Intervention and ethics: The Yes Men case

*From 21m21s to 45m45s

The Yes Men is an artist-duo from the US who focuses on culture-jamming activism through the use of tactical media, in order to raise awareness about problematic societal issues. 2004 marked the 20th anniversary of the Dow Chemicals’ Bhopal (India) catastrophe, to which they wanted to react with their own means[1]. After months of ‘media lobbying’ and the development of a (fake) character supposedly working for Dow, one of them (Andy Bichlbaum) was invited to a global BBC broadcast, where he went as a spokesperson for Dow. During the broadcast, (seen live by nearly 5 million people worldwide) Andy Bichlbaum (taking the role of ‘Jude Finisterra’) states that “Dow finally agrees to take full accountability of the disaster, and communicates that Dow will sell Union Carbide to repair the victims”. The hoax was celebrated worldwide as a major slap to a big corporation (their stocks fell considerably), but the mainstream media –powered by corporate interests—accused them of giving false hope to the people of Bhopal (suggesting that they should have not made such an action). They were accused of raising false hopes, by making people believe they were going to receive a remuneration that they actually would not receive. That led The Yes Men to ask themselves: “Had we actually upset the people we were meant to help?” After posing themselves this question, they went to Bhopal to check by themselves. The media had shown an image of disappointment and anger towards the artists-activists, so they were weary on their arrival. Motivated by their self-critique and enquiry, they headed to Bhopal to meet the people who they had allegedly offended. When they arrived, they found out a very different reality: they found out that the people had felt empowered by what they had done and found their action almost necessary.

Going back to the question the intervention-sceptics ask (‘should you intervene?’); I consider it the wrong question or, at its best, incomplete; (uncritical) inaction is –many times—worst than equivocation. Of course we have to be aware –and consequent—of the effects that our actions may carry (specially when our intervention is dealing with vital elements of human beings, like life itself), but this should lead to a more critical reflection of our agency, rather than to inaction. In any case, it is always easier to ‘calculate’ the effects of ‘acting’, rather than those of ‘not acting’. In the end of the 80’s the European Commission hired a group of economists for a rather peculiar task: based on simulation exercises, they were asked to calculate the cost of the non-Europe (basically, how much would it ‘cost’ –avoid earning—to not establish a European Union)[2]. Indeed, the costs of ‘not doing’ topped those of ‘doing’, and perhaps this served as further fundament to establish the EU. I am aware of the differences between doing economic calculations (as difficult as it may be, models can be developed for it) and foreseeing the effect on society of a certain ‘action’, but the question underlying this issue is important in this case: what is the cost (consequences) of ‘not doing’? This attitude resonates with Slavoj Zizek, when he wrote about the ‘need’ for a Syriza win, prior to Greece’s latest elections (January 2015): “There are never perfect conditions for an act—every act by definition comes too early. But one has to begin somewhere, with a particular intervention; one just has to bear in mind the further complications that such an act will lead to”[3].

[1] The Yes Men Fix the World (23’-43’36’’)

[2] CALDERÓN, Mario. El Costo de no Hacer (The cost of not-doing) in El Tiempo edition of 3rd December 1991:

[3] Slavoj Zizek – The Urgent Necessity of a Syriza Victory in Greece


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