I will admit that burning a large-sized photograph of 18 year old Greta Thunberg on a stake because she supports Indian farmers’ right to peacefully protest is not the best way to go about things. In fact, it is immature for grown men to respond in such a violent manner. However, despite their zealous rejection of her opinion, the overall message from those criticising Western celebrities is this: stay out of our affairs.
Many believe that celebrities are morally obligated to use their huge platforms for good; that when there is an injustice in the world, those with the largest online followings should make all of us aware of it. Surely this makes sense. If Rihanna posts a tweet about tens of thousands of farmers protesting against farming reforms, then her 102.1 million followers will know about it. That must be a good thing.
However, I’m under the impression that tweets by Rihanna and Greta Thunberg are really quite empty of any substance. I say empty because neither of them have really tweeted about anything related to the actual issue. In Rihanna’s case, she asked her followers “Why aren’t we talking about this?!”. I’m almost certain that in the part of the world where this is happening, it is being talked about. Does Rihanna not think that the Indian government blocking the internet for 48 hours isn’t being decried by Indian celebrities or liberals? Or is it ‘not being talked about’ because we, in the West, haven’t talked about it? It seems to me that something only becomes valuable when it reaches our moral western radar.
What about Greta? Like Rihanna, she doesn’t have anything to say about the actual reforms the government are making, nor the impact it has on farmers’ lives. What she’s more interested in is “standing in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India”. The information she provides her 4.9 million followers lacks balance and deep analysis – something that is ever vacant in social media activism. This suggests her concern isn’t about the deeply complex, cultural, confusing, and historical Indian agriculture industry, but more about upholding the value of protesting.
I understand the anger from those in India who tell Western celebrity influencers to keep out of their business. However, I don’t agree that the West, in general, should keep out of other country’s affairs. Rather, I share the same sentiment felt by foreign countries towards celebrities and social media stars who tweet or post when they feel like it.
It’s the “pick and choose” aspect of social media activism which makes me cringe. Rihanna tweets about two seemingly morally outrageous events, such as Indian farmers and the coup in Myanmar, but is silent on the police brutality and scare-tactics used on those protesting against the jailing of Alexei Navalny in Russia. I also don’t remember Rihanna, or any Western celebrities for that matter, condemning the severe restrictions placed on women seeking an abortion in Malta or in Poland? I sense that Western social media activism is more of a reactive-ism towards things going on in the world. Westerners, especially celebrities, like to dip in and dip out of global politics and atrocities, and only learn about things when it flashes across their screens instead of actively engaging with a topic.
Imagine a scenario where Bollywood singers tweet out support for Brexit-voting fishermen protesting outside Parliament. Indian celebrities decrying the undemocratic nature of the EU and supporting the right for English fishermen to peacefully protest and fish in their own waters. Imagine another scenario where Indian influencers posting geographic infographics of Brexit votes, condemning the UK government for undemocratically ignoring Scotland and Irish remain voters. The fact that this doesn’t happen amuses me, but also reminds me of the white saviour mentality: a blind-eye towards corruption and injustice at home, yet hollow outrage and affected condemnation of events in poorer non-white nations.
Should celebrities stop engaging with global affairs? Of course not, they can say whatever they want. Do they actually care about the injustices they tweet about? Arguably, no. It is for this reason that those in India don’t care for what people like Rihanna have to say.
Photograph: Streetsblog Denver via Flickr.