There is a good article at salon.com about the recent twitter craze over the events in Teheran. Of course, it is great that we care – that we tweet and re-tweet on demonstrations in Iran or that we join Facebook groups such as “I ♥ Iran”, “Palestine..you’re not alone..”, “Russia get your hands off of Georgia”, “For Every 1,000 that join this group I will donate $1 for Darfur” and so on. Nothing wrong with all of that.
I fully appreciate that for people caught in a plight such as refugees at Darfur, Palestinians during the Israeli bombing or Iranians now, such gestures of support can mean a lot – if they are among those lucky few who do have the language skills and technical means to actually see them. I am however rather skeptical about how useful such things ultimately can be. Is there anyone who REALLY believes that twitter will deter tanks? Or that, for instance, if there had been Facebook around in 1994 that this would have helped to avoid the Rwanda genocide? Or that those things (FB and twitter) even register on the scale of problems that those who send an army against their own people would consider?
As such, Facebook groups and other similar things are simply a digital part of the broader “ribbon culture” – a movement of awareness ribbons that got started in early years of the 20th century and really took off in 1990 with the red AIDS-awareness ribbon that Jeremy Irons wore during the Tony Awards. Since then, ribbons have become ubiquitous. Of course, the problem is not with “being aware” – which in itself is only laudable. The problem is with the fact that, for many people, putting on a ribbon or joining a group at Facebook pretty much settles the issue and lets them to go on about their own lives feeling that they’ve done their part. In her brilliant and important book about the awareness ribbon culture titled, appropriately, “Ribbon Culture”, Sarah Moore writes:
Both a kitsch fashion accessory, as well as an emblem that expresses empathy; it is a symbol that represents awareness, yet requires no knowledge of a cause; it appears to signal concern for others, but in fact priorities self-expression.
And this is where the issue gets thorny. Clicking “Join group” is very easy and, even more importantly, free. And not necessarily free in terms of money – as awareness ribbons often do cost something – but in terms of sacrifices we would have to make in our own lives. And when it comes to that – i.e. making sacrifices – then our collective will to stand for causes such as “Free Tibet” or “Stop FGM” all but evaporates. We demand resolutely that people in Congo stop killing other people in Congo, but when it comes to a question of relaxing immigration laws we suddenly think that people should stay where they were born – even if they risk getting killed by a stray bullet or would have their children dying to malaria. The occupation of Tibet is conveniently forgotten and put aside at the sublime moment of joy and national pride upon winning an Olympic medal (those who read Estonian can find a very good essay on that particular topic here). We buy Fair Trade coffee but at the same time vote for customs and subsidies that “protect the local agriculture”.
I guess this is what Kant had in mind when he said that generosity is a vice – in the world that is just there simply would be no need for it.