Empty Causes

If you’re somewhat active on Twitter, I’m sure you’ve seen the constant updates regarding the issue in Iran (for those that aren’t aware…well…look it up. It’s kinda big). You also may have noticed that many of the user avatars having a nice green overlay to them. It’s to support democracy in Iran, or so I’ve heard. While the gesture is nice, I think people are missing the point. Whether it’s green icons, a ribbon sticker on your car, or any other adoption of a cause, the simple acts people take do not give it any more credence.

I love sarcastic comedy, that’s not a secret. And when I say this twitter update from Michael Ian Black regarding Iran, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Iran - Michael Ian Black Twitter Update

The point is this: if you want to make a difference, then do it. I highly doubt that any of the current leaders in Iran noticed the sea of green avatars and decided to change their views on democracy. I also didn’t see the issue (as of yet) get resolved in the way many folks were clammoring for. Greg Graffin put it well back in December 1998 in an essay titled “Web-Surdites” (original link not available, fan page listed here). In short,

The internet is so anonymous, and such a poor gauge of the emotional status of its users, that it is hard to verify if the words and pictures you are seeing were even generated by a human being at all.

Let us not blunder and assume that behaviors such as protest marches, sit-ins, benefit concerts, lectures, and other social gatherings can be reduced to electronic media that effectively filter out all human emotional connections. How do we measure the seriousness of a cause? We see it and experience it with our senses.

It was correct in 1998, and it’s still correct now. There are many people out there that are actively involved in a cause that they believe in, both foreign and domestic. But to do some small gesture electronically, then go about your day, seems to be a bit empty.

{ 8 comments }

Andre Blackman June 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Yes. Yes. and more yes. It’s becoming increasingly easy to lay back and talk about what should happen (or to create conferences where the insiders can yak to more insiders about what should be happening) and not do anything concrete about it.

From what I understand from a philanthropic Twitter person that I cannot remember, the term has been coined: slacktivism. Activism from the comfort of your computer screen or couch.

It’s not going to cut it. Not by a long shot.

Norcross June 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm

“Slacktivism”. I like that. And it’s a pretty good description of what happens all too often. People will get behind a cause as long as it doesn’t involve any actual effort.

Susan Pogorzelski June 30, 2009 at 7:56 am

Andrew: I see two sides to this. On the one hand, I agree with both you and Andre in regards to activism. If there’s a cause you feel strongly for then you absolutely should do whatever you can for that cause — volunteer, awareness, fundraisers…

However, on that flip side, I think in the arena of international affairs, people aren’t sure how they can help, and so they try to find some small way to lend/show their support — whether that be by those car ribbons or turning their avatars green. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with this, I just think that people aren’t sure of how they can help with such issues, and so they believe even the smallest gesture might help. Because aren’t these things meant to get people talking in the first place? Someone asks what’s up with all those green films and you discuss the situation in Iran?

I don’t know — I personally believe in activism for the causes you feel passionate about, but I can understand where some people are coming from. Sometimes you just want to show your support. Maybe, in some small way, that can make a difference, too.

Awesome post, Andrew!

Norcross June 30, 2009 at 9:27 am

I agree that many people aren’t sure how to contribute, especially when it comes to international affairs. However, something like the green avatar or the yellow ribbon becomes almost a social action, i.e. being “part of a club”. They didn’t care about the last 50 years of Iranian struggle, and probably won’t care in a few weeks. Why bandwagon?

Also, I think it cheapens the acts of those people who have been working tirelessly towards those causes for a long time. It wasn’t trendy for them to care. They did because it meant something to them.

Matt Cheuvront June 30, 2009 at 11:52 am

Somehow I didn’t put two and two together and realize that you were the author of this blog Andrew. But, I just subscribed and now I know where to find you.

Things like this have become ‘trendy’ – It’s almost like it’s cool to care even if you don’t really give a shit. So many people out there are acting all philantropic because they think they’ll look cool if they give a damn. Like you said, it really is an insult to the people who are out there doing everything they can offline to support whatever that cause my be.

But, on the other token – these ideas, such as the green overlay on twitter – DO raise awareness. Even if the individual isn’t out there doing much, over the past few weeks, people have learned what that green overlay means, and if even ONE person got something out of it and translated that into real, tangible, offline advocacy, wouldn’t you say that it was a success? The glass half empty perspective is that this is an ‘empty cause’ but when siding with optimism, it can be seen as a way to raise awareness, even if 75% of the people really don’t care at all. Something to think about.

Norcross June 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

If it were 75% / 25%, then I’d be happy as all heck (and probably have a green avatar to boot), but sadly I would be surprised if even 0.01% did something. I go back to a cornerstone of my whole belief system:

“Faith without works is dead.”

I don’t see a green avatar as fulfilling the “works” part. Do you?

cooper July 1, 2009 at 11:12 am

I don’t worry so much about the green ribbons or what not, I think the people in Iran are posting because they want to be heard and in some way it is our responsibility to at least let them know we are behind them. What is mindless to me is the hundreds of posting on Iran by people who want to promote their blogs simply by being members of some kind of blog event.
I wrote a week or so ago about this and wrote this then -
“Be that as it may I found that some of the bloggers, those with no previous knowledge of Iran, it’s history or our policy history with Iran, had over the last week educated themselves, one going far back into ancient history and then going forward, if in a cursory manner, and that really is not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. ”
That is my general feeling. I think there is no way in knowing what people are doing offline regarding any given cause, but you may be statistically close. In the case of Iran there is little action to be taken except that at this time.

In general there is a lot of that online.Just look at thousands of people posting as experts on one subject or another when it’s obvious they can barely write, never mind be experts or give advice.

Norcross July 1, 2009 at 11:16 am

I tend to agree with the idea that showing support can be a good thing, even if it’s something that you can’t have a direct influence on. It’s just frustrating to me when folks adopt a cause they have no real interest in whatsoever, and drop it as quickly as the next one comes.