“All the good causes are taken,” a student complained to her friend after they’d waited for twenty minutes in line to get a free sausage from the Refugee Rights Club barbeque during O-Week. Just about everyone had put their name down for something and the lists were looking pretty full (as were the bins full of wrappers of lollipops used as bribes). It occurred to me that people were probably already diverting their ‘Welcome’ emails to ‘Trash’. What were we really signing up for? Were we scrawling our names in support of a cause dear to our hearts, or was this a means of promoting a particular self-image?
I remember one afternoon in kindergarten when we were asked to construct a collage of ourselves and all the things that mattered to us. Our school photo was to be pasted in the middle, with pipe-cleaner arrows branching out to the things we cared about. No sooner had my little fingers reached out for the tube of non-toxic Clag paste than a girl was leaning over my shoulder, curious to see what I’d cut out. I covered my piece of paper protectively, not wanting her to copy my deeply original ideas (goldfish and birthday cake, as I recall). I still remember that possessive feeling of ‘mine’ that I associated with the things I cared about, even if the goldfish was only mine for two weeks before I killed it with love and fish food.
Of course I didn’t own the right to care about goldfish more than any other kindergartener, but my four-year-old self was far too wrapped up in an identity crisis to care about that. If someone had explained to me the notion of intellectual property law back then, I probably would have applied for a patent. Loving goldfish had become my purpose in life (for a solid two weeks, at least). I wanted to own that feeling like no one else could and for that ownership to be seen.
Before we reach a certain age of awareness, we are slower to register the social value of a caring action – our efforts are less guided by how we expect others to receive them. My fish obsession began as a solitary pastime. It didn’t take long, however, before I understood that what I cared about could influence those around me. By the age of seven or eight, I was buying into an exclusive group of pet-lovers who liked playing God to a miniverse the same way I did. My camera had fewer megapixels than a Nintendo 64, but I relished sharing my grainy photos of Lotti the fish and the mixture of envy and admiration with which they were received. Slowly, the image of ownership preceded the happiness of the ownership itself.
Our culture at large tells us we can possess social movements in the same way. $50 for an emblazoned Amnesty t-shirt, $70 for an Oxfam tote bag. These are important revenue streams for non-profit organisations, but the resulting effect is that we give, but expect something beyond good karma in return. We want to be seen for our social conscience and applauded for our moral virtue. Search through indiegogo.com and other kickstarter websites, and you’ll see that causes requesting sponsorship are now expected to cough up rewards. The more you give, the more jars of Grandma Helen’s homemade jam you can expect to be smearing on your toast for the next year-and-a-half. Though perhaps the ‘give and be rewarded’ model is not a new phenomenon, the performance of the American Charity Ball and the cause ‘du jour’ being a long philanthropic tradition.
It’s not always jam and handwritten certificates. There is social kudos that comes with posting an article or adding pithy insights to an ignorant Facebook status. Social media is an important awareness-raising platform and I’m as guilty as the next person of reposting articles and plugging events. On the same score, we live in a button-pushing culture that encourages hasty, unreflective conclusions about moral responsibility.
Scrolling down my Facebook feed, I see link after link to articles and ePetitions. It’s almost reflexive: we know the promise of hitting 500 signatures for a “just outcome for live cattle exports” is too good to be true, but we sign them anyway, rarely stopping to read beyond the headline and instead repost the link to our own walls. It might not be with the intention of self-promotion, but a degree of postulation is inevitable.
Just as children have a tendency to over-simplify to make sense of the world, Facebook and Twitter achieve similar reductions. We appropriate movements in condensed sound bites. We become consumed with how best to communicate an issue in 150 characters. Dangerous ‘good guy, bad guy’ binaries emerge in movements like #Kony2012, where the lines are drawn in black and white, victim and saviour. Few would dispute that it over-simplified a complicated picture of political, economic and social factors in the interest of capturing the public’s fleeting attention.
The comments in the line for the barbecue or Facebook ‘slactervism’ reflect a culture of self-interest and surface, where good intentions lead individuals to collect social movements as badges of their progressive identity. Just as my younger self put value on being seen to own the fishbowl, the marketisation of movements allows us to advertise support for a cause to our classmates online.
The world of social media is a circular call to arms that brings us a comforting sense of closure with every click of the Enter key.