problems with the growing hysteria, which seemed largely ill-informed and enormously hypocritical. I think it’s safe to say that the situation hasn’t improved – in fact, as Sochi has neared, the hysteria has grown. We need only look to yesterday to see examples of the self-serving drivel being pushed out in the name of the gays of Russia (it’s notable that the Brewdog ‘promotion’ continues with the itself-weirdly-homophobic ‘making fun of Putin’s masculinity and implying he’s a closet case’ tack taken by many already.)

Nonetheless, there is clearly a very real issue here and it’s entirely right that it be looked at. It’s also entirely right that we in the West help if we can. So when I learned that Channel 4’s respected documentary series Dispatches was covering the issue, I was quietly hopeful that it would do so in a constructive way. This hope largely faded when I learned that the episode was called Hunted, a provocatively emotive title which feeds into the frenzy that shows no sign of abating. Nonetheless, I wanted to give it a chance.

I wasn’t just disappointed, I was crushed. Dispatches had an hour to explore this issue and they used it largely to show various examples of gay people being beaten, harrassed, abused and denigrated. It was shocking and undeniably ‘powerful’ – absolutely no-one deserves to be treated in these ways. Yet what was the point? We’ve been told that these things are happening over and over again by the media. Showing the attacks certainly made them viscerally real but there was an added, horrible sense that we were voyeurs contributing to the humiliation of the victims. Were all of these individuals approached afterwards to give proper, reasoned consent to having their brutalisation shown on UK television?! Did the film-makers have any contact with them whatsoever beyond the actual incidents? After perhaps the most shocking and upsetting footage, where a man is lured to a flat by a gang and then attacked by them, we are told in voice-over that the film-makers followed the victim as he left to offer support. We learn nothing more. The victims on the whole remained just that – faceless victims without identity serving only to shock a UK audience.

As voyeurs watching acts of brutality we instinctively feel angry and want to help. Yet we also feel powerless. This is where the emotive rush to ‘do something, anything’ so easily enters and where the documentary could have made a real difference. Instead, it played to what the audience already ‘knew’ – it added almost nothing. It seemed to me, for example, that for the most part the documentary was actually about the rise of vigilantism in Putin’s Russia rather than the rise of homophobia. You wouldn’t know this because it made absolutely zero effort to contextualise the vigilante groups it kept showing, interviewing and even infiltrating. There was not a single mention of the fact that Russian vigilantism has been a major problem for immigrants and ethnic minorities as well as ‘social deviant’ groups such as drug users. It’s really not difficult to find journalism which gives this very important context. Scott Long’s blog post here is particularly good on it and you’ll learn more about the problem in reading it than from the hour spent with Hunted. The first few paragraph’s of Scott’s post are particularly relevant here. Note, for example:

Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’sa  ”horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it?  Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.

That could easily have been written about Hunted, which arouses an urge for quick action but tells you absolutely nothing about why any of this is going on. We kept being told than homophobia was on the rise in Russia but it was presented as some mass sociopathic tendency rather than something intricately connected to the rise in racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, attacks on the reproductive autonomy of women or the general human rights situation in the country. We were given a very brief interview with a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and told nothing about how or why they are such a major force in modern Russia. Perhaps most egregiously, the sole attempt to explore how homophobia may be a political tool for Putin (rather than some bizarre fixation) came in a couple of sentences from a Russian activist stating that his domestic policies were a disaster and he needed a smokescreen. This seems like a quite fundamental assertion to explore in an hour-long documentary about homophobia in Russia but it was left at that. If the documentary had looked at this more thoroughly, it would certainly have encountered the strong body of opinion that Putin is not only shoring up his conservative base with the homophobia, but also drawing on strong anti-Western sentiment. This joins some crucial dots when it comes to other big issues, as seen in this Al Jazeera piece:

This economic “stimulus” by Putin may jumpstart his flagging economy that was robust at the height of his popularity in 2000. He enjoyed a popularity built on oil and gas profits that have since dried up. No longer a media star, he has lost support and now tries to find it in his right wing flank with an official homophobic nationalism. This positions him against the West with its so-called excessive rights for gays and abortion. A new anti-Americanism thrives cloaked in a mix of homophobic nationalism and asylum for Edward Snowden.

It’s not difficult to see how Putin’s opposition to Western ‘intervention’ in Syria fits into this. It’s also impossible not to see how the ostentatious Western boycotts and clicktivism could fit right into Putin’s narrative and actually bolster his position.

Hunted had no interest in such analysis, instead viewing everything through the prism of an all-pervasive homophobia. The police hassling a couple of protesters was portrayed as being because they were gay, while the troubles faced by an anti-Putin schoolteacher were seen to be because she supported gay rights. No doubt homophobia played a role in both but it seems somewhat disingenuous not to note that brutal crackdowns on all dissent is a hallmark of Putin’s Russia. Indeed, without wishing for a second to downplay the horrors shown on screen in Hunted, the film’s determination to push its message meant that life for gay people was shown to be unremittingly grim and desperate. It’s fair to say that there are far more positive presentations of Russian gay life out there (and even the documentary’s repeated assertions that the state did nothing about anti-gay violence doesn’t bear scrutiny, with one of the main ringleaders of the vigilante groups facing extradition after fleeing the country).

In short, it seems to me that the film will do more harm than good. It had an opportunity to inform, to educate, to provide not only valuable but essential context to what’s happening in Russia. Instead it affirmed every nightmarish vision of a crazed, pariah country which needs to be saved from itself (rather than a country which our own leaders are all too happy to sell arms todo business with and buy fuel from).It continued to present homophobia as an issue separate from wider human rights, the kind of attitude which has seen ‘activists’ suddenly noticing that, hey, those evil conglomerates McDonald’s and Coca-Cola don’t seem to be very nice! The anger and despair it aroused will almost certainly be directed towards more social media updates, more e-petitions and more aimless demands that something be done. For me, that’s an unforgivable outcome for a film which showed such inhumane brutality.

For a far more constructive look at the question of ‘what is to be done’ with regards to the issue, this second Scott Long post is essential reading.

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.