Narcissistic armchair activism needs instant gratification, hence its focus on trivial issues like Clarkson
More people care about Jeremy Clarkson’s job than they do about FGM. Or so you could be forgiven for thinking, after Change.org named the petition to reinstate the Top Gear presenter as its fastest-growing ever.
It currently has over 800,000 signatures – almost three times as many as the campaign to instate mandatory FGM education in UK schools. About the same number of people have signed the Clarkson petition as signed to release Ghoncheh Ghavami, the British-Iranian woman who was jailed in Tehran for attending a volleyball match.
The petition for Clarkson probably won’t change anything – the BBC already know he’s valuable and popular, and if they have decided to axe him for good they’ll have already weighed up the probability of a temporary public backlash.
It’s true that it doesn’t take long to sign an online petition and so the signing body don’t neccessarily have the ardent level of support that certain media outlets are implying (the reprehensible Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Mail yesterday: “[BBC chief Danny Cohen] cares more about pandering to the political prejudices and petty jealousies of his Left-wing peer group” than what the British public want, ie. white, male, gently regressive political-commentators-by-proxy like Clarkson.)
But the support for Clarkson, and his plight’s extensive media coverage, does remind us of how vacuous the internet has made us, and how short the public attention span is. It’s like when over 300,000 people signed a petition last year to save Excalibur, the dog of a Spanish Ebola-infected nurse who could have been carrying the virus. When Excalibur was put down, a further 100,000 people signed a petition for Spain’s health minister to resign. Spain donates less to the Ebola cause than it does to Ikea; this did not make it onto Change.org.
The narcissistic armchair activism that the digital age has created – no make up selfies (well-lit), ice-bucket challengers who forgot to do the donating, 1,000 likes on pages raising awareness of horrific suffering in Syria – are no doubt for the most part well-intentioned. But it’s empty – how many of the people who tweeted #jesuischarlie had ever heard of Charlie Hebdo before it was attacked? How many even looked it up after? (Incidentally I saw big, yellow graffiti on a bridge in East London yesterday that read: ‘Je Suis Clarkson’)
And when more of these so-called’ ‘slacktivists’ are attracted to a platform allowing them to support a TV presenter than any other cause, something has gone a bit off course.
We are turning away from big, complex issues like aid funding and cultural cohesion and instead opting for easier to digest, one-solution issues like Clarkson and single dogs. Dog saved = clear success. MP pledging to push for more aid funding for Sierra Leone = a small step in a process that is simply too long.
Online petitions can work if they mobilise people to start thinking about the cause beyond their click, and can be the first step in raising awareness – Change.org’s 500,000 strong petition last year challenging Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week became a news story in itself, and made sure the DWP secretary’s cruel welfare reforms were widely known.
But this power is diluted if there are too many ’causes’ to choose from, and I don’t think a boor like Clarkson deserves to monopolise all the solidarity and desire to be a part of change that is clearly out there.
And one last note on change: if a TV presenter’s ego can become so inflated that he can physically assault someone over a catering problem and go unpunished, then things need a rethink.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.