On Participating in Social Justice
Deciding to publish this post has been difficult. It's uncomfortable.
I believe it's important to listen and learn, which I've been doing for much of the past two weeks (reading for hours, writing thousands of words, watching, listening, etc.).
And I recognize this isn't about me but believe it's important to use my voice to support others' causes, to be vocal in supporting the cause of racial equality in America, even if my audience and impact are small.
I fear some who read this post will think "I'm doing it wrong" (and perhaps I am, please let me know your thoughts). I also fear some who read this post will scoff at a privileged, 30-something white guy sharing his thoughts on racial inequality in America during this period of continued sadness, unrest, and injustice.
That said, the importance of not being silent won-out, as I believe it should, so I'm posting this to be active, to share.
2020 has been horrific so far. In early January, "World War III" was trending when there was serious talk of war brewing between the US and Iran. Later that month, Kobe Bryant died. All the while, throughout January and February, nearly all of Australia was on fire. Then March hit. Since then, we've been in the midst of a global pandemic that has kept the country (and much the world) contained in our homes for months. Only recently are we seeing encouraging trends that COVID-19's spread is slowing in the US, though the threat of a second wave still looms. We've seen more gun sales than ever before, with NBC reporting "the FBI conducted 3.7 million background checks [in March 2020]... the highest total since the national instant check system for buyers was launched in 1998 and 1.1 million higher than the number conducted in March 2019." The last thing America needs is more guns on the street, especially when tensions are running high. As of two weeks ago, over 40 million Americans had filed for unemployment since mid-March, with an unemployment rate of nearly 15%, a level of joblessness we haven't seen since the Great Depression. Just this week, the unemployment rate dropped to around 13% and the stock markets rejoiced -- things are rough when that's cause for economic celebration. And in these past few months, we've seen yet more tragic crimes of racist violence. We've seen the murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia (Feb. 23rd), an unarmed 25-year-old black man out for a jog, of George Floyd in Minnesota (May 25th), an unarmed 46-year-old black man suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy food at a deli, and of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, fatally shot by Louisville police officers in her own home (March 13th), along with countless others. All of the above are terrible. The repeated killing of unarmed black people is the only centuries-long repeating pattern.
We need to work hard to keep the conversation going, to continue to expose the harsh reality that African Americans have been, and continue to be, oppressed. We need to push forward with our voices and our votes to make change.
Since early March, I've been reading and writing a lot. You don't want to be playing against me in Pub Trivia if the quiz master brings any heat on the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19, the history of the bubonic plague, or the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London; I've got a copy of The Ghost Map sitting right next to me.
I've also been reading essays and history books, watching documentaries, and going on deep Wikipedia holes, relearning the horrors of the Trail of Tears, the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s; these are things I've learned about before, and I know to be violently true, but it's important to read them again, to relearn those truths in the context of today. I've also been spending a lot of time on Instagram, proactively seeking out personal accounts of people (of all backgrounds) who have powerful advice and thoughts on the crisis of inequality we continue to live through.
Last weekend, as we watched tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets across the country, I wrote a 6,000-word essay about the history of racism in America, which rambles and at times is (unintentionally) self-indulgent, only parts of which will ever see the light of day, but I'm glad I wrote it. The process of putting words on the screen forced me to think deeply and critically about American history, my personal history, and how we got to be where we are today. I sent a rough draft of the essay to a few friends and family members, most of whom said, this is nice, but who is the audience?
Who is going to read this, and where?
Simply put, as I thought about it, my audience is effectively my Instagram community. That's where I planned to share the link to the blog post. I have a Twitter account, but it's a zombie -- I never use it, and my friend group and I don't interact there. From my perspective, Instagram is the platform where my friends and family are having this critical discussion at the moment, so Twitter and Facebook aren't really in the equation for me. (Notably, my engagement has been digital these past weeks, as I've been isolating Upstate since COVID-19 struck the city, and there aren't many protests in and around Tannersville.)
This sounds trivial or juvenile at first blush, but whether we like it or not, Instagram is where we spend so much of our time (across all ages and races). I may only have 375 followers -- I'm obviously not an influencer -- but those 375 followers consist of family members and friends, spanning high school, college, and adulthood, along with just a handful of randoms.
That's who I can share my thoughts with, even if it's often shouting into the echo chamber in large part.
That said, it's been heartening to see so many people I know and care about actively engage in the discussion that needs to be had, and for some of those people I see attending protests and posting words of support to social media, I know they've been champions of progress their whole lives; many have pursued careers in journalism, public policy and education, to name a few. For those I see who I sat next to in history classes back at Colby, particularly those who took classes with Professor Weisbrot, this is effectively a conversation we've been having for nearly 20 years now -- it's just moved to Instagram, now we all live so far apart and life has gotten busy. (Fuck, getting old.)
Then I got to thinking about the 444 Instagram accounts I follow, including those who aren't friends and family.
What about all the comedians and meme accounts, for example? (the bulk of non-family/friends)
You may laugh at or dismiss the meme accounts in a post like this but think about it. We all spend lots of time on Instagram, and most of us follow lots of those meme accounts; they have a lot of eyeballs. These memers are the political satirists of our day. They're exposing us to ourselves, with modern-day comic strips. Their posts are funny because they're true.
Sometimes the memes we read are low-key racist or sexist (or just totally absurd), but (speaking for myself) I read them and chuckle because I believe them to be jokes, and the sad reality is the old maxim holds, they're funny because they're true. They are delivered as jokes, but the message often has more to it. (I know, some of the comedy content on Instagram is total non-sense, thankfully, but not all of it.)
I approach following these accounts with the same mindset I would a night at the Comedy Cellar -- when I walk through those doors I've accepted an implicit social contract that the crazy shit the comedians are going to say that night are intended to make us think, to shock us, and to make us laugh. Jokes are used as a tool to make us acknowledge the absurdity and injustice of the society we live in, while simultaneously providing us with comic relief to survive the heaviness of it all. Why do you think so many comics have issues with depression and alcoholism? They're typically deep thinkers, carrying the weight of day-to-day reality on their shoulders, and often they're the only people on our TVs and computer screens telling it how it is. They have to make jokes about it, or they'll go insane.
That's why a comedian like Louis CK got dealt with so swiftly by the public. Louis tricked us; he cheated; he violated the contract we, the audience, had implicitly signed with him. We laughed at his raunchy jokes because we thought he was joking. Turns-out, he was not. He treats people really badly. (We don't even need to go into the horrid detail on Bill Cosby.)
But back to the influence of the many comedian and meme Instagram accounts.
Over the past two weeks, just about every comedian and meme account I follow has been proactively posting their social and political beliefs, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They're posting links to websites where you can donate to good causes promoting racial equality; they're posting comic-like educational content explaining why comments like All Lives Matter are missing the point; they're having difficult and consistent conversations with haters and trolls in their comments; they're telling people who find Black Lives Matter to be offensive to check themselves, potentially resulting in a number of unfollows.
While most of these account admins are anonymous, in recent weeks many have divulged some of their racial, gender and age identities while posting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, to give their followers context -- from what I've seen, it appears to be a diverse group.
In effect, they're donating to the cause because, ironically, the Instagram ad revenue model doesn't discriminate based on race -- eyeballs are eyeballs, and those racists unfollowing the memers are eyeballs lost.
These accounts have millions and millions of followers. I just looked in my Following list on Instagram, and the top comedian and meme accounts I follow have 3, 4, 5 million or many more followers. Traditional journalists and media professionals pale in comparison. Our politicians and "leaders" pale in comparison. The funny people of Instagram have a real platform, and they're using it to engage on important issues with their followers. These aren't "social justice warriors" by trade -- they just realize it's important to not be silent and to meet the people where they are.
How about the politicians? (How about non-comedy Hollywood? See in PostScript.)
@kirstengillibrand has 244K followers. @chuckschumer has 182K followers. (And as you might imagine, his comedian niece @amyschumer comes up first when you search for "schumer" -- why? She has 10M followers.) These politicians aren't actively engaging with us enough where we are.
They're missing a big channel and are removed from the daily discussion because of it. Imagine if General Motors was just like, nahhh, Facebook and TV spots are enough, we don't need to advertise on Google too. (Or if General Motors only tried to advertise once every couple of years, when they really need your money.)
I suppose we can't expect our politicians to be popular on Instagram, given how typically boring and ineffective they are, and I recognize they're more active on Twitter, but where have Gillibrand and Schumer been lately, just generally?
Maybe I've missed it because I'm not watching MSNBC all day (I try to keep it to an hour or less), but our New York Senators seem to be awfully quiet these days. Forget about social media for a moment, but they just don't seem to be leading right now at all. I know they're both progressively-minded representatives for New York, and that's great and all, but it'd be nice if they actually got any legislation through on the matter of the day.
It'd also be nice if they were people that galvanized our state to do more, on a continuous basis. I understand crafting and voting on policy are their primary jobs, which doesn't seem to be too productive these days, but it'd be good to see their faces more too, as people we as a people can get behind. (On a city and state level, de Blasio has also been terrible, and Cuomo has been OK, not great.)
Side note: to be fair to AOC (even if I don't agree with all her policies), she has over 4M Instagram followers and is very active and vocal right now, and has been a national leader in the Democratic party, but I don't live in her district, so she's not my representative in Congress. My Congressperson, Carolyn Maloney? She's been supporting the protesters and denouncing police brutality, which is important, but she has 5K followers -- that's 5,098, to be precise. That's not much of a platform to engage with the public. I actually had to Google "upper east side congress" to remember what her name is, to be honest, which is embarrassing for both of us.
Meanwhile, just a random sampling on Instagram funny people...
@sethrogen has 8.3M followers. @hoodratchetv has 5.9M. @fuckjerry has 15.5M. @chrisrock has 3.6M. @kevinhart4real has 92.3M followers! You get the point. And they’ve all been active in recent days and weeks, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ve been visible and vocal, and sharing thoughtful and actionable commentary, in a two-way manner. They're at least doing what they can to educate their followers and be supportive of change. In their way, they're contributing their time and money to progress.
I don't know about you, but looking at my iPhone battery usage by app, Instagram is usually about 20-30% of the total, and over the past ten days it's been over 40%. It's a big part of where I've been engaging, reading, and learning these past two weeks. That's why I've focused the discussion here on Instagram in particular.
I know active Twitter users reading this may feel I've forgotten the corresponding Twitter follower numbers, etc., but the likes of Kevin Hart and Seth Rogen dominate there too. Also, it's just generally a less popular platform, and one I don't happen to use, so I haven't given it as much time and thought (and can't speak to "recent activity"). I deleted Facebook a couple years ago now, so that's not part of my daily reality either. Maybe I'm an oddball out.
Anyway, why does this dissection of social media even matter?
We've all been stuck in our homes for months, so social media has taken on a heightened role in many of our discussions, and for those protesting in the streets, social media platforms have been where the protesters are sharing updates and safety tips. It's critical. And amazingly, without any clear leader I can point to, messages such as the one to remove #blacklivesmatter from your #blackouttuesday post (because it's interfering with protesters sharing with each other) was responded to quickly, as people edited their posts to help the cause.
If the Baby Boomers are on Facebook, and Gen Z and Millennials are on Instagram (and TikTok), so to speak, there could be some sunlight through the clouds that many of the community members and influencers we Millennials (speaking to my generation) interact with on Instagram are actively spreading the message of progress. There's some hate being thrown around too, of course, but much of what I'm seeing is people with meaningful platforms spreading good words.
Forget about MSNBC and Fox News. Let's look at the digital community we're a part of for inspiration, and hopefully that helps us to take just at a little bit of comfort in what the future may look like, as we continue to try to move the march forward, toward some real reform in our system.
Also, a humble suggestion, which I've done in the past few days: think about following some photographers, artists, entrepreneurs, etc. of color -- if you aren't already -- so the conversation doesn't just revolve around big-name celebrities and politicians.
It may feel small, but the way I see it is there is only so much I can do in this very moment, today, to diversify my physical community -- the Upper East Side, where I live, is very white, Asian, and Latino, only 1.4% black; and Tannersville, the town Upstate where I've been privileged enough to live full-time since COVID-19 struck New York City in early March, is 95% white -- but I can take steps right now, today, to add more people of color, particularly African Americans, to my digital community on Instagram. Their posts and stories will become part of my daily routine, so the listening and learning to people of other backgrounds will continue beyond this acute period of pain and chaos in our country.
But that's obviously just one of the many lanes to travel.
Let's donate to good causes, particularly those fighting for racial justice and equality right now (if you can spare). Let's be active citizens and vote for politicians with a vision and with energy to make change happen. Let's speak out against injustice, publicly and privately. And let's add new voices to our daily thread online.
I'll continue to listen and learn. I'll continue to recognize this isn't about me, while remembering it's important to use my voice to support others' causes. And I'll continue to be vocal in supporting the cause of equality in America.
P.S. I realize I've overlooked many athletes who are very active and vocal right now too, but I just don't really follow sports, generally, and so I've only just recently followed LeBron James, Lewis Hamilton, Phil Mickelson, etc. to see what they're saying too.
P.P.S. I was curious, so I just took 30 minutes to go through all the Instagram accounts of the top 10 actors and actresses, by 2019 earnings (according to Forbes), along with a handful of "other notables" that came to mind as "big names", and this is what I found.
Where are the men in Hollywood these days? I know we should listen and learn but take a stance.