By Bhawna Sharma
The death of George Floyd at the knees of a white policeman has unleashed a torrent of protests across cities in the United States, from cosmopolitan New York to the historical epicentre of it all, Minneapolis.
That means there’s also a barrage of social media stories and posts about the importance of #BlackLivesMatter (BLM), and while social media activism has my full support, intellectual-shaming crusaders don’t. They shun and shame people who do not make political posts showing solidarity with the BLM movement, while shooting down those who have a slightly different take on the issue on social media.
Are moral crusaders justified in their reactions? Is social media activism, even, for that matter, the only valid way to show the world you care?
Social media: what’s there and what’s not?
Moral crusaders operate on the logical fallacy that lack of social media activism is the same as lack of support for their cause, or, in the case of BLM, racism. But, like atoms, the physical invisibility of something is not necessarily its absence. I don’t have to post about #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram to prove to people that I am anti-racism—awareness is primarily personal, not public. For some people, moreover, it’s just a matter of choice: they prefer separating their online social lives from their sensitive political worldviews (an understandable choice given that privacy is now an endangered species anyways).
Ironically, moral crusaders also naively assume that what’s out there is what’s true. If, for instance, a Singaporean Chinese rallies against the systematic oppression experienced by blacks in the U.S., but consciously denies the prejudiced treatment of ethnic minorities in Singapore, then he is not actually an anti-racist.
Similarly, merely posting about social issues does not make one a subject expert in those fields. How many of us really know the long and tortuous history of blacks in the U.S.? How many of us know that at one point of time, their votes counted for three-fifths of that of whites, or that Jim Crow laws existed well into the 1950s?
The point is that social media is a tool for activism—a powerful one, to be sure—but it is neither all-knowing nor self-evident. If anything, crusaders of righteousness who bash others for being silently complicit (and get a moral kick out of it) too are guilty of jumping to conclusions.
When intellectual shaming is a force for good
There are those who consciously choose not to be politically active on social media even though they may have thorough arguments. Then, there are those, who in the shallow zeal of activism, end up spreading blatantly ignorant and insensitive messages. It is in this scenario that the intellectual shamers indeed become a force for good by not only pointing out faulty assumptions and reasoning, but also educating their adversary.
Case-in-point, former Miss Universe Malaysia Samantha Katie James has drawn intense criticism for her controversial Instagram stories regarding the BLM movement. She encouraged blacks to take the situation as a ‘challenge’ as they ‘chose’ to be born coloured, and urged them to accept racism. The model was promptly forced to apologise following social media backlash, admitting that she could have articulated her thoughts better.
Intellectual shaming under such circumstances teaches us two interesting lessons. First, people may be legitimately ignorant because of their social upbringing; as someone who can choose her own race, perhaps James incorrectly assumed the same holds true for blacks. Second, it is better not to post about social issues at all than to post half-baked, poorly-researched words of consolation. Social media is quick to lambast, but slow to forget.
To post or not to post?
A single #MeToo Twitter tweet brought Harvey Weinstein’s career to an end, forever smashing years of toxic hidden patriarchy in Hollywood. Now, #blacklivesmatter is fighting to complete what the Civil Rights Movement set out to do sixty years ago.
While it’s natural for the impassioned activist in us to mobilise and populate our social media accounts as torchbearers of human rights, we should also remember that, at the end of the day, to post or not to post is a fundamentally personal question.
To be silent on social media is not the same as complicity, for social media is simply a vehicle for activism—by no means does it dictate the extent to which we care about a cause. In a world where countries are folding into themselves, we should instead harness the power of social media to understand and appreciate our institutionalised differences through deliberate, measured, and constructive dialogue.