rom the dancing Eid boy, to photos documenting the growth of Fiona the hippo, to dogs rejoicing at their owners returning from war, wholesome memes are supposed to be a source of guilt-free pleasure. It makes sense that your average social media user would develop an appetite for “pure” content in the era of multi-level irony, fake news and alt-right trolling; it’s a pleasant palette-cleanser. And it can feel inspiring to read that specific genre of viral news story in which people overcome extraordinary odds or extend random acts of kindness to their fellow human beings. (Eli Pariser built an entire business model around demand for this content when he founded Upworthy.)
Like many others, I was moved by the recent story of Tasia, the Walmart cashier who took time out of her lunch break to give Angela, a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, a manicure after she was turned away from a nail bar. It was an act of unsolicited kindness that granted a woman the dignity she deserved — but it was one fueled by injustice on the part of a world that likely has and will continue to exclude Angela on the grounds of her ability. Tasia rightfully called out Da Vi Nails in a Facebook post for denying Angela service, asserting that she has the right to the same beauty treatments and pampering experiences as everybody else, especially considering disabled people spend so much of their lives being infantilized or dehumanised.
Tasia and Angela’s story is just one example of a wider trend. Look closely at the touching true life stories which spread across social media and you’ll find that, while they are presented as positive, they actually reveal some pretty ugly truths. Take the video of the Alabama teacher who cried tears of joy when she was gifted a car by the mother of one of her students after years of taking the bus to work. Courtney Adelaye, the parent in question, is the CEO of a successful hair care product company. Of all the coverage of this story online, few outlets if any addressed the fact that teachers are grossly underpaid, and not all of them are lucky enough to have the child of a generous business owner in their class.
Then there is the story of Walter Carr, who walked for almost 20 miles to his first day of work at a moving company, embarking on the eight-hour journey at midnight, walking beside busy highways and encountering stray dogs along the way. He was aided by police officers who drove him some of the way and was, in the end, rewarded with a car. Jenny Lamey, the customer whose house he walked all night to reach, started a GoFundMe to help Carr with his transport troubles, and raised more than $44,000. Of his ordeal, she said: “I think God helped him through.” It is far more likely he was motivated by sheer economic desperation.
It is understandable that The Washington Post and other news outlets would latch onto Carr’s extraordinary story, but it is also necessary to examine the structural problems that forced him to take such drastic action, including a lack of public transportation and a dearth of jobs with sufficient pay in his local area. We’re applauding the generosity and self-sacrifice of ordinary people like Lamey and Adelaye instead of holding the institutions at fault accountable.
Another warm-and-fuzzy news story details how a pregnant woman was “very humbled” when her co-workers donated their vacation days so she could spend more time with her new baby. The federal government gives workers the option to voluntarily transfer their paid leave days to another person — a particularly precious baby shower gift, considering the average worker in the U.S. can only expect ten days of paid leave per year, and maternity leave is not mandated. As an outsider, this is bizarre to me. Here in the UK, 28 days of paid leave per year is considered the baseline, and maternity pay is a statutory right.
What many of these “heartwarming” tales have in common is a working culture which places inordinate pressure on individuals, coupled with a failure on the part of organizations to pay a living wage and offer sufficient parental or sick leave (not to mention a broader lack of transport infrastructure) which make it essentially impossible for workers to meet these demands without the assistance of a benevolent interloper.
According to Esquire’s Joanna Rothkopf, we love these viral moments because “they’re rare stories of compassion—because we see someone crying with joy, for once, and we cry, too… But they’re also inherently stories of a collective failure to make sure Americans have easy access to transportation and healthcare and maternity leave. They’re stories of how we neglect, and then happily weep when that neglect is temporarily sated.”
Another heartstring-tugging sub-genre of this phenomenon involves communities coming together to crowdfund an individual’s healthcare bill. This was touched on in an episode of Queer Eye’s second season; makeover recipient Skyler Jay, a trans man, had successfully crowdfunded his top surgery but still owed thousands of dollars in additional unexpected medical bills. This was swiftly glossed over in the episode, perhaps unsurprisingly; Queer Eye is wonderful in its focus on empathy and human connection, but it is also essentially a reality show about consumerism-as-self-care, and acknowledging that Skyler’s life remained full of financial obstacles at the end of the week-long shoot would have made for a less tidy, TV-friendly narrative.
Again, as somebody who is fortunate enough to live in a country with a National Health Service (albeit one which is woefully under-resourced by our own government), it makes me uncomfortable to think of somebody’s access to healthcare depending on the efficacy of their GoFundMe campaign, with the burden falling to marginalized people to prove that they are “worthy” of strangers’ generosity.
It’s understandable to seek out the positive in a negative situation, but to go “aww” at random acts of kindness without remaining critical of the social problems which necessitate them is to be willfully naïve. When a media outlet catches wind of a noble oppressed person being rewarded for their hardship, it will likely skew the story in the manner most likely to evoke an emotional response and therefore make it more shareable. I worry that the popularity of poverty-related stories which have been repackaged as fluffy human-interest pieces is damaging our collective ability to discern propaganda from real news in our feeds.
This trend also helps to perpetuate disturbing new social norms, such as relying on the kindness of strangers in lieu of any institutional support. The government can feel free to make all the funding cuts it wants if there is a popular delusion that good old regular folks will step in to pick up the slack. No need to invest in transportation infrastructure when workers can just walk 20 miles to “earn” a car — and why would you want socialized medicine when you can just ask random people online to cough up the money you need to cover exorbitant healthcare expenses?
When media outlets give these people the puff-piece treatment, they often fail to illuminate that such instances represent the tip of the poverty iceberg. What if you don’t have the kind of inspirational story that would make a great Hallmark Channel movie? What if you’re just one of the many ordinary people out there who’s struggling to make ends meet every single day without the help of a generous fundraising campaign? For every Walter Carr, there are countless people whose toil and suffering doesn’t go viral, who aren’t rewarded with a new car or financial assistance.
Today, as I write this, media outlets are praising school employees for donating their sick days so that a teacher who is battling cancer can attend chemotherapy. The story is getting the usual comments like “this just restored my faith in humanity” and “people are awesome.” And it’s true; every time an ordinary person goes above and beyond to help somebody else, it is worth commending. But they shouldn’t have to. We can’t rely on chance encounters or altruistic co-workers to help us work around fundamental institutional problems. We need solutions, not Band-Aids with smiley face on them.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis
Photo by Susan Wood via Getty Images.