Slacktivism

The other day I received an email forward claiming that the US Mint’s new series of presidential dollar coins do not include the words “In God We Trust”. I’ve already deleted the email, so I can’t quote the exact one I received. Instead, I’ll quote one of the samples reproduced on Snopes’s page debunking this dishonest rumour; the version I received had several sentences taken word for word from this one, particularly the one I’m going to talk about:

You guessed it
‘IN GOD WE TRUST’
IS GONE!!!

Who originally put ‘In God We Trust’ onto our currency?

My bet is that it was one of the Presidents on these coins.

All our U.S. Government has done is Dishonor them, and disgust me!!!

If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!!

DO NOT ACCEPT THE NEW DOLLAR COINS AS CHANGE

Together we can force them out of circulation.

(Just as a note: anyone who places a bet on a President being the one who first place “In God We Trust” on US currency would lose that bet. As about ten seconds of Googling can reveal. Of course, that’s about the same amount of time it takes to establish that these presidential dollars do include the phrase.)

Now, there’s a lot here that I could talk about how angry it makes me, and there’s a lot I could talk about how sad it makes me. I could talk about the whole undercurrent of “Anything that doesn’t make non-Christians feel like alienated second-class Americans counts as actively persecuting Christians!” that runs through so many of these fallacious email forward campaigns. It’s an undercurrent that would be laughable if so many people didn’t find it so powerful and invigorating that massive (and successful) consumer campaigns have been organised in its name.

I could talk about how the people who exploit that sentiment through emails like this are clearly doing it dishonestly, just to manipulate these people–the particular version of the email I receive had a story prepended about how the author had received one of the coins as change at the post office and refused to accept it, and the postal worker had expressed pride in that decision. So either the author knew they were lying about “In God We Trust” not appearing on the coin, because they had handled it and therefore must have seen it, or they were lying about the entire story of having received it as change. Either way, they were definitely lying about the postal worker’s reaction.

I could talk about how futile it feels when I hit Reply All and detail all the ways emails like this are false, not because people are going to think that my facts are suspect, but because I firmly believe that for most people who believe nonsense like this, whether or not it’s true simply has no relevance to them. These people believe these things because they want to believe them–because for whatever reason, they want it to be true that Big Evil Secularists have removed “In God We Trust” from the currency, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that Proctor and Gamble donate a portion of all their profits to the Church of Satan, that f*ck is an acronym of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, that Beaver Cleaver died in Vietnam, that gangs initiate new members by driving around at night with their lights off and chasing down and murdering anyone who flashes their high beams at them, that one of the World Trade Center bombers dated an American girl the summer before the attack and told her just before he broke contact with her that she shouldn’t go to the World Trade Center on 11 September or to any shopping malls on Hallowe’en, no matter how stupid all of those are when given even a moment’s serious scrutiny.

But the one line that jumped out at me more than any other from that email was, “If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!”

Really? I mean, really?

Walmart actively destroys the quality of life of millions of employees, both their own direct employees and the employees of their suppliers around the globe. Yahoo provides personal information to the People’s Republic of China so that the Chinese authorities can hunt down and imprison any of their citizens who commit the crime of expressing dissatisfaction with their country’s political situation. For that matter, China itself–the source of a huge and growing proportion of the products you and I buy every day, particularly of children’s toys, often manufactured in inhuman conditions and sold through Walmart–maintains a system where over a billion people are deprived of basic civil and human rights that you and I take for granted.

But the only unquestionably legitimate reason for a boycott the author of this email has ever encountered is whether or not four words that were only adopted as the National Motto in an anti-Soviet PR stunt in the 1950s appear on a series of limited-edition coins? Whose only material effect is to make sure that atheist or polytheistic American citizens are reminded that our country considers us inherently inferior to the monotheistic majority?

Allow me to attempt to rewrite the sentence in question so I can get closer to the original author’s real meaning:

If ever there was a boycott that will allow us to feel smugly superior without any effort, sacrifice or inconvenience to ourselves, THIS IS IT!!!

Which is what disgusts me as much as anything else about the sentiments in dishonest emails like this–this sentiment that we’ll make loud, obnoxious noises at anything we don’t like, so long as it doesn’t cause us a hassle in any way. It’s like the people who get up in arms every year about demanding retail employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” (again, purely with the aim of ensuring that non-Christians know that they can never be as good as Christians), which–I can tell you from experience–never seems to involve actually forgoing the purchase of whatever they were going to buy, just self-righteously haranguing the hapless customer service employee.

Truly trying to make the world a better place means sticking to your convictions even when–perhaps especially when–it makes our lives harder. As I noted above, whenever I get one of those email forwards–at least, one of the genuinely harmful ones, like Barack Obama being a Muslim or Starbucks refusing to donate products to soldiers in Iraq in an effort to undermine the war effort or the Supreme Court having a monument to the Ten Commandments at its entrance to confirm that American law is supposed to be based on Biblical law (all of which, funnily enough, always seem designed to get me to vote Republican)–I hit Reply All and debunk it. This isn’t easy for me; I’m profoundly uncomfortable making a fool of myself in front of people I don’t know (people I do know are often disbelieving when I say this, since I have absolutely no problem making a fool of myself when I know everyone in the room), and I know that when I send that reply I’m going to look like a total crank to dozens of strangers, very few of whom will even be willing to believe that truth that contradicts the urban legend they’d much prefer. But I realised that I couldn’t think of myself as the person I’d like to be if I was willing to let lies like that be spread right in front of me and not speak up.

Lisa and I don’t shop at Walmart. We decided that we simply couldn’t collude with Walmart’s business practices–either their censorship of artists’ work because they disagree with that art, or because of the horrible conditions under which their employees at all levels of distribution, all around the world, have to suffer–by spending our money in their stores. And sometimes that really sucks. It’s more expensive and it’s less convenient (and as a single-income household, which option is the cheapest is one of the two or three biggest factors in most purchases we make), and it especially has the opportunity for awkwardness when we visit her family in Florida or South Carolina, most of whom swear by Walmart.

Please don’t think I’m trying to hold myself up as some sort of shining example here, because I’m not. I’ll be the first to admit that there are other sacrifices we could make that we don’t. And we’re hardly perfect with the resolutions we do make; the avoid-conflict-at-all-costs ethos that runs through Lisa’s family means that in particular it’s not uncommon for us to end up at Walmart on a trip to South Carolina or Florida rather than get into an argument over what’s so objectionable about shopping there.

But my point here isn’t to turn people into ascetics in pursuit of living morally perfect lives. It’s just that there seem to be so many campaigns or events designed to salve people’s consciences about the causes they care about. I don’t object to such things because I don’t think they make enough of an impact; I object to them because I think they actively work against making an impact, by allowing people to pretend they’ve made a contribution without actually doing anything that might make an impact.

Like participating in Earth Hour: I’ve yet to encounter anyone who used their participation in Earth Hour as a springboard to actually live their life in a greener way, by no longer leaving their computer on all night long, or by choosing to own less than one car per licensed driver in the household.

Similarly, there was a movement on Facebook to have people set their status to “is gay” for National Coming Out Day last week. Laudable. But of the tens of thousands of people who participated, how many have made even a twenty dollar donation to organisations fighting against Proposition 8 in California or Amendment 2 in Florida? Doing so actually would make a contribution towards making our world a better place; what sort of impact did claiming to be gay on Facebook for a single day make?

Or blogging. I’ve blogged about how disgraceful the treatment people feel entitled to mete out to customer service employees in America is–but is there really anyone who’s started treating other human beings more civilly regardless of whether or not they wear a nametag because of what I’ve written?

If you want to do Earth Hour, or announce to the Facebook community that you’re gay for a day, or blog about what you care, great. I mean it–great. Stand up for what you believe in. But use stuff like that as a step towards actually making a difference.

I

Inheritance
Words today: 1059
Words total: 67,695

Time spent writing: Ninety minutes (1.30-3pm)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Tyop: The flat sandstone roofstops of the necropolis stretched away from them
New words used today: juddering, cinderblock
Alcohol: Amaretto fower
Milestone reached: Three quarters done!

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