Moral Posturing in the Internet Age

Six months into 2020, hope for the new decade has all but withered away. In January, the United States tried to juggle the Israel-Palestine conflict with a messy impeachment trial, all the while managing tensions in Iran with a diplomatic mission that would make even Jimmy Carter blush. Bushfires raged across Australia, and Britain made its final bow out of the EU. Coronavirus spread around the globe, collapsing the stock market and adding further pressure to unstable oil prices out east. So-called ‘murder hornets’ migrated to Europe and America, and 20,000 tonnes of diesel leaked into the Arctic Circle. It has been a year of radical social change and, by necessary extension, political sensitivity. 

On March 26, 2020, 46-year-old bouncer George Floyd was murdered during an arrest by a police officer in Minneapolis. Police officer Derek Chauvin apprehended Floyd for allegedly trying to spend a counterfeit $20 note on cigarettes. During the arrest, mobile footage showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, causing his death. As of 3 June 2020, protests – and forceful retaliation – continue across the United States and have begun to find form around the globe.

The tragedy of George Floyd’s death has commendably sparked conversations about race and police brutality worldwide. Twitter has enabled users to share petitions and funds, encouraging tangible momentum for different movements. On Instagram, many individuals chose to show support for the Black Lives Matter human rights movement by posting a black square and committing to not posting anything else for the entirety of Tuesday 2 June. Many black commentators are unsatisfied; as ‘Blackout Tuesday’ “intend[s] to allow people to consider how best to fight against racism”, critics have argued that a timeline full of hashtagged black squares obscures and censors informative posts also carrying the #BlackLivesMatter tag. For some, a black square lifts but a finger towards enacting genuine social change, at the expense of those already involved in the movement.

Brands too have leapt on the hashtag-friendly trend of social justice; Nike released an advert telling consumers not to “sit back and be silent” and instead to “all be part of the change”, but sooner than offering palpable solutions rounded off with a logo and an abrupt fade to black. L’Oreal also put together a black square with overlaid branded text with the flippant remark: “speaking out is worth it”. Although this time the company faced a backlash from the former face of L’Oreal, Munroe Bergdorf, who was cut from the brand in 2017 for her comments on the Charlottesville tragedy. “Where was my support when I spoke out?” she said.

Brand-piggybacking on social justice is nothing new. Last year, Electronic Arts made headlines for their inclusion of a digital ‘No Room for Racism’ football kit in their flagship game, FIFA 20; the accompanying Twitter post showed that you too could help end racism just by turning on your Xbox. In a similar vein, June has become a godsend for marketers looking to hit their engagement KPIs by tapping into Pride Month. Last year, WWD dwelled on the perceived opportunism of marketers to suddenly accept Pride as a function of social media engagement, opening: “LGBTQ Pride has gone mainstream, if the scores of rainbow splattered marketing campaigns that now pop up during June are anything to go by.”

There is an unavoidable – and cynical – sense that brands will only show support for issues which align with their ambitions for profit. Disney coming out in support of “the entire Black community” on their English language Twitter page is not likely to alienate a consumer base – but when pressed, the company is still happy to cut black faces from Star Wars posters if it risks interfering with the Chinese market. It’s not just Disney.

PR is a minefield, and one that relies on careful navigation of the delicate political sphere. Hence, these posts are filled with empty language, abstract ideas of ‘racism’ and ‘injustice’ without directly calling anything out. The end goal is to appear a part of the conversation, not to change it. In a sense, the internet age has encouraged a new form of identity-driven politics several steps removed from its roots in broader virtue signalling. To use Twitter to show off how concerned you are about ‘key issues’ is somehow distinct from this new blend, which ventures into the apolitical. That is, the brand strives to give itself a sense of identity without actually becoming anything concrete. It resembles a horoscope: specific enough to make you believe in it, but still vague enough to avoid any pushback.

We forget that brands are also abstract ideas, defined by the associations we make with them. An abstract idea, unlike the human being it tries to resemble, cannot have political stances on Iran, or fears about the Coronavirus. Its staff can, but not without some degree of cognitive dissonance throughout its ranks – one would hope. Proponents of the Nike ad may contest that there is a moral obligation to use large platforms to influence social change in the right direction. Although, as we have established, a brand must also wait until a viewpoint is already deemed more or less the right direction by its audience before it can be milked for engagement. And if brands are only willing to influence debates that its audience broadly agrees with – then what’s the point?

There is an idea that the politicisation of the brand has become a key feature of its marketability; in 2011, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek alluded to ‘the delusion of green capitalism’, in which the trauma of impotence around social issues becomes motivation to “frantically and obsessively” act, to make our contribution as an individual. Faced with an overwhelming task – be it overcoming discrimination or stopping climate change – the consumer can find comfort in guilt, because “if we are guilty then [social change] depends on us”. Rather than accepting that real change is difficult – sometimes impossible – it is easier to pay a little more for an ‘ethical’ cup of coffee or to retweet a shoe shop and act as though we are playing a meaningful role in fixing the world. The act of consumption or identification with a product becomes itself a moral action: “In the old days, we were consumerists and then we felt bad and if you wanted to pretend to be an ethical being you had to do something to counteract it. But the offer here is ‘we make it simpler for you. We make the product [and] you can remain just a consumerist because your altruistic nature, solidarity, is included in the price.’”

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), then, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we do not want to condemn brands like Wells Fargo for their charity, Netflix for their parental leave commitment or Disney for reducing their carbon footprint – but we should recognise that CSR fits into wider ideology. Brands seem to do a good job of effecting meaningful change within their own realms – even if it is tainted by self-interest – but marketers and consumers alike should be wary of the allure of vapid moral gesturing without an end goal.

It is difficult to know exactly what we would want to world to look like at the best of times. It is harder still to know how to achieve it. Our trauma is not unfounded. The individual may feel a moral duty to have a clear opinion on the merits of protesting, rioting or burning down a police station. But these issues are complicated. To remain silent is to be complicit – but the response of rushing to stand up and be counted can be counterintuitive. The comfortable choice is to share an innocuous post by Nike or to publish a black square and to feel that we have a moral stake in a difficult issue. If #BlackoutTuesday has illuminated anything, though, it is that perhaps the starting point is to ask the affected what we can do. It is to provide a platform for all voices to be heard, where relevant. Merely “demonstrating your capacity for care and global awareness” is not enough to change the world. Rather, as consumers and companies, we may wish to provoke discourse on sensitive issues [strangely, Ben & Jerry’s did a fairly good job of this] – not with the hope of getting likes, but of influencing policy and perception. Meaningful change cannot be achieved in a day, a month or a year because it evolves, gradually, stubbornly, but all starting with that conversation.

Words by James Reynolds

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