A Cheap Holiday In Other People’s Misery

The depressing spectacle of the people and global corporations who use tragedy, anger and fear to boost their profile and make money.

One of the popular catchphrases to emerge in recent years from academic activism is “silence is violence” – the idea that if you don’t publicly state your opinion or position on a social or global issue, then you are by default supporting the oppressors. It’s a curiously nagging bit of theory, not that far removed from the idea of thought-crime or the actions of dictatorships where people who simply don’t feel that they want or need to state their beliefs on often complex and nuanced issues – to show that they are on “the right side of history” – are bullied and demonised for not speaking out. Of course, what might seem a straightforward choice between two positions is often not quite that simple and frequently muddied by extremists who deliberately hijack a cause to push a particularly extreme and divisive agenda. A position might (indeed, should) be a very personal and considered one, often requiring nuance and explanation – but any variation from the ‘official’ position is then seen as an unacceptable fudge because those same extremists are often the loudest voices in the room and for them, it’s all or nothing. They expect you to unquestioningly fall in line and parrot their talking points without actually bothering to delve into the sometimes conflicting and messy facts. Trying to express a thought-out idea can often result in you being attacked by both sides in an argument so no wonder people simply go all-in on one side or another without even bothering to explore the background. In a world where ill-informed commentary is omnipresent, maybe just shutting is the most admirable reaction.

Of course, if you are a business or organisation looking for some free publicity or an individual desperately feeding on social media attention, then nothing is more effective than making a suitably supportive/condemnatory statement about a current news story. We’ve seen before how narcissists love to jump onboard global events, socio-political debates and injustices to boost their followers and Likes. Now, the awful war in Ukraine has given an opportunity to people again to show how jolly decent/better informed than you they are without actually having to do anything.

Now, before I go on, let’s make something very clear – because I know how easy it is for people to misunderstand and misrepresent a piece like this. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is genuinely appalling and its apologists – from the Q-fixated Far-Right lunatics who see this as part of some mad prophecy to unreconstructed Communists who can’t sever that traditional connection even though Russia is no longer a remotely Communist country – are just the worst. Similarly, the military Hawks and scare-mongering media’s lust for this to somehow expand into a wider conflict – even though we all know where that leads – is pure insanity. Those people who are out there doing what they can to help support the Ukrainian people, be it by fund-raising efforts or other practical means, deserve all the support in the world and those few who are protesting publicly – especially those Russians doing so at great personal risk in their own country – should be greatly admired.

Powerfully effective and worthwhile anonymous protest across the road from the Russian Embassy in London

But… when I see a corporate business expressing its ‘solidarity’ with or support for Ukraine without any evidence of that ‘support’ being anything beyond a social media post or asking customers rather than shareholders to make donations at the checkout, my eyebrows raise somewhat. When I get press releases from businesses and bands telling me about their support – and I’ve had a few in the last month – I’m immediately suspicious about what’s in it for them, especially when those PRs are usually very much about promoting the company or the artist over the actual cause. I’m even suspicious about acts who rush-release songs in support of Ukraine and donate the profits to the cause because giving away the profits to a download is perhaps not that much of a sacrifice if you also get loads of free and positive publicity for your obscure group on the back of it – not all profit is financial and just as we saw the acts who ‘selflessly’ gave their time to perform at Live Aid immediately reap the benefit with hugely increased record sales, so this sort of thing often feels like someone is cashing in. Yes, there is the fine tradition of the protest song and of course, even the angriest of those will have boosted the profile of the artist as much as it raised awareness of a cause – but the unseemly haste in which some people have latched onto this horror to make themselves seem important feels a bit off. Perhaps social media has simply made me jaded – it’s hard not to be when you see people who think that just posting an image of a flag on Instagram is the same as going on a march or who make a heartfelt social statement or angry take that is quickly followed with details of their Patreon link when it blows up on Twitter.

It’s the same with celebrities who use tragedy or outrage to boost their profile. Again, they can push it too far – when that dreadfully self-indulgent and widely ridiculed Imagine video did the rounds at the start of the pandemic, it seemed for one glorious moment as though celebrity culture itself might finally be taking a back seat to real-world problems, though of course, that was just wishful thinking – but we should never underestimate just how many people will give the fame-hungry the affirmative attention that they seek without ever asking if they are doing anything more practical than making an empty gesture. There are certainly exceptions – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s heartfelt recent message to the Russian people was genuinely powerful and emotive, and you can’t imagine that he really needs the sort of public affirmation and praise that passing celebrities with overblown senses of their own importance do; he’s probably way beyond that now. But when Bono – the ego-driven rock star who has continually offered support and solace to corrupt regimes and institutions – writes a pro-Ukraine poem (which is then handed to US-HoR speaker Nancy Pelosi to read during a St Patrick’s Day event), it’s hard not to feel a bit sick.

Some people trying to cash in on tragedy and outrage overstep the mark with their blatant commercial zeal, or else so misread the room that they are immediately shamed for their crass behaviour. But we’ve had social media and social media managers long enough for most big businesses – who we might remember are happy to treat employees like shit, grind competition underfoot and do whatever dodgy deals with corrupt regimes that they calculate will fly under the radar – to be able to put a convincing front onto their questionable altruism. We should always remember that these companies are rather selective in their commitment to social justice and will be less gung ho about gay rights, women’s rights or any other human rights in those countries that rather look down on those things. It’s easy to support liberal causes in liberal democracies; a bit less profitable to do so in the places where those messages are much more necessary but might cost you money. You might wonder why, if these companies are so concerned about these issues, they carry on doing business in countries run by oppressive regimes – any oppressive regimes, not just the ones that are currently dominating our thoughts – but I think we all know the answer to that.

In 1969, Edwin Starr asked, “war – what is it good for?”. In 1992, Laibach did a cover version of his hit song that spelt out exactly what (or who) it was good for, listing the global corporations and media companies who always do very well out of conflict, thank you very much. We’ve come a long way since then. Social media now means that everyone can profit – perhaps not financially, but certainly in those juicy, juicy ‘likes’ and retweets that are worth more than money to the narcissist – with the minimum of effort. Don’t get me wrong – I understand the need that people have to express their thoughts on terrible events. If you feel helpless, despairing, scared or confused, it’s good psychologically to share that and know that you are not alone. However, it’s probably not so great to then search the topic on social media where fake news, misleading information, rebadged videos, scaremongering, ill-informed but convincing theorising and the worst possible Hot Takes from the lunatic fringe are rife – no one ever comes away from social media feeling better about things because there are no clicks in reassurance and lots of attention and money to be gained from spreading rumour, hysteria and lies so blatant that people end up believing them because it seems impossible that someone would make this shit up. Whether it is done for propaganda or lolz, attention or money, the results are the same. Once upon a time, it was a biased and manipulative media that controlled our narratives – today, that power is in the hands of whoever has the desire and obsessiveness to use it. The bigger the lie, the scarier the claim, the more it is amplified. Everyone, it seems, is a tabloid now.


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