My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Social Media and Social Justice

Note: I'm working on a longer article but BOTH sets of The Contrarian's grandparents are due here at the Hall of Rectitude for his first birthday.

I've also spent several days lately working out the logistics of creating a public Facebook page that anyone can follow or friend and getting it separated from my more private Facebook page. 

In the wake of so many grand juries refusing to indict police officers (which, just so you know, doesn't mean the cops were found innocent, it means they won't even go to trial) my Facebook has become an explosion of outrage and concern, articles about the criminal justice system's inequality, code words for "black" that aren't fooling anyone, discussions of how privilege manifests, and long statuses expressing the complex and angry emotions of a people who realize they are part of a system that isn't broken, but rather that many didn't notice was working as intendedWhile this is specifically about Facebook (likes, shares, comments) it could be applied to any social media.

The recent string of injustices are causing the usual suspects to come out of the woodwork and complain that people should DO something instead of clogging their Facebook feed with concerns for equality. Actually, that's not true. See it's not the injustices themselves that are upsetting people. It's the fact that so many of their friends are posting about it that has them upset.

It's the usual "slactivism doesn't work" mantra. The thing is, you hear the same thing no matter what you do. "What good are protests, anyway?" "What does being political make?" "What good...."

While I think, in theory, these people might have a place in their heads where one could be working toward justice and equality in a "proper" way, it very much comes across as "please stop talking about it." The usual sort of status quo loving "shut up" that people who don't suffer inequality are wont to make--kind of like complaining when your soaps are interrupted by a bus full of children teetering on the edge of a cliff. It simply has the flavor of "concern trolling." (Gosh, I'm just really worried about how effective this tactic might be. You know.....for the cause's sake. I'm really worried about the cause, you see....)

[It reminds me of Stephen Stills from Scott Pilgrim. "For the cause. For the cause. For the CAUSE. FOR THE CAUSE!!!"]

Let's pretend for a moment that social media hasn't been cited as the single greatest driving force behind most of the social justice gains of the 21st century, the most effective tool for making people aware of atrocities (like the recent slaughter of students in Mexico) since television, and even the engines of some actual revolutions in Asia. (Quite simply BECAUSE all that information is considered equal and there are fewer ways for people in power to control what is said and when. People can't control online forums or social media in they way they can physical spaces, airwaves, or mainstream media.) Feminism, LGBT rights, racial awareness–they've all cited social media as a powerful force in their modern movements and efforts. BECAUSE THEY WORK!

Let's pretend that cases like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner didn't EVER happen until recently and it's not social media that has caused these stories to go viral. We did this a generation ago when we acted aghast that Rodney King got the crap beat out of him, like it was the first time such a thing had happened, not maybe just the first time someone had filmed it. Let's pretend that we would have been just as outraged (and even aware) of these stories if they hadn't gone viral on Facebook and Twitter.

Let's pretend that these stories would have made it past even local news in the mainstream media without first having been viral on social media. Let's pretend that social media isn't the most effective tool for raising awareness of issues that people who don't own newspapers or TV stations can wield.

Let's pretend that everyone has the same resources, capability, skill sets. That like you (who....I have noticed are almost always white when the issue is racism, male when the issue is sexism, straight when the issue is homophobia, etc....), these people who ought to be going about achieving justice and equality in the "right way," have money to donate, ability to march, time to volunteer.

Let's pretend that no one has different proficiencies. There isn't anyone who is maybe better at writing than working a phone bank or who is better or at reading through dozens of articles and sharing the couple that are good than organizing a protest.

Let's pretend that social justice isn't experiencing a renaissance of allyship because of people who have had their eyes opened through social media to their privilege, to the incredible double standards, to how bad it really gets.

Let's pretend that no one who does use social media to discuss social justice issues has EVER had people tell them that their words changed a mind, shaped an opinion, gave someone else the strength to speak up, or even comforted the group affected by the injustice that they had people in their corner. No one ever thanks them for fighting the good fight. Certainly not dozens or hundreds. No no.

Let's pretend that before the days of social media, those who struggled for social equality in the "right way" never need to interrupt your day, call at dinner, or put themselves in between you and your grocery shopping in an invasive way in order to raise funds for or awareness of an issue.

Let's pretend that the "right way" to champion for change has been effective. I mean just look at all this equality. The "proper ways" never suffer from being shut out of spaces by people who don't want to be bothered or marginalized by being called the fringe of a movement or silenced in favor of more moderate voices.

Let's pretend that every grinding, gutting, horrible step forward hasn't had an equally loud contingent of moderates saying "this is overreach," "this is too far," "this is too loud," "this is too caustic," "this is too angry," "this too soon," and "this isn't the right way to get what you want." "Sit down. Be quiet. Don't rock the boat. Don't challenge our thoughts. Don't be overbearing. Don't be rude. Watch your tone. Do it only in the ways we deem worthy of attention (and please fail to realize the fact that all those ways we like are the same ones that are most easy to ignore). Don't even block our traffic so that we're late getting home for supper. Then....THEN maybe, we will deign to consider your redress."

Let's also pretend for a moment that there aren't scams and bait to get clicks and likes and shares. Because for these things to be "absolutely meaningless" we would have to ignore the pains people go through to procure them as well as their motivation for doing so.

Let's pretend all these things...

It's STILL utterly obnoxious to presume what other people are or are not doing in addition to having the temerity to share with their friends what they care about.

So why don't you please be honest and say, "I don't even want to have to FLEX my finger in order to scroll past this because it clearly doesn't directly affect ME."

This second one is a general reply I gave to several questions asking me why, if justice is such an important and fundamental thing, have I only recently begun to really care about it.

Why have I changed? Why am I like this? Why do I do this Social Justice Bard thing? What the hell happened to me?

About eighteen months ago I got really snarky with a guy who was treating another person like dirt. I didn't think much of it at the time. I was mostly glad I avoided getting punched. It's the kind of thing I do twice a day in a sort of "poetic justice" kind of way, especially to people being assholes. I figured it was sort of a cute story that I would share with Facebook.

But the FB post did so well that I wrote a blog post even though it wasn't particularly about writing. Then that blog post got about 200,000 page views in a week. And I got about 2000 comments across various media.

The person I snarked was a creepy guy on BART who was harassing a woman, and apparently my story struck a chord with many women. Because what happened in the 2000 comments was that I began to realize how common this harassment was and how powerless women feel to stop it. Everyone I knew had a story. People I barely knew all had stories. People I'd never met had stories. Not just stories of rude people with no boundaries (for those were daily or weekly affairs for most) but stories that really got BAD. Violence, screaming, stalking, and sometimes even people so apoplectic that they were rejected that they turned around and raped the person who dared reject their come on. Story after story after story hit my inbox of rape survivors or just people who couldn't get out of a harassment situation. Dozens of them. Then hundreds.

Then thousands.

And they broke me. They broke that shell of me that says, "This isn't such a big deal." They made me realize how much we don't LISTEN to other people's stories about THEIR experiences. How much we dictate to them the parameters of their own marginalization. We tell them they're not experiencing sexism, or not experiencing real sexism. We excuse the actions of people who do these things and silence their stories. "Take a compliment. It's not that bad. I'd love it if I got that kind of attention."

But over here are thousands of stories that it isn't complementary. That it is that bad. That this is unwanted attention.

Once you see it, it's like a smudge on the movie theater screen. Suddenly it's everywhere you look. The power dynamics of street harassment echo those of workplace sexism, echo those of homophobia, echo those of institutional racism. We're steeped in it, so it's like noticing the air. But it's everywhere.

Also, that day, I got the first sense of how my voice could get through to other whites, other men, other heterosexuals (and especially other white, het men) in a way that the people most affected never could.

I should pause here for a caveat. You really have to understand how early and formative and just how bad the urge was in me when I was young to be Luke Skywalker (RotJ Luke, not the whiner, of course). I wanted to do the right thing, fight for good, struggle for the good guys even against impossible odds. I've always wanted to be better than I am.

But I lived in this messed up world where I didn't have any powers, The Force wasn't real, and the right thing was hidden in a tangled thicket of nuance. Problems were big and complicated and there wasn't some "One Right Thing™" to be done about them. Being Luke Skywalker was a pipe dream that died with my realization that lightsabers could never exist.

Until the day I realized that wasn't true.

That day, reading the torrent of comments on a post that had gone unexpectedly viral, I realized there WAS a right thing to do. To listen to every story with empathy is a powerful, radical, and moral act. I realized that I DID have some power even if it's just the power to make people who look like me listen in a way they don't to people who look less like me.

That's why.

(So if I ever seem like I'm being flip to say "Because I want to be Luke Skywalker," know that it's JUST about the most genuine answer I can give you.)