Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Thin Line: Activism, Voyeurism, and Consuming Lives Online

(Cross-posted at

The other day, my news feed was full of that story.  You know which one.  The story about the black girl who was brutally dragged from desk in a high school classroom by a white uniformed police officer after refusing to get off her cell phone and leave the classroom.

I'd seen the story the previous afternoon, but I didn't want to play the clip; I knew what I'd see, and I didn't want to watch another black girl's body be treated like it wasn't even human. Part of me wondered if I had a responsibility to watch, to bear witness, to know that my privilege makes this inhumanity possible.  And then part of me thought about how I would feel if that had been my daughter, knowing that it would likely never have been my daughter (because she is white), and it made my stomach churn.

I finally ended up watching it, but not until I'd thought a lot about my role as a viewer.  I've written before about my mixed feelings towards hashtag activism: how it can become a throwaway, even with the best intentions.  And now, I realize there's something else that troubles me about the way in which we produce and consume activism on social media: it can be awfully voyeuristic.

Social media is a powerful tool for activism.  But if all we do is watch, and share, it can become a twisted form of entertainment, like rubbernecking at a car wreck.  Important images that bear witness to injustice can be diminished without deep thought, and context, and action.

An article in the New Yorker last week offered some interesting (though perhaps hardly surprising) data about bullying and bystanding online: that not only is bullying harder to escape in virtual spaces (because you can't physically walk away), but that bystanders act less often in defense of the bullied, for a variety of reasons, including: the victim is dehumanized by our computer screens, adults imagine that their comments as justified outrage instead of the kind of harassment they imagine perpetrated by children.  I wonder if similar principles are at work when we share images of people being bullied.  How does that complicate our role in the act?

Last week, I happened across an another article on social-media-as-virtual Colosseum, which argues that the vicious infighting among social activists online (which is partly designed to increase one's reach) replicates oppression:
When oppressed people watch or participate in destructive behavior toward one another in the name of social justice, in some way our values, and perhaps our pain, feel reaffirmed. We want to believe we are doing something powerful by adding our voices to already fraught conversations, and in fact we are; but at times it less the reestablishment of justice and more the reactivation of oppressive power dynamics.
Author Frank Castro explains that upvoting, doxxing, etc. -- the kinds of things we do as participant hashtag activists -- is, in the end, counterproductive to the cause.

I think something similar happens in the consumption of images and videos produced in support of social (in this case racial) justice.  And I don't think it's race-neutral.  Because aside from the fact that this never would have happened to a white girl, I don't think we would have filmed a white girl being treated this way, and I don't think it would have gone viral even if we had.  Black bodies are objects of consumption in a way that white bodies aren't.  Like siding with infighting activists, this becomes a spectator sport, reactivating the power dynamics that create the situation in the first place.  We have the privilege of viewing, knowing that many of us are safe behind computer screens.

I don't think that we should stop sharing disturbing stories.  We need those stories to be told.  But I do think that we should be more thoughtful about how we share media, understanding that what we're seeing isn't just a movie, that consuming media gives us power, and that we should wield that power carefully, in the service of justice.
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  1. Wholeheartedly agree, though I'll admit that I didn't watch the footage. I thought about watching the footage so I would see it rather than read the description, but then I thought about how that impacts my own mental health and opted to read the description rather than see it second-hand. And yet I did nothing after bearing witness beyond talking about it with Josh.

  2. I haven't been able to watch the footage from this incident as I know it would be painful. But also because I agree with you about filming such incidents. Filming acts of violence leads to desensitation and there's no way we should be desensitized to violence.

    I struggle with all of this because of the good that can come from raising awareness. We should be horrified when we learn of these acts. But the flip of this is what you state so nicely here.

  3. I haven't watched the clip you mention, don't know if I will or not. But I too am suspicious of what you call "hashtag activism" (first time hearing that term). One, it's too easy. How much effort does it take to share an image or video? None.... Two: how much understanding is there of context when an item is shared or viewed? I say very little. My Facebook feed is full of scams every week: things that people could have taken 10 seconds to fact check. If someone doesn't take 10 seconds to fact check an item, are they dependable advocates of social justice or political change or...anything? No, they're not. Third, it's really easy for "outrage campaigns" (if I can invent a term) to turn into online bullying. Maybe people feel a sense of moral justification about (fill in the blank) but if they use the same techniques and language as a bully, what else are they? There was a really good article on this that came out after the whole Cecil the lion thing. Positive social change takes work and respect. Anything that's easy, requires no personal risk or responsibility, and mainly involves passing around images and name calling, has nothing to do with social justice or positive change.

  4. I did watch the video. And also the second one that surfaced. I am not at all worried about my white daughter having this happen to her because I have taught her how to respect authority. What worried me more about this incident is that we are teaching children that it is okay to refuse to do what a teacher asks. That it is okay to refuse to do as the principal asks when he is called to the room. I wonder if a white kid would have hit the cop when he was being removed from his chair would he have been thrown across the room, with his legs wrapped around the chair. What I am much more concerned about is how the media continues to make these issues between white cops and black people their frontline news! The race pot is continuing to be stirred by all!!

  5. Paula, thank you for your comment. I agree that the student didn't respect authority, and that's how I teach my children, too. The girl shouldn't be on her phone in the first place. But my parents both taught in urban schools, and there is a difference in the way that black children are treated from very early on: it's much more likely that teachers/administrators expect them not to achieve, and to act out. So they do. By the time they get to high school, it's almost too late.

    And yes, I also agree that the media isn't helping the situation. But I feel like somehow we need to figure out how to help authority figures de-escalate situations in which the deck already feels stacked to some people. If you like to read, I'd recommend Ta-Nehesi Coates' _Between the World and Me_ for a thoughtful (if upsetting) perspective on race relations in the US. I read it this summer and am still trying to figure out where we go from here.


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