During the Sydney Cafe siege on 15 December I watched Twitter melt down into a morass of self-congratulatory compassion over the #illridewithyou hashtag.
In an incredibly short time there were 120,000 tweets from Australians bravely standing up to anti-muslim behaviour by offering to ride with Muslim’s on public transport.
News.com.au described it as a twitter movement which would “restore your faith in humanity”.
Buzzfeed thought that it was “one of the few positive things to come out of the horrific events in Sydney.”
The Sydney Morning Herald was a little more measured, seeing it as a bulwark against the “climate of fear and uncertainty” and praising Australians for taking a stand against anti-muslim sentiment.
That the climate of fear and uncertainty may have been created by the hysterical 24/7 coverage of the siege was completely lost on the SMH.
The Guardian thought that “It’s a beautifully conceived reminder that such attacks, whether carried out by Isis or a lone wolf, are antithetical to nearly all Australians.”
For me it brings to mind Guy Debord’s seminal text, The Society of the Spectacle, where he writes
“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
“The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.”
Debord nails the crazy way we represent ourselves on social media. It is spectacle legitimatised by feelings that reflects our truth back to us. We are all spectacle, observing ourselves in others and differentiating through our sameness.
That three people (yes three people) died is an deniable tragedy.
What disturbs me (and it disturbs me that I feel this way) is that a mere sentiment, a feeling, is somehow made mega meaningful. It’s nice that people feel compassionate enough to speak out in support of their fellow Australians, but ultimately a tweet is an empty gesture, a fashion statement, without action. Trust me, I love social media, but am deeply suspicious of collective misery, rage, anger and compassion. A mob is still a mob.
I agree that speaking out is important but can’t get past the emptiness of the gesture. It feels so like, White Middle Class People Doing Good Things For Poor Defenceless Dark People.
Fairfax’s Daily Life has laid down the law in a post titled, “#I’llRideWithYou is helping, attacks on it are not”. Jenna Price writes that
“#illridewithyou is an offer and not a demand. Of course a hashtag won’t cure the problem of racism – but it’s not nothing. It’s speaking out. And that’s something.”
Maybe I feel this way because racism and the demonisation of others has always been at the heart of Australia. From the moment that Governor Phillip landed in Sydney Cove and surprised the residents with boats loaded with criminals, soldiers, and guns, to the White Australia policy, to the stolen generation, to the shameful state of indigenous health, to the current asylum seeker policy, to the everyday racism.
Can 120,000 well-meaning tweets change that? I just don’t know.