At the risk of slipping into “cranky old man” mode here… what exactly is so great about cynicism? No, hang on, that isn’t even old man mode… my generation was defined by cynicial detachment not so long ago. We embraced it the way the 50s embraced mistaking patriarchy-driven nuclear families for values and morality. But I’m here today to tell you… it is getting out of hand.
We are cynical about everything now. A thing happens, and people across the internet jump up to stomp it down. And I don’t understand what the appeal is. What is so great and noble about responding to an idea with “That’s stupid” and nothing else? What is backlash actually accomplishing?
I put it to you that internet backlash accomplishes nothing. In fact, it’s about as far from accomplishing something as you can get without a warp drive and a time machine. Here’s some reasons why.
Backlashers aren’t contributing anything
Casefile number one: the Ice Bucket Challenge.
It was July when the ALS ice bucket challenge went viral. Dump a bucket of ice water over yourself to spread awareness of ALS and encourage donations. It was mid-August before I became aware of it, thanks to Stephen Amell of Arrow. And his co-stars, Colton Haynes and Emily Bett Rickards, stressed the need for donations on top of spreading these drenching videos. And like all things, it’s drawn its share of internet backlash. People accused this trend of just being the new internet meme, slagging it as hashtag-slacktivism. Just one problem with that label.
The challenge works.
Thanks to the ice bucket challenge, the ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million dollars in one month, five times what they raised in the entirety of 2012. It’s a viral campaign that achieved results, doing more for ALS awareness than naming the disease after Lou Gehrig.
If that’s “slacktivism,” what else is? Movember? The Ride For the Cure? Anything shy of picking up a test tube and trying to cure a disease yourself?
And even if it were, “slacktivism” actually can serve a purpose: it creates a sense of community. Check out this article, written by someone suffering from ALS, for a more insightful look, but the basic premise is that things like Movember or the ice bucket challenge make a person feel like they’re part of something greater when they donate or participate, something that merely giving money quietly and anonymously doesn’t do, and that generates momentum like nothing else.
Others point how few people actually die from ALS as compared to cancer or heart disease. Well, okay, sure, but the fact is that’s partly why the ice bucket challenge was necessary. Because ALS affects such a small percentage, it receives far less funding from governments, and pharmaceutical companies don’t take much interest because the profit margin would be too small. So they need something like this to gain awareness and raise funds, because however few people it affects, they all die, and right now we don’t know why and there is nothing we can do about it. The person dying from ALS doesn’t matter less than the person dying of heart disease, so don’t tell me that fighting this disease isn’t important.
And some say “But it wastes so much water! And hundreds of millions of people desperately need water!” Okay, point taken. Clean, drinkable water is our most precious resource, because we need it to live, there’s only so much of it, and we can’t replace it with something else, unlike oil, coal, or gold. But when it comes to wasting water in North America, the ice bucket challenge is barely, excuse the expression, a drop in the bucket. That fountain outside the Bellagio hotel, you know, the one in the middle of a freaking desert, wastes more water than ice buckets. We could and should do more to conserve water, and on that note, here’s how Matt Damon completed the ice bucket challenge while making a statement for his own charity, water.org.
Feel free to throw them some money if you’re opposed to the ice buckets.
And that’s ultimately my point about cynically discarding something like this because you spot a fault. What are you actually accomplishing? What is complaining about ice buckets doing to make the world better? Not a god damned thing. Blind cynicism is actually worse than slacktivism. At least slacktivism is encouraging people to do something. Trying to tear down causes for being too trendy, or too viral, or for not doing enough for what you define as the right things, is attempting to stop people from doing something good.
Don’t like the ice bucket challenge? Donate to water.org. Plant a Tree For Groot. Eat less meat. Volunteer at a shelter. Do something. But if all you’re doing is mocking a cause because you don’t buy into it, well, you’re just… this.
Backlash hurts progress
Casefile number two: Solar roadways.
It boils down to this, if you choose not to click the link or watch the video: the inventors of solar roadways developed a plan to replace the asphalt that covers roads and parking lots with solar cells, that could be used to power cities. That’s the basics. They could also be fitted with LEDs, allowing them to light up in specific ways, such as adaptable, customizable traffic lanes or parking lot layouts or basketball courts or basically whatever.
The fact is, we need a solution to fossil fuels and we need it soon. Electric cars? Great start, except for the fact that the electricity that powers the cars currently comes primarily from coal. We need solar, we need wind, we need some sort of renewable energy that doesn’t change our climate and turn cities into smog-choked hellscapes like Beijing or LA. The solar roadways team thinks they’re onto something that can power and light up our cities, revolutionizing civic infrastructure, and they successfully raised over $2 million through crowdfunding.
But some people didn’t agree with solar roadways as the silver bullet to fix our energy future. And their complaints are actually fairly valid here.
- What about the light pollution? All those LEDs add up, especially on highways.
- Sure they’re designed to melt away snow, but what about the heavy snowfalls we get up here in Canada? Can it handle them?
- Who’s maintaining the solar panels on rural highways?
- How are we connecting these panels to the power grid? Wouldn’t conventional solar panels be easier?
Like I said. All of these are valid questions. But the problem is they were all held up as ways that solar roadways were doomed and shouldn’t be backed by Indiegogo patrons. But the way you find answers to these questions is to fund the project.
As a better writer than I once said, in the history of everything that works, there was a time when it didn’t. The light bulb, the telephone, the Tesla electric car, they all faced hurdles and challenges, and had prototypes that didn’t quite work. But with time, effort, and money, they got there. And maybe so can solar roadways. Or maybe they’ll be one more crowdsourced project that took a bunch of people’s money and didn’t do anything with it. But I hope not.
But that’s not really the point. The point is that no idea arrives fully formed. There’s early drafts and experiments and attempted solutions that don’t work out, and all of those have to happen, and most of them require money. So when people see this new idea and say “But they haven’t accounted for northern snowfall, so don’t support them,” that is harming progress. Don’t just tell me not to support that idea, point me to the idea that will work. Show me how to kickstart more solar farms, but until then, maybe let’s give the people trying to accomplish something a chance.
And you don’t want to be the guy who’s shown the future and screams “Burn the witch.” That is helping precisely nobody. In fact, maybe you should think about what your backlashing is saying about you…
It puts you on the wrong side of things
Now let’s really court some controversy. Casefile 3: Kony 2012.
Remember this? The group Invisible Children put out a video whose goal was to make everyone aware of Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, and specifically his tactic of indoctrinating children as soldiers. The video went viral, kits were sold for people to spread anti-Kony stuff around their towns, and a huge “poster everything” event was planned, with the hope of wallpapering the western hemisphere with anti-Kony posters.
And then came the backlash.
Much like ALS above, out came the accusations of slacktivism, and this time they were well earned, since while the end goal of Invisible Children was, in principle, the arrest of Joseph Kony and an end to children being used as soldiers, the only tangible result that Invisible Children were able to create was awareness. Which is, at best, a good first step. Invisible Children never seemed to manage the second.
People picked at how Invisible Children spent its money (primarily travel and video equipment, which isn’t that weird for a company whose primary activity is travelling the world to champion a cause with videos). People said “But Kony isn’t even in Uganda anymore” in an attempt to dismiss the video’s entire message. Which had just two problems as a nitpick: a) the video said he wasn’t in Uganda anymore, and b) in exactly which country is it okay to commit atrocities with child soldiers?
And then the public face of the campaign went a little nuts and was caught masturbating in public and that was about that.
Sure, if the Kony 2012 campaign is remembered at all, it’ll be as a definitive example of slacktivism: shit-tons of awareness raised, nothing actually accomplished. But there was one thing about all the backlash that bothered me.
While they did take an incredibly, soul-crushingly complicated issue, specifically the political realities of post-colonial Africa that allow rebel warlords like Kony to exist, and try to make it far too simple (share this link to save the world!), Invisible Children’s goal was to end a horrifying practice, that being child soldiers. It was Invisible Children vs. Joseph Kony… and Kony didn’t end up as the bad guy. No, according to internet backlash, Invisible Children were the enemy because they weren’t doing enough.
My question is this. If it was child slavers vs. slacktivists, and internet cynics decided to take up arms against the slacktivists… are they not, in some way, picking the side of the child slavers?
No, think about it, nobody was saying “Invisible Children isn’t doing enough, so let’s take the awareness they raised and run with it,” they just said “Why are you spending so much money making videos” or started parody Kickstarters. They weren’t trying to solve the problem Invisible Children wasn’t able to solve themselves, they were just mocking Invisible Children for speaking up.
Kony’s still active, FYI. And the African Union is trying to catch him exactly as hard as they were before. So conrgrats on that, internet backlash. You and Invisible Children finally have something in common: neither one of you has done anything to stop child soldiers.
Ugh. This is getting heavy. Let’s end with something lighter.
It’s just mean
The fact is that all of these internet backlashes, whether they’re sort of defending a war criminal or accidentally announcing “We do not care about people with ALS” are small potatoes. Even Occupy Wall Street will pale in comparison to the day they finally cast a new Iron Man.
You know I’m right. Nothing makes the internet explode more than casting news on geek-targeted movies. A day will come when Peter Capaldi steps down from Doctor Who or Daniel Craig films his last James Bond movie, and when that day comes, we will once more be drowned in Tumblr/Twitter posts decrying the TV/film industry as racists for not casting Idris Elba as the new Doctor/Bond, as well as posts from a much worse group screaming bloody murder over the mere suggestion of casting Idris Elba as the new Doctor/Bond. We saw the social justice crew go nuts over another white male (worse, an old white male) being cast as the 12th Doctor, we saw internet racists (who claim they’re not racists, they just care deeply about character canon) go berserk over black actors playing a Norse god in Thor and the Human Torch in next year’s Fantastic Four movie… and that’s not even what I’m talking about here.
I’m not calling out racism or misogyny or those who campaign against them. I’m instead calling out the nerd rage crowd, the ones who shouted that Heath Ledger could never be a good Joker, or that called Daniel Craig “James Bland,” or who now throw around the term “Batfleck” as a pejorative. Because putting aside the fact that these nay-sayers have been wrong far, far more than they’ve been right (have they ever been right?)…
It’s just mean.
Take Ben Affleck as Batman. Ben Affleck started strong, with an Oscar for writing and a string of action hits. Then he dated Jennifer Lopez, made a few bombs, and was damn near run off the planet because of it. So he pulled back, took some time off, and slowly worked his way back into Hollywood, starting as a director and ultimately returning to the Oscar victory podium as the director and producer of Oscar champ Argo. And for this, for this hard-fought return to respectability, he was rewarded. Warner Bros., the studio he won an Oscar for, gave him one of their most high-profile gigs: he was the next Batman.
And the internet reacted with all the grace and dignity of a prison riot.
Peter Capaldi has been a fan of Doctor Who longer than I’ve been alive. Longer than most current fans have been alive. He watched William Hartnell, the first Doctor, in the role when he was a kid. And now he gets to take on the role himself.
And the internet either shouted “Too old!” or acted like casting another white man was a return to Jim Crow days.
Ben and Peter, lest we forget, are real people with real feelings. Maybe Ben was excited to be trusted with this role. Maybe he was excited to get another spin as a superhero in a (hopefully, please gods let it be) better movie. Maybe Capaldi was thrilled to get a chance to fly the Tardis. And maybe they don’t need jerks on Twitter saying their casting is terrible news because one of them was in Gigli over a decade ago and the other isn’t diverse enough.
In conclusion. You won’t agree with every trend that hits Facebook. Not every viral campaign will speak to you, and some will downright annoy you, but maybe think it through before you decide to tear it down. Ask yourself: what am I actually accomplishing here? Is there a more productive way I could express my disagreement with this cause? Who else is on my side of this argument, and do any of them enslave children? And, most importantly, am I being a jerk? Or, to put it simply…
Seriously, though… go plant a tree for Groot. Before someone starts complaining about that one too.