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Sunday, July 10, 2005


Tough on wristbands, tough on the causes of wristbands

In a posting yesterday, Susanne Lamido reports,

Islington's Lib Dem Mayor Jonathan Dearth has called on all 48 councillors to wear the white wristbands throughout July in support of the campaign 'Make Poverty History'.
She adds,

Good on Jonathan for taking the initiative.
I couldn't disagree more and I would urge all Lib Dem councillors to ignore their mayor's silly advice.

Don't get me wrong - I'm all for concrete steps to aid development in the third world. If one wishes to do something practical, there are plenty of reputable organisations to which one can donate money or time.

What I object to is '
conspicuous compassion', the trend for ostentatious gestures such as wristbands, lapel ribbons and ten-minute silences, all of which are intended more to make us feel good than to help others. Nowadays, it seems that people's prime concern is to compete with one another to show how much they 'care'. (Read my earlier posting on this subject).

I object not only to such ostentatious displays of 'empathy'. I object also to the faddish emotional incontinence that such gestures demonstrate. Most of all, I resent the unpleasant element of mob rule, the insidious moral pressure to conform by wearing these things.

The ultimate irony is the news that anti-poverty wristbands were manufactured in a
third world sweatshop.

My message to Lib Dem Mayor Jonathan Dearth and his emotionally incontinent friends is to get a bloody grip.

No, that's not the ultimate irony.

Oxfam admitted some time ago that mistakes were made with sourcing the wrist-bands, and explained how they are trying to make those good.

No one is forcing you to wear a white band (an outward sign which particularly appeals to teenagers), any more than you're forced to wear a red poppy in November. So, there's petty politics going on around them - big deal: don't wear one, then.

Can you make explicit some of your thoughts on the best projects to which people can donate money and time? How much money and time do you consider to be reasonable?
Reply to A C Baker:

Oh dear, I have offended a modern taboo, haven't I?

You have missed my point. I was not arguing that anyone is 'forced' to wear a wristband; rather that there is increasing social pressure to conform. This has been an unpleasant feature of British culture since the oppressive wave of Diana-mourning in 1997.

Nor is it my point to suggest the best projects to which people should donate money and time, or how much money and time is reasonable. That is for each person to decide.

My objection is to self-indulgent and ostentatious displays of 'caring', which say far more about us than they do about the good causes they purport to serve.
Hmm - no, _you've_ missed _my_ point.

Perhaps I'm just emotionally stunted, but I see no 'pressure to conform' ('forcing') which even registers on the scale of the 1950s. I also believe there's a comment in the New Testament about ostentatious displays of righteousness.

What's your assessment of the likely practical outcomes from the G8 summit? My feeling on debt is that a wider scale cancellation is justified. This should be based upon analysis of how the debts were incurred. It should occur in parallel with active steps to improve democratic accountability in the target countries.

What are your thoughts on an approach to personal charity which considers as 'excessive' any income above the UK average (call that UKP20K per adult in round figures)?
Now you're straying off topic. This post is about the phenomenon of conspicuous compassion, not the "practical outcomes of the G8 summit". Have that debate elsewhere.

I would like to know the "practical outcomes" of wearing wristbands and ribbons. So far as I can see, it is essentially self-indulgent.

This form of gesture politics speaks volumes about the kind of shallow and reflexive culture we inhabit. As such, wristbands are part of the problem, not part of the solution - even if they are "for chaaridee".
If you're determined to be obsessed with outward appearances: well, is it not shallow to be obsessed with shallowness?

I find the Make Poverty Campaign to be over-simplified, and Live8 to be a band-wagon. But all mass campaigns will be over-simplified, and have followers who are simply 'on the latest band-wagon'.

I decided to wear a white band because there is a kernel of useful truth to the campaign, because it's a deep-seated human need to know that you're 'with the herd' not stranded alone, and because it gets people talking about the real issue: preventable deaths.

I wear a white poppy, and I am a-religious.
Far from being "obsessed with outward appearances", my point is a fundamental one - that in recent years, particularly since the period of ostentatious Diana-mourning, British society has developed a tendency to indulge in 'conspicuous compassion'.

People's focus has shifted from the original 'good cause' towards making of a sort of fashion statement. It is a symptom of an increasingly reflexive culture and a disturbing social trend. As such, it is worthy of comment.
Your invective just smacks of having got out of bed on the wrong side .. perhaps you should have left it at that?

Surely the point of all these symbols (poppies, wrist bands etc) is that a) they raise the profile of an issue (which all of us in politics know is important) and b) they raise a little bit of money for their chosen cause.

Given that being a (non directly elected) mayor is a largely ceremonial role and largely about raising profiles; that Jonathan Dearth has chosen this issue to campaign on in his mayoralty and that Jonathan is a professional charity fundraiser in any case, I'd be flabbergasted and disappointed if he hadn't taken this initiative!

If someone had been suggesting that we all wear wristbands *in place of* campaigning on fair trade, debt relief, action on poverty, effective aid etc, then of course I'd agree with you - but it's pretty plain that these kinds of symbols are just one part of the campaign.

Your stance is rather like saying that ostentatious representations of political affiliation (window posters, stakeboards etc) aren't enough to win you an election (absolutely right!) and therefore we shouldn't bother with them (plainly wrong!).
PS For the avoidance of doubt, any suggestion that I might be agreeing with Susanne Lamido is purely coincidental. It won't happen again ...
I'll not bother re-stating my original arguments but would merely suggest that 'The Cat' re-reads them.

All I would add is my conclusion that Islington, collectively, needs a good slap.
Have re-read them and didn't spot anything to change my mind second time round.

"Islington, collectively, needs a good slap"

With incisive commentary like that, no wonder you're in the Donnachadh McCarthy league of influence & effectiveness ... thank goodness the other members of the Liberator Collective have more intelligent things to say.
Donnachadh McCarthy?! Is that the best you can do?
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