Monday, April 27, 2015

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Can Feel-Good Activism Save the World?

Think Africa Press speaks to theorist Lilie Chouliaraki about how solidarity has become a consumerist choice rather than a conviction, and more about ourselves than others.
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A crowd of students wearing matching Invisible Children t-shirts. Photograph by Sawyer Pangborn.

‘Doing good’ has never been easier. As clever charity adverts and glamorous celebrity activists insist, all you have to do is send a text to donate a dollar, click a button to share an appeal, wear a wristband to show your support, or sponsor a friend to run a mile.

But this isn’t the revolution everyone wants. Critics call this kind of effortless engagement ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ and denounce its narcissistic, celebrity-saturated, easy-come-easy-go nature. Meanwhile, proponents insist it does the job and say that engagement is only an inch deep if it stops there; who’s to say today’s uninformed clicktivist won’t go on to become tomorrow’s expert activist?

For the most part, the debate stops there – critics armed with scorn, defenders with balance sheets. One of the few exceptions to this polarised debate, however, is media and communications theorist Lilie Chouliaraki.

In her incisive, thoroughly engaging and accessibly-written new book, The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism, Chouliaraki critically examines new forms of humanitarian engagement and communication. In looking at charity appeals, celebrity activism, rock concerts, and news reporting, Chouliaraki outlines a recent shift towards consumerist marketing strategies, and attempts to work out what they tells us about contemporary Western understandings of solidarity and morality.

She spoke to Think Africa Press about her findings:

What overarching questions were you trying to answer in The Ironic Spectator?

There are two main questions. The first was a general question about how we communicate the suffering and vulnerability of others, something the field of development has struggled over for decades. The debate has been there forever – and it is a moral and political rather than just an aesthetic debate – but I thought we weren’t getting very satisfactory responses. I felt we needed to revisit those questions, approaching the topic in a different way or with a fresh perspective.

The second question – and the main trigger for the book – was a recent trend in charity campaigns. New forms of campaigning have emerged, which are very advanced in the way they market international humanitarian brands, but in doing so employ a new logic to previous forms of humanitarian communication. I was intrigued by these new campaigns’ clean aesthetic, their sanitisation of the message, their total focus on the consumer, and their suppression of the sufferer in their messages. I theorise this new logic as ‘post-humanitarian’ and wanted to understand what these new manifestations tell us about where we are today in terms of representing vulnerability.

Could you elaborate on what do you mean by ‘post-humanitarian’?

Post-humanitarian campaigns rely on a set of aesthetic choices that move away from traditional portrayals of suffering others, both negative and positive.

Negative portrayals – which emerged after colonialism but are still seen today – show sufferers in pure destitution, as passive and as lacking agency; sick children lying down, helpless and emaciated for example (see below). They try to illicit feelings of guilt in viewers to push them to donate.

Negative Image

Positive portrayals emerged out of a new consciousness in the mid-1980s around the time of Live Aid and in response to a growing critique over how we depict Africa. This new ‘positive’ imagery reversed the negative stereotype, but remained a stereotype in that it was all too positive (see below). Campaigners were well-intentioned in wanting to foster more empathy and identification with victims, but the result was that you almost couldn’t see the need to donate as there seemed to be nothing different between the supposed sufferers and viewers.

Positive Image

The post-humanitarian aesthetic is a response to those two problematic forms of representation. Charities asked ‘if neither negative nor positive imagery works, what can we do?’ The answer I think they came up with was simply to do away with sufferers altogether and focus appeals on those who give, treating citizens as consumers in the same way any market brand does. ActionAid’s Find Your Feeling appeal, Oxfam’s Be Humankind or the very successful Kony2012 campaign are examples of this new aesthetic style.

Post-humanitarian Image

What are the consequences of this shift?

There are two main consequences: Firstly, it takes those who suffer outside the field of representation. They are not there most of the time and if they are, they are there in a metaphorical way where we can’t really see them and can’t really connect with them. Secondly, post-humanitarian appeals take away the reason we should be acting. It is as if justification does not matter any more. This is perhaps because charities figure that we already know why we give, that we already associate with a brand, or that we are sick and tired of listening to reasons.

These changes, in turn, crucially alter the nature of the solidarity these messages are ‘selling’ to us. Our solidarity towards vulnerable others, they seem to say, no longer has to rely on conviction and on the values of care and social justice as before, but is more a matter of individual choice – for instance the choice to click donate, buy a Christmas present, do an online quiz, follow a favourite celebrity and so on. Solidarity here becomes a lifestyle choice – one of the many we have in our consumer culture to make us ‘feel good’. The term ‘post-humanitarian’ thus signals that we are moving away from the moral values of care for the other and social justice that motivated humanitarian communication in the past.

Many in the development sector say that given the celebrity-driven, consumerist culture we live in, these branded marketing strategies are the only way to get people to have any engagement.

Yes, that’s right and I understand why campaigners are using post-humanitarian strategies. It is exactly this celebrity, showbiz environment which so much contributes to enabling and legitimising these approaches.

In the book, I make some recommendations as to how to move on from here and I refer to examples of existing practices that can combine marketing with an adherence to social values. But for now, let me just point out that if you always play the game under terms that are already set for you by the market, then you are always going to have to adopt logics that are foreign to you and that somehow contaminate or distort your message to the extent you don’t have control over it any more.

But why does this matter? After all, levels of donations have been rising.

Yes, donations have been rising in the UK in recent years, which is very good. But at the same time, relevant studies suggest that we have seen a fall in the quality of public engagement (for instance, Henson and Lindstrom 2010 or Darnton and Martin 2011). People are giving but don’t seem to care.

Now we cannot know everything about everything, and we cannot care with the same intensity about everything. But between that and the opposite end of the continuum – a consumer with a standing order every month because it makes him or her feel good – there is a whole range of moral and political positions we might want to explore and seek to adopt.

Why should we do that? I think that comes down to the fundamental question of values. We live in a world that extends beyond us and we need to ask ourselves whether we have a responsibility to care about what is going on in this world. If the answer is yes, which I hope it is for most of us, then there is hope. But without that fundamental sense of care, the world is not going to be a good place for anyone – including ourselves, but particularly for those who are in need. Money isn’t enough. We need some degree of emotional connection and a sense of understanding that doesn’t have to be a deep, complicated sense of expertise about things, but a sense of ‘I know what’s going on, I know the reasons I’m giving, and I can do more if needed’.

Humanitarian communication plays a paramount role in this process of ‘moral education’. This is why it should not only be about marketing but also about cultivating this sense of latent alertness – what one might call ‘monitorial cosmopolitan citizenship’. You’re there, you watch, you know. You don’t have to act, but you’re certainly not just engulfed in your own concerns and narcissistic view of the world.

Humanitarian organisations justify corporate-style marketing strategies by saying they are the initial step in cultivating greater engagement. Glitzy adverts or celebrities draw in lots of people in the hope some of them will go on to learn more – it’s not one or the other.

I think that is exactly the logic behind it, and it might work for some people – I’m sure it does work for some people – but I wonder if this is enough. And, as I mentioned earlier, overall, people’s self-reported concern about world poverty and humanitarian issues is falling.

We must ask ourselves: Do we want to see humanitarian engagement as a marketplace in which organisations fish for customers who might then come closer and become faithful to a particular product? Do we want charities to be more like corporations which adopt market strategies and vie for customers using all sorts of promotional devices, which may end up educating some, but only some rather than all? Or do we want, in a consistent manner, to keep an important civic conversation going about who these people are and why we should care about them?

How then could the development sector go about cultivating a more genuine sense of solidarity?

In my book, I make two broad suggestions:

Firstly, bring those who suffer – the whole point of why humanitarianism exists – back in. Let them speak so we can hear their voices, because that has happened at no point in the past and it is not happening now either. Create some form of communication and some form of interaction. It can be minimal and imaginative but let them talk and let us listen and, even, interact with them so we can start engaging with them in different ways.

Secondly, bring justification back in. Remind us, subtly but constantly, as to why this is important. There’s a concern for social justice that we tend to forget, particularly in this celebrity showbiz culture. We must keep focussing on how to create the conditions so that these types of suffering don’t exist anymore and on how we can struggle for a society in which the value of social justice is there in our vision constantly.

Opening up that space where we aren’t just seduced and don’t just donate, tweet or click is incredibly important. It may be hard but we need to try to keep alive the idea and ideal of a society of cosmopolitan citizens, rather than self-satisfied consumers.

More broadly speaking, the development sector has to become more sceptical about the basis of its business, which has become completely number-driven. At the moment, it is driven by concerns for efficiency and getting more donations. Similarly, nowadays those working in development studies (academics and policy-makers) have, for the most part, little interest in understanding relations of power and histories and cultures. The field has simply become concerned with how to manage to the micro-finances of nations so they can manage their debts.

Those in the development sector and development studies need more scepticism, a more critical attitude, and a return to the more fundamental questions of humanity and solidarity that go beyond the market and beyond numbers.

The photographs above are by Cate Turton/DfID (negative image), Adam Cohn (positive image) and Ryohei Noda (post-humanitarian image).

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Extremely interesting article which reflects something I have been researching lately. I would be interested in knowing what people think the reasons are for this shift in consumers' habits. The Kony2012 campaign was very interesting in terms of looking at new ways of engaging young people, but also made me wonder whether it would utimately be effective.Thank you for such an interesting article. 

Great article, James. I agree with much of what you say. And thanks for referencing the Finding Frames report. 

After about five years of studying these things, in various contexts, I think there is one point you skirt round but don't quite land on in your article. And that's that there is a far wider world of context out there than we often don't know how to handle, and that a good way to handle this is by looking at the science, rather than our intuition. That's one of the things Andrew Darnton and I tried to say with the format and content of the Finding Frames report - there is science to understanding this. And one thing that science tells us is that there are deeper trends at work than we often give credit to. When it comes caring about poverty, we are witnessing some very troubling things at a deep psychological level, certainly in western societies and increasingly globally, namely the rise in individualism. This is spurred on by ubiquitous commerical advertising that constantly - you might say relentlessly - validates the idea that "I" am the most important thing in the universe. And not only that, that I am - or should be - dissatisfied and constantly striving to look, be, dress, sound better. This of course requires a lot of time and attention.  It also requires a very particular slant to my view of the world. If you look at the values literature, you can see that there is a direct relationship between how much we focus on this, and how much we tend to focus on caring for others, or indeed the planet. So in the great battle to engender a more compassionate, caring world, in which we have greater protensity to care for nature and each other, one of the biggest forces we chould be campaigning against is commercial advertising. It is having a profound and antagonistic impact on our ability to care. 

As you say, we should definitely be concerned with the obsession with celebrity and comms, and treating the supporter like a consumer of our 'products'. But I'd go further and say that tackling the root drivers of the culture of consumerism, rather than just the tendency of campaigners to follow that culture, is where we might find the most powerful levels of change. 

Thanks very much for your comment, Martin. If I'd listed a couple more exceptions to the polarised debate I mention in the intro to the interview, your report with Andrew Darnton would've been top of the list. 

I think you are spot on with both the points you make: 1) that there has to be empirical research into how people's actual perceptions of humanitarianism and global problems etc., and 2) that an individualistc consumerist culture is the root of the problem, rather than just the humanitarian sector's immersion in it and appropriation of its logics. 

Having said that, I think that the humanitarian sector - alongside civil society organisations - ought to be (and could be) at the forefront of challenging that culture, and that NGOs are more likely to want to challenge that culture because they not only have a moral but, in the longer-term, institutional/financial interest in doing so. That's not to argue against the point you make, simply to bring it back to the importance of humanitarian communication.