I got an email from a campaigning petition group the other day.
You know the kind of thing. Ever since Avaaz made it big there are hundreds of them around. You’ve got your generalist petition sites (any petition you want), you’ve got your specialist petition sites (against child exploitation, say, or advocating universal education), you’ve got your pretending-to-be-generalist sites (any petition we want). Sometimes I think they’re a good thing; sometimes I think they’re horribly undemocratic (or even antidemocratic), and I’ve seen how they can iron the facts out the way they want them to look just as smoothly as the mainstream political operators spin theirs.
That’s by the by. What I found interesting this time was the way the site was marketing itself. Look what we’ve done, they were shouting, jumping up and down excitedly and pointing at themselves. They were going to shut down this museum and some guy set up a petition on our site and now they’re not. And then they looked sternly at me and asked me what I was going to do, why I hadn’t started a campaign on their site, why I was so damned apathetic and unengaged that I didn’t care about anything enough to get everyone I knew to get everyone they knew to type in their email addresses and click on a couple of boxes on their website and change the world.
Look, forgive me for being cynical, but this was a campaign I happen to know a little about. Not a lot, just a little, but enough to make me quite confident that this chap had no more saved the museum than I had saved the first test for England by willing that last stubborn Australian wicket to fall. There were dozens of petitions about these museums, for heaven’s sake. There were local newspaper campaigns, national press, national TV and radio all throwing their arms up in horror at the very possibility of closure. And good for them. I threw my arms up, too, I even signed one of the petitions (not the one in question, as it happens), and I was equal parts relieved and smug when it was announced that the museums wouldn’t be closed after all. I was relieved because I regularly visit at least one of these museums and would like to visit the others before it’s too late. I was smug because I’d predicted the announcement, even while I was throwing my hands up in horror (just in case, you see), and because no one had ever suggested closure other than the museums themselves, and it was clear enough they’d only done it in order to provoke a general reaction of horror and hysteria, force the authorities into issuing a denial, and thus “save” the museums.
I haven’t checked, because I can’t be bothered and I don’t actually have to, but I’ll bet you ten thousand fully-transferable petition signatures that all the local papers and TV stations are patting themselves on the back, too, and telling anyone who’ll listen that they’ve saved the museums. But (as anyone who’s complained long and loud about the policies of the current secretary of state for education can tell you), adding your name to a list, even a list tens or hundreds of thousands long, doesn’t actually mean you’ll be listened to.
Or, to put it another way, if you want something, it’s not usually enough just to say that you want it and sit back, like a Hogwarts wizard opening a door from the other end of the room, waiting for it to happen. There’s nothing hugely wrong with petitions in general, I’ve signed a few in the past, but if you really want to change something don’t kid yourself you’ve done it just by ticking a box and putting it on Facebook. The very ease of armchair activism has devalued it, made real activism – or just real action – all the more valuable. Sign your petition, go ahead, it won’t do any harm and there’s a minuscule but real chance it’ll do what you want.
But if you want a better chance than that, best get off the armchair.