This week, the one-word charity text donation: or relieving the conscience of the unengaged

Will Self’s Madness of Crowds column. 

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The Gadarene swine fallacy states that simply because a group of individuals are maintaining a formation, it doesn’t mean that they’re on the right course. You can see the logic of this: Jesus casts out the demons, they enter the swine, and the swine all charge along in a swinish pack and tumble straight into a lake. Only an ideally placed observer – Matthew, say, or possibly Mark or Luke – is able to see that the demoniacal swine are heading for disaster, while the poor little possessed positivist piggies keep on keeping on until their squeals turn into splutters and they sink beneath the lacustrine scum, all the time frantically maintaining the wisdom of their chosen course.

Once you’re aware of the Gadarene swine fallacy you see evidence of it everywhere you look: both main political parties currently exhibit it flagrantly, as they struggle to keep their MPs and voters in formation, while those of us who believe politics to be a matter of conscience as well as electability veer away to the right and the left. But I don’t want to waste your time on yet another dissection of the British body politic – it’s a swinish business, after all, for are we writers and readers of political commentary not equally intent on maintaining formation rather than the right course? Do we not cleave to the culture of criticality because it is all we have? Industrial action, direct action, peace camps, occupations, marching, shouting and the shaking of fists have all been seen to be powerless against the tight nexus of power that rules over us: they have been exposed as mere formations rather than right courses, yet our response has been to retreat into a virtual formation rather than fundamentally reorient our conception of political process.

I have absolutely no idea what goes through the mind of someone who seriously believes texting a word to a campaigning organisation, or a small donation to a charitable one, will “make a difference”. Of course, it does indeed make a difference – although not, perhaps, in the manner that they expect, because really the change is wholly registered in their own psyche, not in the persons of those they might wish to aid. Yes, yes, we all fall victim to the allure of web commerce – but we don’t feel good about it: we know we buy stuff we don’t need simply because of the frictionless process involved, and we also know an ideally placed observer can observe us, heading towards the great lake full of loan sharks that wait patiently to gobble up the indebted. But texting the word “GREEN” to an environmental campaign, or “NO” to one opposing female genital mutilation, seems like a no-brainer: it takes no effort whatsoever, and who knows, it may well help.

However, Ex nihilo nihil fit – change, on the other trotter, is only ever effected by doing something. I try to maintain an open mind on the impact of bidirectional digital media on our culture and society, but sometimes, slumped on the Tube, staring blankly at some ad urging me to text “PANTS” to a campaign aimed at ameliorating the working conditions in Bangladeshi sweatshops I sort of . . . despair. How can it be, I muse, that all these people actually believe, even for a split second, they can improve the lives of people with whom they simply aren’t prepared to engage properly? I don’t altogether blame the texters – they are, oft-times, doing all they can – but there’s an inherent cynicism in the way both charities and pressure groups have recourse to this pseudo-activism.

No doubt some of you will dissent from this – perhaps a few of you will even be roused sufficiently to add a comment to this piece when it appears online. Please don’t bother: I shan’t be paying any attention to your opinion and I doubt anyone else will, either, because nothing comes of nothing, and when weighed in the balance, the online expression of opinion doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. (And how could it? Say what you will about a hill of beans – or even text “BEANS” – it at least has a saucy, glistening materiality.) Ugly militias, high on cultish ideology and trumpeting through the African bush to abduct children, aren’t likely to be influenced much by clicktivism, but just as making an ill-advised online purchase still gives us a little jolt of adrenalin, so, presumably, unleashing a few keystrokes in the direction of Joseph Kony or Boko Haram gives their begetters an infinitesimal rush.

Which leads me, in my on-course formation of one, to the conclusion that I am wrong. Something does indeed come of nothing; and that something can be summed up by recalling Thomas Hobbes’s attitude towards charity: clicktivism, one might say, exists solely in order to relieve the inactive of the burden of their conscience – it is, in political terms, the equivalent of texting the word “RUN”, and expecting this act alone to make you fit. I don’t suppose this view, like so many of my others, will make me popular, but then what was Jesus’s fate after he cast out the demons and sent the swine packing? The Gadarenes asked him, quietly but firmly, to click off. 

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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