In the wake of an online controversy surrounding posters produced by the L&H, Conor Kevin O’Nolan talks about the phenomenon of selective outrage
Every Thursday morning, UCD’s societies take part in the weekly poster run, a fierce competition for the few spaces left on the concourse to put up posters advertising themselves and events they are running during the week. Two different posters advertising debates on controversial topics were put up last week, both of them with an illustration depicting the debate motion.
One was advertising an L&H debate; ”This House Would Legalise Abortion? You decide!” with a stick figure throwing a baby into a bin in a parody of littering notices. Within hours there was an event on Facebook entitled “REMOVE L&H ABORTION POSTERS”, with hundreds of people invited and auditors of societies, captains of sports teams and UCD Students’ Union college conveners encouraged to spread this event as far as possible. If you took a walk down the concourse the day after, some of the posters had been defaced with ink and tape, and while not as drastic as expected, it was an unusually vigorous and physical reaction by the normally apathetic students of UCD.
The other poster was put up by Lawsoc, with “This House Would Legalise Assisted Suicide” accompanied with a cartoon of two people apparently helping each other end their lives, with it being made look as simple as flicking off a switch or unzipping a zip. There were no suggestions online that this poster should be removed, and no events complaining about it. Assisted suicide is a controversial issue, one that shouldn’t be trivialised by a cartoon on a poster either. Despite this, the callous treatment of the subject was still ignored by the masses who were busy seething over another poster.
One of the many arguments presented on the Facebook event was that people who have been affected by abortion should not have to see this sort of thing while walking through campus. However, no one has bothered to mention that the posters put up by Lawsoc might affect someone who has been affected by a relative seeking the right to die. It might seem like a thoroughly less significant issue in Ireland, but a former law lecturer from UCD is currently at odds with the state over her right to have her partner assist her in death should she not be able to complete suicide herself. It’s not that far a reach of the imagination that a number of students on campus have watched an incapacitated relative die despite wishing to at least have the option to die with dignity.
After the ‘Kony2012’ campaign earlier this year, it became apparent that some people’s involvement in certain types of activism is done out of some bizarre need stand for something without actually thinking critically about the matter at hand. The probability that a large enough number of students were offended by the poster to justify the outrage caused is slim. The vast majority of people joining the event to support the removal of the posters were probably persuaded that they should feel a certain way about it because of the ire it drew from their peers.
If someone has had an abortion, they could possibly have been affected by the crudeness of the poster, and they themselves have a right to complain. The reality of the reaction to the poster, however, is that there were a large number of people postulating about how someone could theoretically react to it. If roles were reversed and the posters about assisted suicide were the topic of the internet’s outrage, there’d have been a fantastic number of people, angrily writing about something that most of them have never been affected by.
People’s reactions to situations like this are incredibly blinkered. When one person does something: it’s fine. But when another does it, as long as one person starts shouting loud enough, it’s outrageous and needs to be stopped immediately. People reacting to things selectively is nothing new and it doesn’t just happen on campus.
One of the more high profile incidents of this happening in recent times was a campaign by the pro-life organisation Youth Defence. Youth Defence have always been fairly consistent in their message that abortion should never be legalised in Ireland and have been actively hindering people’s access to abortion abroad by picketing family planning clinics for years. This summer they ran a massive ad campaign essentially saying that there is always a better solution than abortion, and that as well as killing the foetus, it can have lasting psychological damage to the mother.
Among the many complaints made about the campaign was that it was emotionally manipulative. However Youth Defence are not the only organisation who routinely manipulate people’s emotions to further their causes. There’s currently an ad campaign being run by the Jack and Jill Foundation, showing a mother holding her child, holding a sign saying “Will my child stay in hospital or come home? You decide.” with a number below for you to directly donate to the charity by text. Barnados, Trócaire and the Irish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children, amongst many others are all guilty of similar tactics. It would be completely unfair to imply that these charities are not deserving of support, but when the one organisation gets singled out for its marketing strategy and others are allowed to do essentially the same thing with no backlash, the argument makes no sense.
People should react to things, they should make their voices heard, but they should make their voices heard in such a way that the people listening will actually think about what they’re saying rather than mindlessly agree. People shouldn’t feel the need to be offended on someone’s behalf, no one other than a person who has been directly affected by abortion will know how they feel about a poster crudely representing abortion. Similarly, shock imagery is not limited to those trying to illicit controversy. Previous victims of child abuse will almost certainly support the efforts of charity like the ISPCC, but do you know for certain whether an image of a beaten child will draw up horrible memories for them? Either way, you don’t see anyone complaining when charities use the same ways to promote themselves that the L&H did.