How can you criticise human rights activism? It’s kinda like kicking a puppy, isn’t it? But I feel compelled to talk about activism critically, after reading this piece written by Manus Island whistleblower Liz Thompson.* In it she articulates why she recently declined a profile speaking gig at refugee support rally; and her concern about “lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people” in the “refugee movement” which is now dominated by white faces.
The revelations Thompson made about the situation at Manus Island were obviously important, particularly given the military-style secrecy shrouding the implementation of the policy. But her refusal to hog the spotlight at the expense of those directly affected by the policy is remarkably rare, and that this should be the case is something we should be talking about.
Thompson was criticised by many for the points she made in the piece – her discomfort at the ‘”refugee movement’s” celebration of her as a whistleblower, and the need for those in the movement to examine their privilege. But this is an attitude, which I’m finding increasingly uncommon in the world of activism: humility and a focus on what it is that activism and advocacy is trying to achieve. So, I’d like to add to this conversation, and talk a bit about ego and Personal Branding, which is now so pervasive in activism today. And I think we need to talk about this, because ultimately this endemic narcissism really is shutting down our ability to effectively orgnaise.
At its very core, activism is about social and political change. History’s greatest activists have focused on the issues, not themselves. But these days I find it hard to ascertain the motives of activists. Are they working towards the achievement of social change, or towards the enhancement of their LinkedIn or twitter profiles? Too often it seems the ingredients for activism are 80% narcissism, 20% organising skill, ethics and the rest. It’s more about the activist – their good deeds and heroicisms, and promoting said heroicisms on behalf of the organisation they represent.
Damn, this really does feel as terrible as kicking a puppy, really, but it needs to be said. Speaking out against human rights abuses cannot be a get out of jail of free card for your own indiscretions. And solidarity cannot be absolute, especially when it allows bad-faith to infiltrate and compromise objectives. That it has become so difficult to distinguish between activists working towards social change, and those using particular issues as a professional branding opportunities is extremely problematic – and we need to deal with it.
I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a thriving cohort of activist types here, and regularly hear tossers refer to “human rights being their thing”, being “largely interested in gender issues”, “environmental something or other”, blah blah blah [insert one of the innumerable things the world is worried about] being “their thing!” I’m now thirty and have only been around the activist community for ten years or so, and this shift has crept up on us somewhere in the last decade. No doubt it was a thing before this, but it now appears to be the dominant trend.
So, let’s get things straight. A plight is not a project. Human and societal failings are not areas of expertise to develop as your “thing”. A tragedy like that of the shooting death of a young on Manus Island is NOT a political or personal branding opportunity nor should it ever be.
This crap is happening at the personal level, but it also permeates organisations, campaigns and political processes. I witnessed with unease, the launch of the #withSyria campaign featuring the massive persona and artistic imagery of Bansky – a privileged (probably) white male. So loud is Banksy, and the calls to “join Banksy” that the #withSyria campaign is bereft of a genuine Syrian voice, and completely smothers the dedicated and often dangerous work of Syrian activists.
The cultivation of narcissism has slowly but surely crept into activist movements over a number of years, until here we are, dominated by privileged white noise. So what is going on? I suspect it probably does have something to do with the online profiling thing, and the feedback loop thing that academics and psychologists talk about (just bear with me here).
Existing in the online world has necessitated the cultivation of online presence and branding of our personas. And it seems, everybody who wants to be a fucking hero these days can and will be. The instant affirmation of “likes” and clicks has become a breeding ground for narcissists. We are stuck in feedback loop in which such attention-seeking behaviors are rewarded with online flattery and attention – thus perpetuating the cycle. Witness the selfie culture now adopted by activists: endless posts about their latest campaigns, and snaps with the “poor people” they claim to represent are now instantly rewarded by other chumps part of the same selfish movement. A system of perpetual buddy-praise – and we are conflating these virtual pats on the back with purpose and efficacy.
Amid all the energy being focused on the online sphere and all that fucken hot air and naval gazing that comes with it – it seems there are really very few examples of provocative and actually effective campaigning around today. There are campaigns, sure. But effective? As in, contributes in a measurable and meaningful way? We are #standingwithsyria – but how will this influence the political climate, the arms deals, how will it end the tyranny of vested interests and give rise to a peaceful inclusive Syrian future? We have Banksy…now what?
I argue, that there needs to be a comprehensive reassessment about our goals, and long hard consideration about the efficacy of our activism. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems like a LOT of the efforts of the past few years have been bloody useless. So, I guess what I’m saying is that when activist involvement causes confusion of motive, gives rise to fragmentation, or if it actually achieves very little of the intended social or political change – there needs to be a point at which activists take a big step back (and I’m looking at you privileged white folks here, but bad-faith comes in many guises). We need to have a long hard think, and to know when to sit the fuck down – because surprising as it may seem, at the end of the day it’s not actually about us, or the organisations we represent. If we want genuine social, political and economic change as profound as we claim – we need a fucking shake-up.
-Kate Grealy, @kategrealy
*A brief recap for those who don’t know: Australia’s system of exporting all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to a remote detention facility on Manus Island in PNG is largely staffed by contracted workers (and is operated by a private corporation). Liz Thompson was a contracted migration agent, and was sent to Manus Island to process asylum seeker claims. This process would, if genuinely intended to actually resettle refugees, would in fact result in resettlement. But Australia’s current policy is to deny resettlement here, and it will be effectively denied in PNG, because their cannot resettle them. Thompson was shocked at the directives to be willfully misleading in her work with the asylum seekers, and so decided to blow the lid on the farce of a “processing” system currently in place. She confirmed suspicions held by many, that “processing” simply involves paying contractors to provide asylum seekers with vague allusions to resettlement, while omitting the detail that resettlement is in actuality an impossibility with things being as they are. – Ed.