NoAomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open after the tennis player was threatened with suspension because of her mental health for refusing to attend press conferences is the latest example of the war between celebrities and the establishment that is making the public their own Justify complaints.
These incidents may seem like made-up media culture war events – they flare up just as quickly as they fade, and are fueled by cheap social media lighting and then doused by our narrow attention spans. But they have something more substantial, as they define or give shape to a much more significant conflict between two value systems.
In one corner there are those who demand or demand that their personal experiences and identity be respected, that they be better treated, that they be believed in the first place. In the opposite corner stand those rubbing against this new world where people’s feelings indulge at the expense of established institutions, processes, and practices – be it press conferences, university curricula, or royal protocols.
Osaka embodies two controversial issues: race and mental health. Equal rights between races and the validity of mental health problems are generally accepted principles. There is no shortage of high profile personalities willing to speak out about their own mental health issues.
But we still argue over the most basic ways we can support these causes, like removing the knee or whether we believe people’s claims about mental health. It becomes clear that there is broad consensus that racism is bad and that we need to take care of mental health, but very little appetite to actually do something to make the world fairer or more accommodating.
Generational differences, political ideologies, general ignorance and simple prejudices underlie this resistance to change. But there is also something in the way these causes are expressed and supported that fails them. Celebrities, high profile figures, and influencers have conflicting effects – they have vast reach, but their wealth seems incongruent to the pain they are trying to highlight. If you tried, you couldn’t find any less personable ambassadors for the pain caused by racism or poor mental health than pop stars, royalty, and the world’s top athletes. It then becomes easy to interpret their complaints as tantrums rather than cries for help. Binding to the rules of a competitive world that fetishizes individual performance and stigmatizes failures is undoubtedly associated with costs. But that pain is a tough sell compared to struggling with racism and mental health problems with no resources.
But that’s the catch: the suffering of those without a profile or platform is also unpopular, Therefore, we are dependent on high-profile personalities in order to be able to lead these debates at all. The centrality of celebrities is the result of a media landscape where it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money without delivering content that is tied to high traffic people and lifestyles. This glossing over bitter problems means that we can no longer approach these problems without enlivening them with glamor. While we trivialize them, we invite the public to be skeptical, which exacerbates the conflict between believers and deniers.
There is an abundance of first-person testimony on both racism and mental health problems, but little of this concerns, for example, the barbaric treatment of ethnic minority refugees and asylum seekers in custody; or the fear of those stuck on inhumanly long NHS waiting lists; or how the deprivations of racism and mental health have emerged disproportionately in people with lower incomes. There is pressure, especially on women and people of color, to go through trauma and package it well for consumption and virality. The result is that we fail to see racial and mental health crises being chaotic, persistent, and tied to insoluble socio-economic factors.
Liberal benevolence towards the causes and general ignorance towards structural remedial measures lead to the fact that we live in a climate in which we seem to talk constantly about these topics and give the impression of a society saturated with sympathy and solidarity, but actually very hostile to change. We are encouraged to practice self-care, but are limited in the way we take care of ourselves without engaging in a system that heals us little and does much harm to others. Our diversions, meals, and purchases are supplied by those on less than the minimum wage, by others with zero hour contracts on behalf of companies making profitable use of this exploitation. These companies, in a sort of marketing ouroboros (where a snake or dragon eats its own tail) successfully adopt the rhetoric of anti-racism or mental health awareness, while little is done to address systemic issues to which they contribute.
The gap between a focus on race and mental health and lack of action means that people who are still vocal about fighting injustice can easily portray them as whiners. Your critics can then position themselves as realists who rely not on personal experience but on facts and angrily point out all the (useless) ways in which we revere and anchor the rights of others. This is not a fair setup. Osaka’s detractors may display immeasurable atrocities, but she and all the other victims are also abandoned by the parties who claim to support them.