Thu 30 Sep 2010
he was eighteen. it was his second week of freshman year at a good university.
you’ve probably seen the story. Tyler Clementi‘s roommate set up a webcam in their dorm room that could be operated remotely, then livecast and tweeted Tyler’s sexual encounter with another guy. three days later Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge and drowned himself.
diminishment. shaming. the logic of dominance, our cultural hierachy of thought where one side of any societal binary – masculine/feminine, white/non-white, straight/gay, rational/emotional – is legitimated in its power over the other, whatever Other it may be.
we exist in a social world, and sometimes we’re able to carve out spaces where we think we’re safe to be whoever we want or need to be. and then somebody else decides – out of discomfort, on a lark, to flex muscle or gain attention…nothing so different from all the little dehumanizations we perform on each other every day – to re-educate us about how the world really works and which kind of body or desire or way of being counts as legitimate, as Normal.
to invalidate whatever safe space we’ve created by taking the social power that the logic of dominance affords, and using it against us.
you will never feel safe so long as you’re subject to that logic, that operation of power over you. if you’re lucky, there is respite, retrenchment with those of your own kind, whatever that kind may be: the ones who make YOU feel normal, and valid, and deserving of human decency. hopefully reclamation of your right to respect.
but if that logic of dominance sneaks into your bedroom at night and broadcasts you at your most vulnerable, most exposed; if it treats your privacy a spectacle worthy of shame, you might decide you’ll never feel safe again.
four weeks from today, i’ll be in Toronto at Blissdom Canada 2010, contributing to a panel called Blogging for Social Action, Community, and Empowerment: The Beauty of the Butterfly Effect. the good in social media. the advocacy and change that it makes possible. the beauty of this world out here created by a million – a billion? – hands.
until last week, my only real anxiety about it all was that part of my role on the panel is to talk about the creation and birth of Glow in the Woods, and i envisioned an audience expecting the lovely Kate – who is on a different panel – throwing squishy tomatoes at me. (that, and Erica Ehm. ERICA EHM is leading my panel. when i was 14, i wanted to BE Erica Ehm. eep.)
lately i’ve been grappling with some bigger doubts.
first there was the young woman in BC whose gang rape went viral on Facebook. then, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker stating The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, or that we’re all just armchair activists out here in social media land, frothing over with our expressions of “like” for good causes without putting any money where our mouths are, or doing much at all to effect real change.
in class, in a mostly-fascinating discussion over 20th-century thought from clever people who stand on the shoulders of giants: technology is bad, technology is reductive, technology is anti-humanist. it makes us nothing more than circuits for efficient information exchange.
i think i bleeped at that one, a cyborg afraid of being outed. but i wondered, too. Jesus. am i wrong?
then i came home last night and read about Tyler Clementi. and my heart cracked in two.
i don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring all this. not those of us invested and enmeshed in social media. these are not innocent tools we use, no matter how transformative or empowering they have been for us, no matter what safe spaces or advocacy or butterfly beauty they’ve made possible.
but. neither are the tools themselves cruel, or diminishing, or agents of the logic of dominance. unless they are used that way. they are just tools.
any story that tells you otherwise, whether it makes of them a mythology of salvation or a dystopia, is a lie.
social media amplifies all of our communicative powers, including the power to exclude and shame and victimize others, to gang up on them in masses and make them feel worthless and violated, or beyond the pale of belonging. it is just a tool, like a pen, except what we scrawl here is always public. what we scrawl here always has human effects and consequences.
i don’t know if Tyler Clementi’s roommate really, fully understood the scope of what he might be setting in motion, unleashing the brutality of the logic of dominance and shame out here in the amplified world. the power play behind his cruelty was a blatant smackdown of Tyler’s rights to respect and decency and equality, no matter the tools. had the roommate scrawled on the dorm room door with a pen the very same things he tweeted, he would likely have still caused terrible hurt, and probably uproar, and possibly incited danger to Tyler and his parter not from themselves but from others. but would Tyler have jumped from the bridge? or would he still have had – somewhere outside that dorm hall, or perhaps that campus – space for retreat and respite, for escape from the dehumanization and Othering?
with the amplification of voice that social media makes possible comes the amplification of the human effects that voice creates. and this is where i think Gladwell – and my learned colleagues and guides at the university, some of them – get it wrong.
yes, technology can be part of the modernist efficiency that diminishes all that cannot be represent in numbers and bottom lines; it can be a direct circuit that cuts out the warmth and messiness of human touch. but i live something far more than that. the idea of social media for good is more than a fairy tale wherein technology and Twitter make us all Cinderella. social media is revolutionary in that it creates a world where the struggling, messy, complex human self – the one the humanists are so afraid has been jettisoned forever by a Fordist, corporatist culture – has voice, on an unprecedented scale. and all of those voices have human effects.
some are ugly. some are tragic. some are life-changing in the most beautiful way possible. for me, the Internet has been a place to write myself into being after a loss that the so-called “real world” tends to silence, render unspeakable. social media brought me community, the company of my own kind, respite and resiliency in all the messiness of my sorrow and my survival.
those of us who speak for the good that technology & social media can do need to take ownership of its particular capacity for harm. there may be nothing more important to the education of the next generation than teaching kids that self-expression – whether it’s writing on a bathroom wall or on Twitter – has effects, and that those effects are what we live with, all of us, so long as we can bear them.
with social media technologies mostly banned from classrooms and curricula, that’s going to be hard.
the Revolution, if it comes, will not come from activists. it may come from those who still inhabit the Other Sides of the logic of dominance. or it may come in a quieter way, a change that is barely a revolution except in its core. one where in connecting with each other out here, we connect with our own humanity and that of others in ways that our modern society has made – til now – easier to just leave to the logic of dominance.
because it is only our humanity, not any tool under the sun, that will ever prevent another tragedy like that of Tyler Clementi.