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Are Victimhood and Hate the New Currency?

Posted by David Laity on
Are Victimhood and Hate the New Currency?

Recently our little social enterprise was the subject of a targeted social media hate campaign that could have destroyed any other business. At the time it felt like we may not survive the onslaught as a popular New York street artist unleashed her 100,000 strong army on both us and the charities that we support. It happened in the early hours of the morning and by the time we had woken the damage was already being done.

As business models go this is not one that is going to make us very wealthy, we're giving away half of our profit after all; but it is ethical, we know the product is great and the charities we support have seen some wonderful results over the past decade.

All of this was put at stake early one morning by a woman on the other side of the world, expertly wielding her 'victim card' for her own personal gain.

Fast track back a decade to when my home burnt down in the Black Saturday bushfires. I could have played the victim and for a little while there I probably did, but it felt disrespectful to the people who had died and so like everyone else I chose to be a survivor and we tried to get on with life. But that was ten years ago, before social media empowered people to be victims. It was before we could simply delete and block those who didn't approve of our self appointed status and when hating someone had to be done to their face. There was once a time when people lived in tight-knit communities and they had no choice but to bend in order to fit in with others. Thanks to social media people now bend their community to fit in with themselves.

Before I go any further, it's probably important to know that the street artist in this story identifies as a woman of colour and a lesbian. Her artwork is politically motivated and to give her credit she is a minority within a minority within a minority, and so would be facing multiple levels of discrimination on a daily basis. I imagine this would make you angry. It would make me angry and it was the full force of this anger that we felt. It is also important to know that I am a white, middle class, middle aged man. I accept that I am privileged and despite what life might throw at me, I will always have a choice as to how I deal with it. I imagine choice is not something you get a lot of when you're a gay black woman living in America.

While this business began over ten years ago, this story really begins around the middle of 2018 when I was contacted by a self-made philanthropist interested in building his portfolio of impact investments. He lived in London and was backing social enterprises with the potential for significant growth while delivering real social impacts. And Goodwill Wine fitted the bill. He had tried the wine, loved it and was keen to help.

We met in Melbourne, we chatted about building Goodwill Wine into a major player in Australia's burgeoning online wine scene and we shook hands there and then.

Fast forward six months and ten more impact investors had jumped on board and we were about to launch. We now had a small team made up largely from the ranks of the long-term unemployed and the NDIS and we had some very serious marketing muscle rebuilding our brand.

In half a year Goodwill Wine had been reborn and we immediately saw a 500% increase in our donations to charity. It was and still is a very exciting time.

The process of reinventing the brand had been challenging. Unlike any of our online competitors we had a label that could continue our story once the bottle was taken out of the box. Sure we could make our boxes a unique marketing opportunity and just like everyone else we did, but it was our labels that were our calling card. They had to be just right.

The label design process took several months, beginning with words on plain labels, to words on brightly coloured labels, then words on geometric shapes (on brightly coloured labels) and finally words interwoven through flowers on brightly coloured labels. We were happy with our design and while the idea of weaving words through flowers isn't groundbreaking, we loved our new look. This form of art had first been used by the Chinese over 2000 years ago and after becoming popular during the 1980's was given its own name: flowertypography.

The problem we encountered was that besides us and the many other tens of thousands of people using this artform (think almost every wedding invite you have ever seen), so too was our street artist from New York. And while the artist had never heard of us and we had never heard of her, late one night in 2019 someone in Australia seeing a similarity, decided to bring us together.

By the time the sun had risen in Australia we had received more notifications over a six hour period than we had received in our Instagram account's entire lifetime. My inbox was filled with hateful emails (interestingly none from the street artist) and we were soon to discover that the charities we supported were being targeted too. Even our customers were being harassed.

Over the course of a few hours, our street artist had whipped her 100,000 followers into a frenzy and they were out for blood.

Initially we were being accused of stealing artwork but it quickly moved into far more sinister territory. And so while we slept a crowd funding campaign to sue us was begun and the one sided dialogue slipped seamlessly into issues of race and discrimination.

Over the course of a few hours we had become 'white privileged folk who had Columbusized the work of a queer woman of colour.' It was no longer just an issue of art theft. It had become racial and the street artist was manipulating her followers using racial victimhood as the motivator. She was expertly driving them forward with hate and was getting some serious mileage out of her tank.

By the time we managed to assess what was going on it was far too late. Many of the charity partners I had worked closely with for the past ten years were already on the receiving end of all the hate and the best we could hope for was damage control. The barrage continued for the next two days and then she disappeared. The street artist deleted all of her posts and without any explanation moved on to her next set of targets.

The online rage gradually petered out as her supporters began to realise she had abandoned the fight, and then they too disappeared. The street artist had gotten exactly what she came for.

She had manipulated an extremely tenuous accusation of plagiarism into an issue of race. She had expertly played her victim card and mobilised the hate that is so characteristic of social media today, and in the process managed to add another few thousand people to her list of followers.

And Goodwill Wine, just like the next business she would move onto would simply become collateral in the quest to build her fan base.

Except we didn't become collateral.

Had we been a brand new company or located in America, I don't know if we would have survived. But the fact was that we had been lovingly nurturing our relationships with our charity partners for almost a decade and for all of that time they had been nurturing us back. We existed outside of social media in a very real and supportive community and this became abundantly clear in how calmly all of our charity partners stood by our side and how strongly our customers leapt to our defence.

In the weeks that followed we were contacted by other businesses who had also fallen prey to the street artist's army. One was an American soccer ball company offering to go to court with us and cajoling us to sue. We had bought the rights to the artwork for our labels, we had the receipts and a clearly documented design path, but suing was never on our agenda.

In the end it all just fizzled out. Looking back on it I was annoyed at how upset it had made my new team and I was frustrated at how easily she had dropped a burning ball in my lap and then just disappeared. But to be fair, I don't think her life is easy and I will probably never be as angry as a person so marginalised as the street artist.

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  • Christy on

    I praise you for your strength, positivity, faith in your product, team, charity partners and support networks. You are the bigger person in this story. Your product (its history and everything it stands for) is superior and survives because of the person you are.

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