Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, after the tennis player was threatened with suspension for refusing to attend press conferences for the sake of her mental health, is the most recent example of the war playing out between celebrities and the establishment, through which the public justify their own grievances.
These incidents may seem like confected media culture war events – flaring up just as quickly as they die down, and fuelled by the cheap kindling of social media, then doused by our low attention spans. But there is something more substantive about them in that they define, or give shape to, a much more significant clash between two value systems.
In one corner, there are those who ask or demand that their personal experiences and identity be respected, that they are treated better, that first and foremost, they are believed. In the opposing corner stand those who chafe against this new world in which people’s feelings are indulged at the expense of established institutions, processes and practices – be it press conferences, university curriculums or royal protocol.
Osaka personifies two contested issues: race and mental health. Equal rights between races and the validity of mental health issues are universally accepted principles. There is no shortage of high-profile figures willing to talk about their own mental health struggles.
But still we argue over the most basic ways of showing support for these causes, such as taking the knee, or about whether we believe people’s mental health claims. What is becoming clear is that there is broad consensus that racism is bad and that we need to care about mental health, but very little appetite for actually doing anything to make the world fairer or more accommodating.
Generational divides, political ideology, general ignorance and straightforward prejudice underlie this resistance to change. But there is also something in how these causes are expressed and supported that fails them. Celebrities, high-profile figures and influencers have a contradictory impact – they have a wide reach, but their wealth seems to be incongruent with the pain they are trying to highlight. You couldn’t, if you tried, find less sympathetic ambassadors for the pain caused by racism or poor mental health than pop stars, royalty and the world’s elite athletes. It becomes easy, then, to cast their complaints as tantrums rather than cries for help. There is no doubt a cost to being bound by the rules of a competitive world that fetishises individual attainment and stigmatises failure. But this pain, compared with that of struggling with racism and mental health issues with no resources at all, is a difficult sell.
But this is the catch: the suffering of those without a profile or platform is also unpopular, so we are dependent on high-profile figures in order to have these debates in the first place. The centrality of celebrity is the result of a media landscape in which it is harder and harder to make money without delivering content hooked on to high-traffic individuals and lifestyles. This sugarcoating of bitter problems means we can no longer approach these issues without leavening them with glamour. As we trivialise them, we invite scepticism from audiences, exacerbating the conflict between the believers and deniers.
There is a glut of first person testimony about both racism and mental health issues, but little of that is on, for example, the barbaric treatment of ethnic-minority refugees and asylum seekers in detention; or the angst of those stuck on inhumanely long NHS waiting lists; or how the deprivations of both racism and mental health are disproportionately visited on those on lower incomes. There is a pressure, particularly on women and people of colour, to perform trauma and package it nicely for consumption and virality. The result is that we don’t see that race and mental health crises are messy, intractable and tied to insoluble socioeconomic factors.
Liberal goodwill towards causes and general cluelessness about structural remedies mean we live in a climate where we seem to be talking about these issues all the time, creating the impression of a society saturated with sympathy and solidarity, but really quite hostile to change. We are encouraged to practise self-care, but are limited in how we cater to ourselves without engaging with a system that heals us little, and harms others plenty. Our diversions, meals and shopping are delivered by those on less than minimum wage, by others on zero-hours contracts, on behalf of companies leveraging those exploitations for profit. These companies, in a sort of marketing ouroboros (in which a snake or dragon eats its own tail), successfully co-opt the rhetoric of anti-racism or mental health awareness, while little is done to address systemic issues to which they contribute.
The gap between the focus on race and mental health and lack of action, means that if people are still vocal about tackling injustice, it is easy to paint them as whiners. Their critics can then position themselves as realists, leaning not on personal experience but facts, exasperatedly pointing to all the (useless) ways in which we revere and enshrine the rights of others. This is not a fair setup. Osaka’s detractors may be exhibiting unfathomable cruelty, but she, and all the other victims, are also failed by those very parties that claim to support them.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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