The Case for “Hashtag Activism”

I’ve never seen myself as an activist.  I was born on third and spent a lot of my life thinking I’d hit a triple. As I’ve started to learn about privilege — all the benefits I receive in the society I live because I’m a white, able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male who learned English as his first language and who has never had any serious bouts of mental illness or hard financial times — I’ve started to think more seriously about why I’ve never been an activist.

The thing about privilege is that by possessing it, you’re blinded to its impact. White people don’t easily see the advantages afforded to them as white people, black and brown people do. Men don’t immediately see the advantages afforded them by their gender, women (and all gender non-conformers) do. Able-bodied people don’t see the advantages afforded to them by their luck, people with handicaps do. I could go on.

The most effective and important place I’ve learned about privilege in all its depth is from people I’ve never met personally, on Twitter. In the context of a casual place I started visiting to see dumb jokes and discussions of techology, I would see glimpses of perspectives different than my own. Sometimes I’d pursue them, sometimes they just appeared for me to notice or ignore.

Twitter in specific — and social media in general — is such an effective space for genuine transformation of opinion and understanding because it is so casual and ambient. Its rare — at least as a quiet and privileged person — that someone is confronting me directly. Instead I see them caring about a topic on which I’m not informed. It’s a safe place for me to ignore them, if I’d rather, or pursue what they’re talking about if I choose.

The activism of marches and sit-ins and strikes is important. Essential even. But it’s not the only way to transform people or situations.

When the only media was mass media, the only way to galvanize attention was to make a scene so big that no one could deny it or ignore it. The only time the civil rights activists of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were able to talk to those whose passive acquiescence to the status quo sustained it was when they made the evening news.

Today, smaller and less-reported demonstrations, events, and opinions can go quite far, among a network of sympathetic ears. And at the edges of a network of sympathy — to the plight of black men in America, to the casual violence so frequently suffered by (trans)women, etc — are interested but ignorant eyes and ears.

The change engendered by “hashtag activism” is much slower than the sort that can be spurred by large demonstrations. It is a slow opening of those people at the edges of a an existing network of concern. But if or when they’re converted, then the network has grown by a small but important amount.

This a slow process, and one largely invisible from the outside. But its significance, power, and importance is easy to miss, deride, and understate. This sort of “activism” won’t change the world in a year, or even a few, but it certainly has value.

Practical Philosophy

The Obligations of the Lucky

Every once and a while, something makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been. After I was born and before, a lot of fortunate things broke my way. A short list:

  • I was born as a naturalized citizen in the United States, at a time when the country was near its height in world prestige and importance.
  • I was born a white-skinned person in those United States.
  • I was born to comfortably middle class family, which fast-tracked me to a comfortably middle-class debt-free existence.
  • I was never abused as a child, nor made to quietly suffer any meaningful injustice.
  • I was never told by the dominant society that my sexuality was unacceptable or disallowed.

I could go on, but you probably get the point: I’ve had a privileged existence so far. And very little of it is a result of any specific actions I took, qualities I adapted, or hard work I put in. I’ve just been lucky.

I think one of the hardest things about being so lucky is that you become blind to how many good breaks you got. If you see people struggling where you’ve never struggled, and you miss your luck, you’re not very empathetic to their hardship. You’re likely to think that everyone else should just work as you did and would have success as simply and painlessly as you’ve had.

I think that way sometimes. I think “Wow, everyone should just do the things I do and see the things I see. Then they’ll be as well-off as me.”

But then, usually, I catch myself. I recognize how much random good-fortune and the privileges of traits about myself I never really picked factor into my success.

Any anger I publicly display is — as a white man in America — likely to be read as legitimate and worthy of consideration. It’s not really more likely to be well-founded than the anger of a black woman, but her anger is likely to be read as pedestrian and misguided by the world at large. She’s much more likely to be considered touchy, angry, or disagreeable than I am, because of her unchosen characteristics.

When I’m pulled over for speeding, there’s a high likelihood that I will safely and effortless make it through that traffic stop with nothing worse than a ticket. I’m not likely to suffer the indignity of being pulled from my car for an unnecessary road-side sobriety test. Or have my car searched for drugs or other contraband. I will not, as a browner skinned man might, see a police officer leer at me a little too hard and work unnecessarily to find something else to ticket me for.

The world I live in is a privileged one. And my first obligation is to never forget that. To remember that I didn’t earn all that I’ve got. I did work hard and I did earn some of it; it’s foolish to pretend that I’ve not had some impact on my own life. But I was also given opportunities, and the benefit the doubt, a lot more than others, and I can’t forget that.

Because I remember that, and because I know the subtle injustice of a society that makes it a little more likely that I succeed than most others, I owe it to them to keep the difference in mind. To do my best to listen and understand. To do my best to share to others like me, who fail to see their invisible good fortune, my understanding of the ways in which the system is failing those who haven’t quite had such luck. Privileged people seem to hear a little easier when their privilege is explained by similarly lucky people. Because I possess a straight, white, American, cis-gendered male form, my speech is more likely to be given a respectful hearing.

The world we have today is probably the fairest one to have ever existed. The rates of unstructured violence, of enslavement, of arbitrary decisions passed off as justice, are lower than they’ve probably ever been in history. But that’s a long distance from saying that our world is completely fair, just, and free of coercion. The obligation of those lucky enough to have it easy is to work extra hard — specifically because they don’t need to — to make the world fairer and more just still.


Review: Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Dr. Seuss’s Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? is a book I knew by title long before I took the time to read it. I should also note that I think the question posed by the title is one that’s is critically important to ask of me and people like me. People who are, for example, able with little effort to do well in relatively-good public schools, go to a university, and graduate with little or no debt.

I suppose I should have known that a great title doesn’t make a great book, but I forgot. I also suppose I should have realized that Dr. Seuss is not exactly one to talk about the privileges I have had, but I forgot. So I found myself an odd mix of disappointed and satisfied when I finally took the chance to read the book.

Did I Ever Tell You… proceeds about the way you’d expect a Dr. Seuss book with that question in the title would. The narrator begins by telling about when he met a man in the Desert of Drize who “sang with a sunny sweet smile on his face:”

When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad…
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie,
you’re really quite lucky!
Some people are much more…
oh, ever so much more…
oh, muchly much-much more
unluckly than you!

From there, we of course proceed through a litany of terribly unfortunate people forced to do terribly scary or unfortunate things. All, of course, accompanied by the dynamic and colorful illustrations for which Dr. Seuss is so well known.

But all of it, as well-executed as it is, as much as I love the idea, left me disappointed. Surely there’s something to be said for my having held too much anticipation for too long to be quite satisfied with a children’s book, even one by Dr. Seuss.

I know it’s silly to criticize a children’s book for being too simplistic and diversionary, but that’s the problem I find myself having with Did I Ever Tell You…. The reality, I suppose, is that I don’t know how lucky I am. That there exists a single children’s book that asks one of the most essential questions that most Americans–and really most in the “first world”–need to grapple with at some time is a marvel. And for that alone, I should be at least a little satisfied. And I’m certain that should I have children, they will be repeatedly subjected the book, however imperfect I find it.

american society, big ideas, personal

On Privilege

White privilege, as you may know,

is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice by the fact that a person benefiting from white privilege need not hold racist beliefs themselves.

There is also some noteworthy scholarship on male privilege and heterosexual privilege. All of it speaks to the ways in which being white, male, and straight allows me the freedom to never be asked to speak on behalf of any group in which I was randomly born a member. How my poor behavior is rarely seen as a reflection on anyone but myself. How most people will assume that I’m intelligent, safe, and trustworthy. How history, as conventionally told, is brimming with people who look like me and by people like me. How role models that look like me are everywhere in this culture. How people are unlikely to harbor any negative ideas about me because of who I am.

And aside from the privileges bestowed by being white, male, and straight, I’m college educated. My parents are still married. My parents are upper-middle class. I’m an American. I live in the United States of America. I have little discernible accent (at least to American ears). All of these are seen as things that make me a better person, despite my responsibility for none of them.

And those are merely those privileges that I can enumerate right now without effort. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll discover later and probably untold ones I’ll never be made aware of.

Discussion of privilege can quickly degenerate into theoretical issues and nit-picking on substance. Surely, you might argue, there must be some privilege’s in being black, Latino, or Asian. I wouldn’t contend that there aren’t. But that’s immaterial to the fact that white (or male or heterosexual) privileges in most countries–and especially this one–are far more numerous than those conferred by other identities.

And surely white privilege–even all the privilege’s I possess–doesn’t dictate my lot in life. A poor gay black man from Zimbabwe could make himself far more successful than I’ll ever be. But I feel rather certain that he’d have had to fight a lot harder to get there.

If–or when–one recognizes that they’ve received so many unearned privileges the obvious question is: what do I do about it? One bad answer to that question the easiest to give: nothing. To assert that though you’ve received these unearned privilege’s you should essentially forget about them. Or worse, you can make the absurd and disgusting claim that they’re rightfully yours because “it was earned for you by the hard work and self-discipline of your ancestors and relatives, whom you should learn to appreciate.

There is something to be said for conscious awareness of it. To recognize and understand what it may be like on the other side of that divide. It wasn’t until I spent fifteen minutes in a mostly-black grocery store near downtown Detroit that I ever recognized what it’s like to be on the minority side of any social situation. Aware that even if these people meant me no harm–and I’m sure of that–there was the immutable fact that I felt out of place. For a white heterosexual male who has lived most of his life in predominately white parts of a predominately white state it was an eye-opening experience.

Real awareness, I think, leads directly to action. Perhaps the greatest action you’ll ever undertake is to spread awareness of these privileges among others. Perhaps you’ll just vote for politicians who you think understand and would do their best to countermand these unearned privileges. Perhaps you’ll become an activist against these privileges.

Perhaps you’ll do absolutely nothing. But I do hope you’ll at least think about what a privilege you’ve been given, to be able to ignore the ways in which you’re privileged. The unprivileged have no such choice.