We receive and transmit…
It was the night after Darren Wilson was acquitted for the murder of Michael Brown, hundreds of people were gathered in the heart of downtown in a medium-sized Midwestern city. After arriving with some comrades, I decided I needed to do something to counter the cold. Walking through the edge of the crowd, I saw not only the usual friends and activists, but faces I didn’t recognize. Some appeared angry and militant, others deeply sad, but the crowd generally seemed confident, and there was a charge in the air that I hadn’t felt at a demonstration in the many years I’d lived there. Years of apathy and tame liberalism had taken their toll on my sense of optimism, but this night I sensed that things were about to change. Finally, the organizers of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter group in town called for the crowd to gather around. After a few chants, they asked us to walk to a spot in a public square to listen to speakers. Someone in the crowd yelled “Let’s march!” but the organizer replied: “Yes, let’s march to this spot here and listen to the speakers.”
The crowd obliged, walked briefly to the space, and began listening to speeches by the organizers. At first people seemed excited and energized if the speaker was especially moving, but that momentum began trickling away as the speeches kept coming. A Democratic Party politician was unfortunately given the megaphone, and then the floor was left open for whomever to come and say what they wanted to say. I felt restless and cold, it had been half an hour since we walked over, and I noticed that the crowd began to trickle away. Mothers, teenagers, preachers, and other folks gave impromptu speeches, talking about their experiences, and calling for more or less vague forms of change relating to policing and racism. By the time this was finished, an hour and a half passed, the crowd had halved, and there was no more energy in the air. Some people tried to force a march, but it was pathetic, consisted of only a dozen people, and quickly ended.
It seemed like in most cities resistance to policing and white supremacy was galvanized by the mass actions, highway takeovers, and riots that took place that night, but over the course of the next year, nothing like that materialized in this particular city. The chance was missed.
At rallies, demonstrations, and even illegal occupations of government buildings in the last few years, I’ve witnessed or heard stories where a large number of people are mobilized and angry, potentially ready to take action in a way that could make some kind of impact. But at the moment when energy is the highest, the offensive potential of the crowd is halted to make way for speakers to give speeches. The crowd, originally ready for action, adopts a posture of passivity, receiving the information being conveyed to them by the speakers. The speaker, sometimes a vile politician but more often just an angry person, tries to convey their frustrations, anger, and sadness. The posture towards action irreversibly settles into one of speaking and listening. What’s happening here?
Speaking truth…at each other?
From the Civil Rights Movement all the way on to the Second Iraq War protests there was a frustratingly dominant tendency in activism called “speaking truth to power.” What this entailed was someone not in a position of power, an “average joe,” saying what they believe to politicians or businesspeople. What did they think would come out of this? It’s difficult to understand, but it was ubiquitous in social movements for half a century.
Maybe it stuck around because people thought they could change policy by changing politicians’ minds, or perhaps they enjoyed the feeling of moral superiority they got from being so right against people who were obviously so wrong. More realistically it stuck around because it was ineffective and actually aided systems of control. Any situation where people air their grievances and anger to power is just giving the latter a new vocabulary to co-opt. Local politicians and bureaucrats learn how to tailor their messages to people. Police and media learn useful rhetoric to more effectively divide people during rebellious moments. On the nation-wide level, political parties and corporations have think-tanks and public relations professionals that do research and specialize in formulating the exact right thing for their clients to say. Luckily for us, speaking truth to power seems to be dead.
It has been replaced by speaking truth at each other. This tendency rightfully reacts to the reality that there are wide gulfs in experience between people, often related to race, gender, sexuality, ability, and social class. So far, so good. But in the absence of an effort to physically undermine the structural existence of the economic, political, and social system in power through action, the act of communicating becomes fetishized itself. There seems to be an informally understood idea that if those who occupy the more privileged identities hear about the hardships of those most oppressed, then the former will change their behavior, and oppression will end this way. Just like speaking truth to power, things become murky and vague when deciphering how it actually get the goods. What both forms share is that they dangerously give their users a cathartic release at vocalizing their experiences and oppressions to a crowd of people, undermining the potential for that frustration to be released through revolt and subversion.
Liberal democracy functions this way. The world we inhabit has been set in motion long before we were born, and at best we are meant to move passively through it. Our relationship to our surroundings, our daily lives, those around us, our bodies, and our futures is that of distance and alienation at best. Those in the grasp of democracy may be oppressed, controlled, dominated, and exploited in the most degrading ways possible through work, the justice system, toxic interpersonal relationships, and a constant existential alienation, but “freedom of speech” and other civil liberties exist to appease this feeling and give the appearance of freedom. All of the anger and stress that could go into action is diverted into talk that often makes one feel slightly better after doing it. It’s a pressure-release valve that lets off steam.
In order to exist globally, capitalism in its current form needs liberal democracy. In Chile, Greece, Spain, and many other formerly totalitarian countries throughout the world, this fact has been realized and they’ve transition away from dictatorship. Fascism and totalitarianism, while useful in certain situations and towards specific populations, largely breeds resentment and pressure that will eventually boil over, possibly disrupting the system. It’s no wonder that these countries, where the state has been so intensely crushing, currently have vibrant social movements and strong anarchist and autonomist milieus.
Status updating at the void
The tendency to communicate in this way seems eerily similar to the phenomenon of posting updates to social media. Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and other social media platforms have created a new social tendency, that of “talking at the void.” These status updates, tweets, and Tumblr posts are written for everyone and no one in particular. They mirror a politician’s speech in both being performative and creating a speaker/listener dichotomy instead of fueling mutual communication. In other words, it is done as a performance meant to appeal to those passively listening, as opposed to building an ongoing conversation. If there is any back and forth, it is in “replies” consisting of very short text messages and/or emojis, sacrificing the nuance of body language and longer arguments, which are often needed to flesh out unfamiliar ideas.
In contrast, the back and forth of conversation can build understanding between people, whose idiosyncrasies, body language, anecdotes, and ways of thinking can be teased out and unravel themselves before each other. What’s being communicated can be clarified by reading someone’s facial expression or gestures, also making it much easier to detect each other’s thoughts and intentions. However, conversation in this culture has primarily not been of a reciprocal dynamic for a long time, instead consisting of people taking turns talking at each other. The depth of our loss goes much deeper than Facebook.
The status update breeds narcissism. When constantly being presented with a text field that reads “What’s on Your Mind?,” always interested in what you have to say, it makes sense that people begin thinking that what they have to say is always important, or that it is always appropriate to share. People’s habits and tendencies shift towards what the status update conditions them to. Technology is not neutral, and this machine formats the way people talk and think.
Social media gives the appearance of participation, but as cultural tropes suggesting one not “read the comments” show, these technologies are not designed to facilitate communication that is empathetic, ethically nuanced, able to convey complex ideas, or that allows people to fully understand each other. Compared to the lack of public life immediately prior to the internet’s rise, these technologies give the appearance of connection, but as stated in “Anti-Oppression and the Internet,” this is an illusion. Nonetheless, the damage is done: through constant use of these technologies we become accustomed to communicating in toxic ways, and by default see this form of communication as valuable. Capitalism wins, liberal democracy wins, and everyone else loses.
Communication is clearly valuable politically, for example the September 9, 2016 national prisoner strike would not have been possible if not for letters and phone calls that formed relationships between people inside prisons and out. Understanding other people’s experiences, especially those that face oppression, largely comes from listening to them. This should not be underestimated. Neither should we create a fetish around all “action,” as some actions strengthen our enemies or simply satisfy our feelings of “doing something.”
The specific tendency of “speaking truth at each other” that has developed concurrently with the rise of social media is a dangerous pressure release valve that can halt our ability to attack what destroy us. Liberal democracy lays many traps for us in the realm of struggle and politics; let’s keep an eye out for this one.