It seems like cats never forgot the fact that they were worshipped as gods thousands of years ago
me: *arrives at party*
me: so who wants to talk about institutionalized racism
I think this is a deeply flawed way of looking at the world.
Now, I have talked about Ferguson, and I’ve talked about Gaza. (In fact, I’ve been writing and talking about Israel and Palestine for more than a decade.) But there are many important problems facing the world that I haven’t talked about: I haven’t talked much about the civil war in South Sudan, or the epidemic of suicide among American military personnel, or the persecution of Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar.
Is that okay? Is it okay for me to talk about, say, racism in football and lowering infant mortality in Ethiopia? Or must we all agree to discuss only whatever is currently the ascendant news story? Is it disrespectful to Ferguson protesters to talk about continued political oppression in Egypt now that we are no longer reblogging images of the protests in Tahrir Square? I think this is a false choice: If you are talking about Ferguson and I am talking about Ethiopian health care, neither of us is hurting the other.
I think the challenge for activists and philanthropists online is in paying sustained attention, not over days or weeks but over years and decades. And I worry that when we turn our attention constantly from one outrage to another we end up not investing the time and work to facilitate actual change. We say “THE WORLD IS WATCHING,” and it is…until it isn’t. We’ve seen this again and again in Gaza and the West Bank. We’re seeing it in Iran. We’re seeing it in South Sudan. And we’re seeing it in the U.S., from net neutrality to Katrina recovery.
The truth is, these problems are complicated, and when the outrage passes we’re left with big and tangled and nuanced problems. I feel that too often that’s when we stop paying attention, because it gets really hard and there’s always a shiny new problem somewhere else that’s merely outrageous. I hope you’re paying attention to Ferguson in five years, anon, and I hope I am, too. I also hope I’m paying attention to child death in Ethiopia. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.
I really don’t want to minimize the effectiveness of online activism, because I know that it works: To use a personal example, I’ve learned a TON from the LGBT+ and sexual assault survivor communities in recent years online. People on tumblr make fun of me for apologizing all the time, but I apologize all the time because I am learning all the time, and every day I’m like, “Oh, man, Current Me has realized that Previous Me was so wrong about this!”
But we can only learn when we can listen. And when you call me a hypocrite for talking about X instead of talking about Y, it makes it really hard to listen.
At times, online discourse to me feels like we just sit in a circle screaming at each other until people get their feelings hurt and withdraw from the conversation, which leaves us with ever-smaller echo chambers, until finally we’re left only with those who entirely agree with us. I don’t think that’s how the overall worldwide level of suck gets decreased.
I might be wrong, of course. I often am. But I think we have to find ways to embrace nuance and complexity online. It’s hard—very, very hard—to make the most generous, most accepting, most forgiving assumptions about others. But I also really do think it’s the best way forward.