This week, the Guardian newspaper, in its bid to sell the news one would assume, saw it fit to publish photographs of Trinidadian sprinter, Michelle-Lee Ahye’s with her female partner on its front page. Ahye is the nation’s first ever female gold medal winner in the Commonwealth Games and so Facebook, our very reliable source for the trending conversations in the nation, erupted. The cries against the Guardian’s irresponsibility were resounding as were those that called for a boycott of the newspaper.
Among the many remarks that indicated people’s displeasure was the observation that the newspaper had thrown the gold medal into the darkness and focused instead on Ahye’s personal life, a matter of no relevance to her recent historic contribution to sport. Instead, the Guardian has stoked the fire of ill-will. As if the LGBTQIA issue wasn’t raw enough. One wonders why those photographs mattered and whether the Guardian had seriously thought about the decision before it appeared on their front page. Perhaps it was a way to tell people that all around you there are LGBTQIA people? That they make significant contributions to our national pride account?
While many are clamouring for a boycott of the Guardian, I’m thinking counter current – that this is actually a step in the right direction. Why? Well for starters, the fact that the headlines ran “Smear Factor,” suggests that here we have an issue that is now a part of the national consciousness. Of course this is a heated issue. Yes, the Guardian has decided to ride the wave. It is tasteless. We can all see that. But, let’s put aside the very well-known fact that newspapers will do anything to sell. It’s a business after all and so the spectacle is important. Regardless of the newspaper’s apology the deed has been done. We are a nation that functions on the energy of the spectacle. And the citizens responded.
This reminds me of a comment I heard on a train in England a couple years ago. An English gentleman seated next to me was on his phone. In the course of describing someone to the person on the other side of the line, he said “He has the soft-spoken voice of the cultured.” Today I think of this in our context. Take the “cultured,” rational-minded political candidate and pit him against the shouting, picong-throwing, bacchanalian candidate and I can bet my money on which one is bound to get the vote. Society of the spectacle, to use the phrase very loosely. Without getting into the philosophical arguments, let’s just say that societies, through television, cinema and the internet, have evolved into ones that depend on these images. This is our social life. Facebook and Instagram are popular examples of how images trigger reactions, responses.
Before April 12, the Guardian’s front-page story would have, indeed, been a smear campaign on top of the reported smear factor (remember the Guardian story notes that these photos were leaked online in an attempt to tarnish Ahye’s name, yet they published it). Today, it is just sensational news. The public’s response, in support of Ahye as a national athlete, strengthens Justice Devindra Rampersad’s argument that a person’s race, gender or sexual orientation is “not their identity…not their soul…not the sum total of their value to society or their value to themselves.”
The sensational headline served only to challenge the strength of national pride versus personal bias and national pride triumphed. The headline, tasteless as it was in its misplaced focus, will go down in history for the responses it provoked. It is indeed a non-story as far as the media portrayal is concerned. On the other hand, it was perhaps a necessary evil, for the responses now tell a story of the shift taking place in the society.
Apart from the LGBTQIA issue, the overwhelming responses that prompted the Guardian to tender an apology makes a significant case that people’s views do matter. It also signals to us the power of social media, yet again. Why then do we not use that power to change the things that need to be changed for a more efficient society? It’s not that simple, but it only takes a few ripples to begin a wave. And we as a people are good at using the idea of the spectacle to enact change. In this case, the Guardian simply handed us a ready-made one.