In today’s increasingly digitalized world, do offline awareness-raising and fund-raising acts still hold a meaningful place in society?
On the Shambles – a historic street in York, one late summer day in 2022, there stood a man whose body was painted purple, wearing a purple outfit, chatting with passersby. He wrapped the Ukraine flag around his body, and there were heart-shaped Ukraine flag paintings on each side of his face, which could almost only mean one thing: "He must be doing fund-raising for Ukraine." But is it that imperative to paint his whole body in purple to help Ukraine?
Purpleman is what he is now known for, although it does not only involve dressing up in purple. He is known in the UK as a man who does slow-motion walks while raising awareness and funds fsocial issue he is supporting. When asked about the origin of his persona, he immediately traced it back to a fated encounter in a church-turned-nightclub in Leeds in 2004 with the nightclub manager who asked if he could appear in purple – the corporate identity. It began as a for-profit persona, but in 2014, the trigger of social injustices eventually won over his procrastination from doing something about it.
He was not specific about the first major trigger, although he did recall his experience with the ‘caste system’ that blocks one’s ability to transform one’s life. His second trigger came from an encounter with a Syrian man in York who had lost 11 members of his family in the war.
PURPLEMAN: “I will never forget his face as he told me his story. We hugged. He cried. I struggled not to. That was the second major trigger and the ‘real me’ finally emerged, at last. My heart sang! I finally began to do what I’d felt inside for so long”.
Since he began using his persona for awareness and fund-raising acts in 2014, Purpleman has completed 24 social missions. He stressed that he only supports a cause to which he has a heartfelt connection. Perhaps this is what ensures his persistence despite the challenges that he experiences with the social cause that he is promoting.
PURPLEMAN: “I always have a heartfelt connection to what I do. With the Ukraine project, I actually used to share a house with someone from Ukraine, and we became close friends, even working together. The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy: I used to live one mile away and know the area well. The Manchester Arena terror attack. Again, I used to live nearby. As for Syria, I was in the country many years before the war started. As a tourist, I loved the place and its fine people. I also have heartfelt connections with Brussels and Barcelona, two places that experienced terror attacks. In both these places, I used the donations collected to buy flowers and then handed them out to strangers (with a hug)."
But people respond differently to social causes depending on their perception of the severity of the issue. Purpleman collected over £10,000 in donations and handed that over to a York Hospital Charity after completing a long slow-motion walk for health heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, for helping to plant trees to offset the ecological harm due to consumerism, the number just stood at £1,000. He also said that "this awareness raising also attracted a lot of abuse from people who didn't want to be reminded of the harm their (often meaningless} consumption was having."
PURPLEMAN: “The thing is, after I ‘awakened’ to what I felt inside and chose to express it publicly, I never focus on the ‘negatives’ or things that 'go wrong,' I just focus on the end result in my mind, whether that's handing a toy to a war orphan, giving money to victims of a tragedy or sharing a group hug with people affected by the loss.”
The Deal with In-Person Connections
Seeing Purpleman on the street, raising awareness and funds for a cause, was almost a reminder that we have a life outside our digital devices that nowadays is nearly impossible to escape. Given the increasingly digital nature of human interactions, including charitable giving, it was a wonder why he did not pursue his charitable act through online platforms. He acknowledged that he once considered that idea, though he felt that in-person emotional connections are irreplaceable.
PURPLEMAN: "Before I personally experienced 'third world' poverty/suffering and war, I was not emotionally connected to it; I was aware of it, but it was easy not to do anything about it as it didn't affect me.... Online stuff is fine, but it is harder to establish this emotional connection between people and the cause you want them to support. PM in person enables people to get involved emotionally; I am their envoy, spreading love on their behalf – I am a real person they can hug and talk about the issues. Donors and supporters become friends".
When a real person presents him or herself in front of you and demonstrates devotion towards a cause, you can find relatability; you can feel the sincerity and severity of the issue that has divided society. He said that a child once insisted on walking with him in slow motion, which then turned into a mass – 30 children and 10 adults. There was also an instance when a little girl walking by with a Russian lady hugged his legs and said, "I am sorry what the adults are doing. We do not support violence”. Or a time when several Ukrainian men hugged him and cried due to seeing his devotion to this cause. It is hard to recreate this through digital platforms.
There are risks to in-person fund-raising acts. In Purpleman’s case, extreme weather influences how much donations he could collect; people avoid public spaces when it's raining heavily or too hot. He also experienced verbal and physical abuse from passersby, from being stabbed with a hypodermic needle, punched in the back, and spat on and kicked. To him, this happens because they are either strongly opposed to the cause he was promoting or are demonstrating their own perceived inadequacies. But he said, “any small ‘suffering’ I go through enables me to empathize with those I seek to help."
Purpleman is not, however, totally averse to the utility of digitalization. While he receives donations in cash, he also collects them through debit cards or contactless payments. The nearby independent businesses offer to accept payments, which helps to ease the donation process. And with that strategy, he does not have to pay a high transaction fee, and 100 percent of what people donated was accepted.
An encounter with Purpleman evokes the truth that the ‘interconnectedness’ that digitalization claims to ensure can and should be contested. We still need normal people, in the normal setting, to show us empathy so that we are not just addressing a cause with our humanness by donating something online yet lacking the physical presence of being human.
When asked if he had plans to fully retire from his identity as Purpleman, he responded: "In 2015, I announced the end of PM. Every year I say – the end. Can't stop because of what I feel inside!". But maybe that’s it. We all do the extraordinary for the things and the ones that we love.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) December 2022 Issue