I’m keeping up with what’s being written on the events in Baltimore and will post a selection later on this week in my link roundup.
This has become a familiar ritual, and one I feel more and more unsettled about:
The nation is jolted to attention by another police killing of an unarmed person of color (usually a man). A small number of Americans take to the streets. Their skin is in the game. They march, protest, riot. An even smaller number of Americans take to their keyboards, cameras, and microphones to report on and write about these events. How this is done can and often does make for something beautiful or horrible in it’s own right, often profoundly shaping how the rest of us view and understand the events (I’ll write about this more in a future post).
Most Americans, however, myself included, take to their screens and feeds and timelines. Right now I’m talking about those of us who have an opinion one way or another. We have to remember that there are vast swaths of the population who don’t care enough to know or know enough to care.
But there are those of us who are thoughtful, concerned, afraid, angry, indignant or feel any number of emotions about what is going on. When something happens, we are activated. Some of us seek to learn more, and we look to our timelines for those among our friends who always seem to be “in the know.” Some of us are zealous “laptop partisans,” scanning our feeds and bookmarks for morsels of information that will be used—like pulp in the mouths of bees—to build up the walls of our hive, the collective edifice that houses our “tribe” and announces to the world: “Here is where I stand on this issue!”
Frederick de Boer, a scholar and blogger I’ve recently discovered, penned a brief blog post this last week in which he observed, “It’s dueling MLK quote season again.” Something about this rang uncomfortably true.
I’m sure you’ve seen this phenomenon. Impassioned and concerned folks of all stripes post the isolated quotes solemnly paired on inspirational JPEG files with Dr. King’s saintly image. Whatever argument you’re making, MLK said something that supports you, and his, of course, is the final word (especially in all matters race related).
This is not just limited to MLK quotes. Social media is flooded with poignant and seemingly incontrovertible “last word”-type memes, quotes, images, cartoons, video clips, and rants that proclaim to friends, family, and the random girl you knew in high school: “See this? This is what I believe, and it’s true. How can you not also see it’s truth, now that I’ve shared it here??”
Here is where de Boer articulates why this kind of environment has become so unsettling to me.
Both sides are making accusations of selective reading at the other, and given that many people on either side have probably read very little of his words that don’t appear on a poster, both sets of accusations are perennially accurate. We might make a policy of saying that if you haven’t read Strength to Love cover to cover, you shouldn’t be commenting on what King would want. Or, more sensibly, we should just admit that the views of a man who died in 1968 cannot do our moral work for us.
This is the question I want to ask. When things are going on in our country and our community that demand serious thought, empathy, compassion, and mature, moral action, who or what do we look to to do that work for us? Have slogans, hashtags, a certain savvy sensibility, or the correct vocabulary taken the place of a deeply rooted political and moral worldview?
I’m not sure I know the answer. I am sure that my own motivations are often mixed. I’ll admit that I engage in this activity. Most of the time I’m trying to share things that will provoke thought and deeper engagement and learning. And to be fair, much of what I see on friends’ timelines is thoughtful, challenging, and insightful. But I know that I have been guilty of feeling self-satisfied that my thought-provoking posts on social media are all the proof that is needed of my progressive credentials.
But this bothers me, and increasingly so. Who is doing my moral work for me? We can thank the Internet that Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotes will always be a click away. So will the supply of articles and images from like-minded friends or websites we’re loyal to. My fear is that at a time when events require from us true thoughtfulness, moral courage, and honesty, that we will outsource that work to “content.”
Which leads to another question: What is the nature of the content with which we surround ourselves?
The New York Times recently published a piece on social media and the 2016 election season. It discusses a trend that I think we’ve all observed:
With the presidential race heating up, a torrent of politically charged commentary has flooded Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, with some users deploying their “unfollow” buttons like a television remote to silence distasteful political views. Coupled with the algorithm now powering Facebook’s news feed, the unfollowing is creating a more homogenized political experience of like-minded users, resulting in the kind of polarization more often associated with MSNBC or Fox News. And it may ultimately deflate a central promise of the Internet: Instead of offering people a diverse marketplace of challenging ideas, the web is becoming just another self-perpetuating echo chamber.
When I post the video of the city councilman explaining structural racism to a disinterested reporter, or the photo of boy passing out water bottles to police in riot gear, or the 11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots Like Baltimore article, do those “shares” constitute moral work, a genuine progressive or radical politics? And if they do, who is the audience for them?
Maybe it’s just me, but the number of people I engage with on social media who disagree with me consistently (small to begin with) has dwindled. Either that or they stay silent. Or, more troubling still, Facebook is keeping them off my feed.
I see this as a bad thing, but not just because of some vague commitment to being balanced and “understanding the other side.” Engaging inside the echo chamber makes it a lot easier for me to be lazy
1. in developing my own holistic political and spiritual worldview and
2. in critiquing the methods and agendas of the media I consume.
I don’t get angry when my aunt in Albuquerque posts something to share her dislike of Obama. By all means, dislike him. Disagree with me on all the issues. What makes me angry is the way in which media–on both sides of the political spectrum–do not take readers’ intelligence seriously. My favorite websites cultivate a very particular worldview and throw out red meat to keep the readers satisfied. Right-wing media does the same thing.
Politics, then, becomes more about entrenching one’s self deeper into a set of cultural and semantic symbols and images and proclamations. As de Boer writes, we engage in “t-shirt radicalism,” and we police and curate our timelines accordingly (or algorithms do it for us).
I guess what I’d end with (this conversation will never truly end), is that I want to challenge myself to develop a politics that is complex, resilient, and above all, loving. My politics (a shame that the word itself has become dirty) ought to be a genuine reflection of my values, my experiences, my faith as I understand it, and an honest and nuanced understanding of communities’ relationships and obligations to each other and to God. If you’ve read enough of my posts on social media or on this blog, I hope I’ve begun to leave a coherent sense of what my politics are. They are always a work in progress, but my hope is that I will have the courage to actually do that work, instead of letting MLK do it for me.