23 May 2014

What to do, or, is something-anything- better than nothing.

Just me thinking out loud.  No real need to read beyond this point.

I have been thinking about the response the effort on to twitter to do- something- about the Nigerian slave trade, and the reaction by various people on the web to this 'effort.'   For those who haven't heard, various stars and celebrities, including Michelle Obama, have posted selfies on twitter where they hold signs saying bring back our girls.  This effort actually began with the Nigerian mothers posting such pictures.  The American celebrities have attempted to popularise the trend.

I first heard about this at Monster Hunter Nation Larry Correia's post Operation Pouty Face, wherein he mocks the effort and states it will achieve nothing.  And I thought he had a point.  Then I saw Dale Price's What the "Power of Hashtag" says about us which quoted and linked to an article in the National Review entitled The Narcissistic Creed.  The thrust of that article was to lament that the world has reached a point where a person's first reaction upon being confronted by a grave evil is to say:: “You know what this situation really calls for? A cutesy picture of . . . me!” And I thought he had a point.

I read of no defence of the Bring Back Our Girls Twitter campaign until I read one over at Mark Shea's blog. In his post Things I don't Understand Shea states "Sure, it’s not going to end sex slavery, but so what? Patricia Heaton won’t overturn Roe either. But what’s wrong with making a statement about an obvious moral evil? If it influence one person, seems worth it to me.  Shouldn’t we be thankful that somebody is speaking against that evil instead of spending their fame on hookers and cocaine?"  And I thought to myself, he has a point too.

So how can they all have points?

The National Review story touches on how I believe this happens.  The author tells the story that has become a fundamental part of my worldview:  The blind men and the elephant.  In the story, each blind man touches a different part of the elephant- trunk, tusk, ear, side, leg- and comes to a different conclusion about the nature of the elephant- it's a snake, spear, leaf, wall, tree- and begin arguing amongst themselves about what the elephant truly is.  The National Review Author uses this story as a point to attack the campaign, for, in his view, the celebrities aren't even trying to see the elephant any more, and are only touching themselves.

For me, the campaign becomes another elephant of sorts, and each person's reaction to it is a response to the part of the elephant they have touched.  Their articles, in turn, become another beast for their readers, including myself, to touch, interact with, and in our own ways, get wrong.

The campaign is an effort, in its heart, to raise public awareness about this horrible issue and ultimately inspire people to do -something- about it.  It is not an entirely dishonourable project and similar efforts have had some success in the past.  Dickens, for example, championed and achieved many reforms by raising awareness about social issues through his writings.  On the issue of slavery itself, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin raised awareness of the evils of slavery and was a factor in bringing about the American Civil War, which ended the practise in America.  So Shea is correct in his point:  Using their fame to try and raise awareness is not in and of itself bad.  The Vatican itself seems to have recognised this, as they retweeted Michelle Obama's picture.  For many commentators, this merely confirmed their opinion that Francis is the Anti-Pope.  I won't be touching that elephant today.  Or any other day, most likely.

However, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message.  Each medium carries its own message in its own way.  In the case of Dickens and Stowe, their medium was books.  People had to invest time and effort into reading a book.  Books convey large amounts of information and require focus and concentration.  Twitter can spread quickly, but it can do little more than pass on a slogan.  It requires little investment and concentration.  (I say this as an observer.  I almost never read any tweets, and for myself, my next tweet shall be my first.) People who read their works had time to become emotionally invested, outraged, that their outrage and determination to do something would last.  This hashtag campaign is aimed at people whose attention span lasts for 140 characters at a time.  They are used to getting outraged at a hundred different things a day, and then they move on to their next tweet.  The likelihood of anything coming from it is minuscule.

So what should be done?  Honestly, I don't know.  Many bloggers want someone else to do something, as in government intervention in some form, and it seems more likely that this will have more effect than a group of sad looking celebrities.  But governments are moved by popular opinions, and maybe a campaign like this can get government to start moving in such directions.

At the heart of this, for me, is this question:  Have these celebrities done something, or have they really done nothing?  In one of the Screwtape Letters, (I don't know which one, I don't have my copy at hand and am far too lazy to look it up) the good Uncle points out to his nephew how many of the human patients in their care fancy for themselves the good they would do if only they had the means and the ability, but since they don't, they do nothing.  These humans fancy themselves to be good, for they would be, if only they were someone or something else,  while they do no actual good.  Thus, their virtues are imaginary while their vices are very, very real.

Have these people done something real and laudable, or have they really done nothing while making themselves feel good that they took a few seconds out of their self indulgent day to post a socially responsible selfie?  As I see it, it can be argued either way.  Have the people who condemn their efforts done anything?

Neither have I. 

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