A thread on Twitter this morning about some of the history of the early Gay Pride movement got me thinking about whether we are where we are now because of increasingly polarised points of view; or rather it is the extreme polarising views that get the most attention, amplified by social media where debate, nuance, balance, and context cannot fit into 240 characters. It is easy to shout that ‘X’ is bad and ‘Y’ is good leaving no space for middle ground views. Of course, we have seen politicians of late use this to their advantage!
So, some shouty LGBTQ+ people (not me I hasten to add) dislike what is seen as the corporate sponsorship of Pride events, viewing companies as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ to make more corporate profits. To put crudely as the start of the Twitter thread I read today:
“Pride isn’t brought to you by T-Mobile and Absolut Vodka, it was brought to you by drag queens and trans women throwing bricks. By lesbian and queer women taking care of gay men dying of AIDS in the face of a intentional government neglect.”
Exactly 240 characters that tweet. It is right to say that lesbians and queer women were some of the leading campaigners to help gay men in 1980s as the AIDS epidemic ravaged that community with vocal campaigners in places like London and New York and were a strong force for good, compassion, and direct action. But some of that tweet is very wrong – it is an extreme view.
Take Absolut Vodka – their support for the LGBTQ Community started 40 years ago, in New York, in 1981. Can you guess what else started 40 years ago, in New York, in 1981? You guessed it – the AIDS crisis. At the time big brands and pretty much anyone didn’t want to be associated with the LGBTQ community of their campaigns. However, Absolut began advertising in two community publications. The Advocate and After Dark.
At the time there was no internet for information. No phones to organise the LGBTQ community. Certainly, no daily press briefing from the Government as we have had in Covid times. So, publications like these were vital in spreading health advice and helping the gay community come together and organise meetings, talks, and rallies. Absolut did not just take out a quarter page ad hidden in the middle. They took out the back page ad in both. Famously the most prominent and most expensive slot. They did not just do one issue, they signed long term 2-year contracts ensuring these magazines could stay in print.
They have also released numerous limited edition rainbow bottles, with proceeds benefiting LGBTQ projects, events, causes around the world. They even worked on these with Gilbert Baker, the artist who designed the original Pride rainbow flag. Absolut is just one example of a brand that has supported the gay community with millions of dollars of donations and has shown long term commitment over 40 years that cause. So, it is completely wrong to see people, some born well after 1981, telling brands they have no place in Pride.
And of course, companies are employers with LGBTQ employees and their support for Pride signals support for their staff (and customers) in the workplace and that alone simply wasn’t the case even 10 years ago.
I have taken this as an example of an extreme view on social media that goes on to get amplified via re-tweets and like. History is of course not immune to the prevalence of extreme views being given prominence and having terrible effects from the Crusades, extreme Protestantism and extreme Catholicism during the Reformation, the terror of the French Revolution to more recent 20th century examples of Fascism, Communism, the Khmer Rouge and radical Islam. We might also call it fundamentalism.
How extreme views take hold, get amplified, exploited, and hijacked seems to be a key factor in how polarised societies have become in the West with consequent impact on politics; and the answer to that question is not straightforward. Dark forces generating ‘bots’ on Twitter, politicians cynically jumping on extreme far left or far right positions for political advantage so that the ‘tweet’ becomes the news story, but perhaps it is just the nature of social media itself and how we consume news, information and other people’s views. There is no room for that balance, nuance, context etc in 240 characters.
When was the last time you saw a public figure submit to a probing lengthy interview with a journalist and get asked detailed questions about policy? When did you last read an in-depth analysis on a current affairs topic? When did you last read a Twitter thread longer than two tweets with verified statistics, context, and caveats? (They do exist!)
There is obviously a space for the historian (or even a journalist) here who wants to champion accuracy, cite sources, provide balance, and challenge viewpoints with space for argument and debate. But are there people out there willing to listen, or is the space for the balance middle ground view getting smaller? If the latter, it feels to me the world is not going to become a happier place anytime soon.
Credit to Mikey Robinson on Twitter for his thread on Absolut Vodka which I have drawn on here.