Ferguson has really affected me as it has a lot of people. I have cried a great deal. I cancelled Thanksgiving plans because I felt like I would be eating with a mouth filled with tears and blood. I had a panic attack in the Museum of Fine Arts. (The great thing about this is that no one really notices; they just assume you are having an aesthetic experience. There is a thin line between the symptoms of Stendhal syndrome and racism I guess.)
Also, Ferguson has really made me think about Social Media and my presence on it. I've learned a lot about people this week and I'm left wondering what "connection" really is. Facebook has redefined friendship. Are we really friends or are we just linked on this thing?
I've had people ask me "What's wrong?" and I'm stunned by the question and my reaction to it. It's as if the week happened to some people and not to others. For some of us it was a series of body blows and insults. Personally, my first memories are linked to the unrest in the 12th Street Uprisings in Detroit in 1967. Seeing the images from Ferguson, especially the split screen with the President, shook me to tears. For others it was the run up to Thanksgiving and “Black Friday” sales. And then on that Friday after Thanksgiving, when organizers from #NotOneDime and #BlackLivesMatter asked folks to not spend money on that day, I got treated to pictures and comments about what people bought and what was on sale and the crowds at the malls. I was left thinking that I didn't really know a lot of these people and I didn't really know why I was connected to them. I looked at my list of friends and saw the number at 1,712. I thought, do I really know that many people? It’s not possible. Why don’t I hear from some of these people? Are they even on here or are they just reading the posts and not saying anything? I started to go through the list and sort out how I knew people and for how long. It became clear to me that there were a lot of people with whom I had only a nodding acquaintance.
I’m one of those people who loves Facebook. It’s a lot of fun and it’s pretty informative. I’m not a comedian but I do have a pretty good sense of humor. I'm observant and I liked the notion of daily observations shared. I also really appreciate friends sharing articles or news items. One of my favorite things on Social Media is when people post pictures of food. I know it's silly, but I do get a kick out of it. And I like trying out some of the things at home. I like when people go to movies or museums and send a photo. I like it when my friends have exhibitions. The mass invites used to bug me, but now I just see it as the replacement for the postcards I used to get. So I know I won't be seeing so-and-so's exhibition in Burundi, but I'm thrilled that they are working.
It's the most fun to watch tv events together like the Oscars or (for some) sports. I am so far removed from some of my dearest who live in other states or countries that Social Media makes a real time discussion possible. I love that. We can make jokes and laugh and gasp together at the behavior of Olivia Pope.
But when something terrible happens it's hard to breathe and the notion that you can post something on Social Media and the economy of "likes" and "retweets" isn't supportive or worse is just simply absent. I start to wonder if I have said something wrong because people don't respond. Should I just stick to food, fashion, and travel and not talk about anything important to me outside of that? I think of Sally Bowles in the musical CABARET saying about the rise of fascism, "Oh, that's just politics, Cliff. What does that have to do with us?" I think it has everything to do with us. Bernard Malamud in his book, THE FIXER says it clearest: "There is no such thing as a non-political man."
The hard things for me, Ferguson, Beavercreek, Staten Island, Cleveland, Sanford, have happened and I've talked about them on Social Media and been met with support for some and also a lot of silence. Not from my actual friends, people who know me and love me, but from this mass of people whom I know and to whom I am connected. I wonder why this is. Are they just reading the posts and not participating in the content? Or is all just scrolling by them, equalized in the GUI of the platform. Everything is equalized, food pics, news item about an unarmed black person shot by police, cat videos, baby pics, memes, Ray Rice hitting his fiancée, recipes, misattributed Morgan Freeman quotes, poetry text over landscape photos. It all fits into the feed or is expressed in 140 characters or a 7 second Vine. Susan Sontag talked about the equalizing properties of the camera. I wonder how she would have dealt with the Social Media flattening of the world?
I think of Social Media as a way to engage and connect and maybe I need to reduce the number of people to whom I am connected. A lot of people have said to me that they like to have "different viewpoints" and that they don't want to be in an echo chamber where they are surrounded by people who think like them. I don't quite know what to say about this except Ferguson has put me in Social Media contact with a lot of people who seem perfectly willing to debate whether or not people who look like me are human. That's not an exaggeration. When you hear your "friends" describe an unarmed black man in terms like demon, thug, and monster, it gives you...pause. I blocked and unfriended a lot of people. I don't think that there are "two sides" to a discussion about humanity, and I don't want to get into a chat about it. I don’t understand a “point of view” that takes, as its central tenet, that black people are basically criminal at their core. If you have friends and family that think this way, why would you think I want to have anything to do with them? Why can’t you tell your racist, homophobic relatives to stop posting that hateful shit on your page?
Also, the equivocation of "we don't really know what happened" sparks a kind of shock in me. The gymnastics of people trying to justify why a young man was shot to death have stunned me into silence. There were 12 rounds fired in broad daylight in a residential neighborhood. It is amazing that no one else was shot. We know EVERYTHING that happened in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. We could know exactly what happened at Ferguson as well, but we were denied the opportunity to know. Instead, a bunch of documents were dumped onto the internet in a parody of transparency. The outrage about property damage and looting was sick making. Property is more valued that people. I still cannot wrap my brain around that.
The investment in the belief that a black person must have done SOMETHING in order to get shot persists even in the case of 12-year old Tamir Rice. An online article from a Cleveland newspaper reported about his parents troubles, as if that has anything to do with a boy being gunned down on a playground as soon as a cop opens his car door.
I used to think that it was worth it to have these discussions in an open forum. I used to think an online discussion could be like the exchange of letters; a great way to have a record of how people's thinking is shaped by engagement. I’ve learned a lot in these discussions and I love the critical way some people online have engaged topics from climate to organic food. I love learning from other people. I love conversations. But when it comes to issues about race and humanity, it becomes an undiscovered country filled with strangers on my feed and awkward silences. A friend actually told me online that talking about race was causing the problem of racism. I felt punched in the stomach and I felt a door close in my heart. When he saw Jon Stewart talking about the same issue and outing Fox News for trotting out that disgusting argument, he apologized to me.
There can be something downright cruel and violent about Social Media. (If you don't know anything about #Gamergate, now would be a good time to look into it. Be careful, though. It truly is a trip to the throat of hell.) Maybe it is the anonymity of something like Twitter, but the snarky dismissal is the main tool of discussion. There is a time and a place for jokes and comedy, but some of the social cues are expressed in the tonalities of voice and the presence of the body. Social Media privileges the verbal. In some ways it forces people to think and edit before they post (although it has had no positive effect on my students’ writing). In others the immediacy makes them "out" themselves. People respond instead of engage. This almost glandular response is at times passionate and sometimes downright belligerent. There is a misunderstanding of what constitutes facts and or reality. For some, their misinformed and patently racist opinions are equal to or in fact superior to logic, reason, the historical record, researchers, and the person talking to them.
Social Media is the cradle of the "non-apology apology" of "I'm sorry if my remarks offended anyone. It wasn't my intention." This has been the classic way of blaming people for not putting up with unacceptable behavior. Just try to parse Elizabeth Lauten and her comments about the Obama's daughters and her subsequent apology. I'm an agnostic and it did not take me long to figure out what she said was out of line. It took Lauten "many hours of prayer" and reflection to figure it out. As for intent, Jack McCoy from Law and Order always advised, "Intent follows the bullet."
So all of this to say that Ferguson showed me that I expect too much from Social Media. A friend (again, a real one) told me that "Facebook is being in touch without touching." I’m inclined to agree with her. I get all sorts of requests for crowdfunding from people I barely know and with whom I’ve barely had a conversation. I don’t know how to respond. It makes me feel that people are connected to me solely for what I can do for them. I only hear from some people on Facebook and Twitter through likes and retweets. I don’t like to think that people think of me as a resource or something to leverage. I don’t want to be a “content provider” and just write things on line to give people a laugh. The point of this whole thing was to connect and to share. The lack of reasoned, honest exchange is the thing I think that is troubling me so much lately. I find it somewhat hard to believe that I used to have that on Social Media. Ferguson has made it really clear to me that is not coming back.