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.