Fung and Shkabatur’s paper does a pretty thorough analysis of the unique place viral campaigns hold in our modern world. They argue that while it does have it’s shortcomings viral campaigns result in a net good for civic understanding, however I think they do overlook one important aspect which is the main concern of Fassin’s paper: the huge work that a rhetoric of compassion does in the modern politic – and thus the power that perceived suffering holds. He notes “imitation is replaced by exclusion, domination is transformed into misfortune, injustice is articulated as suffering, and violence is expressed in terms of trauma” (Fassin, 6). This framework reflects a soft kind of compassion that may make the subject feel good; it can actually work to conceal the true causes of suffering. For example, while the Kony 2012 video used the word of the young Jacob to crystallize the face of evil, it obfuscated the systemic reinforcement for Kony’s actions – simply calling him the “bad guy”. Yes the threat he actually imposes, and the power he wields where hyperbolized, but this is not even the most caustic part of this campaign. What many viewers (and avid supporters) of this video likely do not know is the great lakes region of Africa where Joseph Kony was active has one the highest known concentrations of the world’s Coltan supply, a crucial element in the construction of smart phones and cellular computers. The ravenous desire for this element and the lack of regulation of it’s extraction (there is child slavery used to subsidize these operations) may be the true causes for the endemic problems in this region.
The other issue I take with this kind of rhetoric is that the when suffering is foregrounded, it necessarily removes the focus on the idyllic ‘pursuit of happiness’ and replaces it with a flight from sadness. Perhaps this is the reason that some “derided or waxed indignant about what theyinterpreted as a drift towards sentimentalism, suggesting that we all consider ourselves as victims” (Fassin, 7). Is it the contemporary luxuries that we are born into. In the 1940 movie The Great Dictator Charlie Chaplin laments “We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in, machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.” in a word, if technology, education, and material wealth guaranteed happiness the western world should be overjoyed. Often these things lend themselves very well to soft compassion, which can generalize happiness into a lack of sadness. Fung and Shkabatur argue that since the great equalizing power of the internet can allow any ‘ask’ to be potentially viral it can at worst raise some degree of awareness. However, since the rhetoric of suffering has already been established the ‘asks’ which are successful must be articulated in this fashion. I ask the question is perceived suffering endemic because there is a lack of genuine joy? Imagine a viral campaign built around spreading joy – of course the problem here is that no government regulation will universally bring happiness, this mostly stems from sincere interactions, and this quickly moves away from another criteria of the viral campaign: low investment.
Perhaps, the issues I take with slacktivism and viral campaigns are not as a disease; indeed, it is extremely valuable to have the power to speak to a mass audience about things which are deeply concerning, and although they are low investment these campaigns can have a huge effect in that they do show the actual spread of public concern. Maybe, these campaigns trouble me as a symptom. Perhaps we are too globalized, too networked to have complete ethical agency in any of our actions.
But maybe I’m just projecting, I mean, what good did I do by writing this blog post?