The petition is dying as an effective means of protest
Before the internet, a heavily-signed petition being delivered to Parliament was a significant moment. The sight of piles and piles of paper, all crammed with actual signatures that signalled opposition to (or support for) something seemed like it effected some kind of real change, or at the very least a major platform to voice your argument.
Nowadays, the petition has become so ubiquitous and frivolous that is nigh-on dead as an effective means of protest.
Recently we’ve seen them against people making music (Phil Collins), against people playing music (Kanye West at Glastonbury), for people playing music (Gwar at the Super Bowl), against a man playing football (Tom Cleverley, for England), and for a man to be allowed back on a TV talent show (Iain Watters, on the Great British Bake Off).
In the past we saw the National Female Petition Against Slavery in 1833, “the largest single anti-slavery petition ever to be presented to Parliament”. Now too many seem to focus on how people’s feelings have been gravely hurt by the prospect of a headliner they won’t go to see at a festival they aren’t planning on going to.
One of the most recent high-profile petitions centred on Donald Trump, and pleaded with the Government to ban him from the UK. Though not frivolous, this was an extremely misguided petition nevertheless. You may — quite rightly — be horrified by some of the things Trump has said over the last year, but the very idea that any government would consider banning someone with a even a miniscule possibility of becoming the leader of the most powerful nation on earth is ludicrous.
When people had to sign a petition face-to-face, there would have to have been some persuasion, a clear argument that set out why the petition was necessary and why it had a chance of being successful. Now, all it takes is a snappy headline and a click of a button, and it’s done. There is no quality control, no self-analysis, no assessment of predicted success or failure. Trump was never going to be banned by Britain, so it was doomed to failure from the get-go. Yet it was given immense traction by social media and the press.
Kanye West meanwhile is a repeated target of the more frivolous and petty petitions of recent times. In the last week, one has asked someone — it’s not clear who — to stop him recording an album of David Bowie songs as a tribute to the late singer. We’ve also seen ones trying to stop him playing both Glastonbury and Toronto’s Pan Am games.
You aren’t forced to go and see a headliner at a festival, or purchase and listen to an album, so why even bother registering your disgust in such a public way?
The answer to this is obvious— because it’s easy. In fact, it’s so simple to create and market a petition, that it takes virtually no effort at all. It’s also blindingly effortless to sign a petition, and you barely need any understanding of what it is you’re adding your voice to. Consequently, people will put their name to just about any petition thrown at their social media feed.
As a result we’re swamped with them, and genuinely important ones get lost in the fog of frivolity. And there are extremely worthy ones out there, ones that have had success. In 2015, Change.org published a list of their biggest victories, which included such excellent work as overturning the ban on gay Scouts in America, stopping the execution of a Sudanese woman because of her religion, and forcing a prosecution Trayvon Martin’s killer.
Politicians in the UK know that petitions have the power to be successful, and have actively encouraged a swamped marketplace to give the illusion of increased democracy. In 2011, the Government e-petition website launched, and in its first year attracted 6.4 million signatures on 36,000 petitions, a rate of one signature every 12 minutes. If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, it automatically has to be debated in Parliament. Since that threshold came into place, 18 petitions have reached the required number and criteria, and of those 18, all were either rejected out of hand, or voted down after a debate.
Of the ones that didn’t reach the threshold, a good number highlight just how flawed an exercise this has become. One asked for a ban on condom machines, another wanted to stop Liverpool and Manchester merging to become “Manpool”, and someone wanted to close Google outright. If the Government are going to ignore serious petitions, and people continue to submit frivolous ones, the only sure-fire outcome here is an ever-lowering of trust in democracy.
The ones aimed at artists also walk a tightrope which goes alarmingly close to curtailing freedom of expression. If one were to force an album to be scrapped or a concert to be cancelled, we’d be heading into dangerous waters — just how far would we be willing to go in censoring artists that we dislike?
Returning to Kanye West’s case, the petitions against him publicly question his talent or criticise his ego, but the darker reaches of the internet quickly make it about his race. While the vast majority of people are not objecting for these reasons (though they are terminal bores who believe the mythical concept of “real music” actually exists), for a few this is clearly the trigger. They object to him because he refuses to act in a way they believe a black man should, and it scares them. For example, the man who started the petition to have him removed as Glastonbury headliner told NME that he found West’s performance at the Brits “just threatening”.
A look at some of the more openly racist comments which were posted on Glastonbury Festival’s Facebook page after they announced West as a headliner is further evidence — this excellent Medium post by Ashley Clark features some of the more prejudiced ones.
And this is really the crux of the matter. Before petition websites were big-business, they tended to rally against prejudice. Now, we see far too many that want to perpetuate it.