The recent coverage of the Palestine-Israel conflict has social media flooded with new toys to play with – factoids, media bytes, tear-jerker images, and engagement-worthy content. All of it goads us to vote one way or another. A like, a share, a signature to a petition, a voice added to the booing. We are required to prove not just our allegiance but our very right to exist, every second. Whatabouttery drowns our confusion and we decide to pick one or the other, just to get out of the vocal stampede. It’s time to play Activism Bingo.
When Activism Is a Multiple-Choice Question
In the wars we’re asked to take a stand on today, it’s always when we are not directly afflicted. The victims are too busy trying to survive to ponder ethics. So our debates are rather narcissistic philosophy questions with the Palestinian body count as a case study. In this litmus test of character, we brandish all the hitherto mentioned social media toys to prove ourselves and to gain the numbers that consolidate that stance. Do these ends justify the means? I do not believe they do. We do not even have a consensus on how to run our own countries. How could we possibly agree on who deserves to be ganged up on and who deserves forgiveness and redemption?
The truth is that there are many different sides to the story. The information age should really mean that we get a lot more perspective than was available to humans before the internet. Colonisation is never a binary monster-victim story. Political conflicts involve many complexities of economics, geosocial history, and race /gender /class conflicts.
Yes, all morality is complex and our individual journeys have to reflect where we finally stand on each instance of cruelty or wrong. What does that have to do with picking a side in this war? Or hitting the income/ profitability of any faction? It has to do with reducing the opponent’s ability to do you damage by causing them damage first. I’m rather afraid that morality gets lots in this convenient notion of Me-against-them.
Yet such complex present realities are packaged into content-worthy sound bytes, into vote-seeking storylines, into Call-To-Actionable selling messages. Pick only one of the following, please.
You are a good human if you:
- Buy LMN product (tax rebates for CSR claimed by Bahaha Inc.)
- Say Yes to this message (use my influencer code S0LongSuck@s to get a discount!)
- Carry XYZ badge on your profile (sponsored by TeeHee Corporation)
Weaponising Buying Power Is Still Capitalism
I have more specific difficulties embracing ethically conscious consumption. Firstly, consumer activism is so close to cancel culture. Both cancel culture and consumer activism weaponise capitalism by reducing the income/profits of those with whom we disagree. Weaponising buying power weighs very heavily on me. I have been a research analyst studying consumption dynamics and yes, also using my intelligence to convince (Or is it manipulate? Is there a difference?) people to choose one over another.
I’ve also seen the way this vegetarian-uppercaste-patriarchal-privilege protecting vada is made. Being convincing isn’t the same thing as being right. Look to our politicians. This is how we mistake popular opinion for fact. But going against the MAN is not ethically superior in any way. It’s the privilege of pampered adolescent rebellion with little need to ponder consequences or bear costs. This brings such important questions down to being just a vote count in a popularity contest.
I’m deeply uncomfortable with justice doled out by majority consensus. I believe that revenge activism only causes hate politics. I don’t want to fight hate with hate. This is not the same as the boycott politics that helped India wrest back its independence from British colonial occupation. The Indian subcontinent’s struggle for independence from the British was decades in the making, with many different factions pursuing opposing methods. It’s really reductive to credit it all to one of the methods used or even debate which was better than the other. In my view, all of them had to happen the way they did for the events to come together that way.
The Activist Capitalist: Is That Even A Thing?
Capitalism is exploitative and unsustainable, I believe that. But I’m entrenched in a capitalist world. It is impossible for me to not consume. To consume, I have to earn via the same systems. I have earned a certain privilege to speak my politics more openly. This comes from having worked through some of the same systems to earn enough to have that privilege. How can I condemn those who do the same right now? Where go my ethics then if they involve double standards?
A young friend of mine yells about boycotting Amazon. And he does so by texting on an iPhone. I do not judge him. I cannot.
Back in the 80s, a chemical factory’s irresponsible processes resulted in a horrific mass tragedy. My parents made the decision to never again buy Eveready batteries, one of their most commonly available products. Do you know how hard it is to run the alarm clocks, the radios and sundry other objects in an Indian home when you say no to the most commonly available battery option? We stayed the course. However, I have not kept up with the company’s various business entities. I’m sure the people responsible are profiting from my existence somewhere. And the ones that suffered are long gone, with scarce a difference made to their tragedies because of my abstinence.
During the terrifying Mumbai floods, the shopkeeper closest to our residential complex hiked up his rates to double while people were struggling to survive. In a fit of rage, I cursed him for profiting off tragedy. A scant week later, the city was back to life as before. I didn’t see the point in bringing a mob of my neighbours down on him. Even if I gave his shop a wide berth from then on. To my mind, that was not punishment or war. It was my refusal to engage with someone that I found contemptible.
And these are yet just anecdotes I drape around myself when fending off the attack of the fervent activists. The truth is that my purchase choices involve ethical considerations when it is possible to accommodate them. It was easy to forsake Salman Khan films after the American Express Bakery incident. It hasn’t been as easy to show my consumer flex at every man who has violated a woman, as we well know after MeToo. It’s convenient to give up Starbucks and Nestle’s casual consumption items. It’s not as convenient to forsake Big Pharma’s poison-medicine offerings.
I see the point made by vegan activists who call theirs a feminist fight. However, I do not have the resources or means to go vegan in my lifestyle. There just aren’t adequate food options for my family and me that are affordable, accessible, feasible in preparation & storage and nutritious.
More often than not I say No, I won’t walk with you in your fight. This doesn’t mean I disagree with what moves you. How could I? Everything offered up for a vote today is backed with a solid communications strategy. I am but one human mind. I’m not hard to convince. But my no says I am making a choice based on what I find possible. To be demonised for saying no means I don’t actually have a choice.
But listen, it was never going to be any other way. A capitalist world leaves no room for reflection or nuance. We are reduced down to our wallets and our votes. Our identities are consumer data sets and our personal journeys are trackable with guideposts to draw us back to the count register (cha-ching). Where is there room for activism when there hasn’t been a moment’s respite to think about who one is, much less what one stands for?
Clickbait Activism May Have You Rooting For The Wrong Side
The lack of nuance obscures the question of how effective consumer activism is, in bringing about desirable change. And what happens if you want to support an action you believe in, but with people & organisations you won’t ally with?
Online Activism Needs Mindful Navigation
How I express my politics is as important as what I express. I live in a country with a colonial legacy, currently run on democracy that has socialist roots, communist influences and now a capitalist agenda. I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what it means to be a good person and a contributing citizen of my community. Every cause demands a right-now, 100% commitment from me. And it is guaranteed to tick off other factions with an ambiguous power to hurt my life. Should the unforeseeable length of my life really be doled out to vying factions or should it be mine to experience?
These politics are deep and personal. Every purchase decision is a fresh set of choices. It is unfair to hang the axe of an individual’s morality on each one. We are all sitting with relative hypocrisies. The moral high ground is shaky sand. It feels dangerous to rely on that while shouldering a hefty weapon-like mob mentality (okay, online activism).
Given that we live entrenched in capitalism, consumer activism means I need to assess everything I consume and none of it would show up clean. Consistency in my politics is important to me but is that moral rigidity? Yes, yell at the ones who are impatient to get me on their side. And this is how landslide victories happen. Because we make choices under duress. I resist.