Monday, April 8, 2013

A Personal Take on Online Social Justice

I've previously written a lot on social justice movements online. It was a broader, big-picture look at the phenomenon, so I thought that it would be worth writing about what online social justice movements may mean on an individual level.

Let's accept an assumption for the sake of argument: that any given individual is going to suffer from some degree of insecurity at one point or another.

Not really a radical assumption, no.

People generally accept the adage that life has its ups and downs, and that it is important to stand up eight times when you fall down seven. That adage is often shared when a person is at a (relatively) low point in their lives, and it is shared in order to remind them that they can - and should - move on. Presumably, such adages would only be shared during instances where that person is having trouble with moving on. It could be over a job rejection or a breakup or even something as mundane as receiving a lot of dirty looks throughout the day.

What thoughts would you expect to be going through a person's head when they are having trouble moving on from something?  They'd probably be at a very insecure point in their lives, trying to rationalize their failure in some manner. If it were you, then you might ask yourself, would it have made a difference if my resume was a bit better-looking? Was there something on my face today? What if I'd said or done something differently?

And when we ask ourselves these questions, we're often compelled to look for their answers. If you're worried that there's something on your face, you look in a mirror to check. If you want to improve your resume, maybe you'll sit down and think about how you can pad it out. If you think further on if you said something offensive or mean, maybe you'll make a mental note not to do it again. Maybe we'll ask opinions from people that we trust, and they'll say things like "I think your resume is fine", or "That doesn't sound strange at all", or "You look great, stop worrying so much".

I'm going to guess that these kind of insecurities are fairly universal. These insecurities are also relatively minor. They are certainly bothersome and they can dictate our actions sometimes, but they're simple to address. We can usually devise solutions for working through them, and then we can get over them.

But what happens when you find yourself in this position of insecurity, and you ask yourself all of these questions, but then you have to ask yourself the additional question, "What if I weren't this particular race", or "What if I wasn't a woman", or "What if I wasn't gay"?

Perhaps you'd take the steps to look into the subject matter further, like you would with the other "what if"s. And what you'd find was a pervasive history of inequality, and toxic attitudes from some outspoken bigots. Even if your identity had nothing to do with your problem, you'd find more evidence to support your insecurity than you would to rationalize it away.

And then it's stuck with you indefinitely.

It sure is lonely, here in my head.

Imagine going through your entire life worrying about how an integral, immutable part of your identity might be working against you at any given moment. Try thinking about what it would be like for it to be pointed out to you the first time when you're a kid. At that age, most kids aren't capable of having a level discussion about identity issues. You probably wouldn't ever consult your peers about it unless they were already like you.

Try thinking about when you start learning about how people like you used to be disrespected or even systematically disenfranchised. Maybe it's through shared experiences from family members, or from learning about it in an academic setting. Maybe you'd even experience it yourself. Try thinking about having those experiences in the back of your mind through the rest of your life. What kind of worries and fears would all of those things inspire?

Worse still is that these are questions of personal insecurity that don't affect some groups of people. A white person in most regions of America has never had to be as conscious about their skin color as a black person in those same regions. Men in most parts of the world have never had to be as conscious about their gender as women. The notion of a deep-seated identity-specific insecurity is completely foreign to some people. It isn't necessarily a willful ignorance, but merely a lack of awareness from having a relatively established background.

I'm relatively fortunate. I'm a middle-eastern straight male, which means my gender and sexuality have never really presented any extra challenges for me. The most that I have to deal with nowadays is the uncomfortable five minutes where I explain to people how to pronounce my ethnic name. I got weird comments from some kids at middle school immediately after 9/11, and once in high school a kid asked me accusingly if I was a Jew, as though that were a negative thing. Sometimes I'll see okcupid profiles where people mark down that they only want to date people who are the same (white) race as them, and sometimes I'll even see the specific note on their profile that middle easterners need not apply..

Overall, I have it pretty good. Maybe I'd be a little nervous about going too far into more bigoted regions of the country, but my identity has never been an issue for me. I can only imagine the frustration of being a part of other social groups.

Maybe some people respond to it by getting angry. Maybe some people just decide it's a fact of life and bear it. Maybe some people channel their frustrations into organized causes and movements. Maybe some people just try to earn what they can get without rocking the boat. No matter what the individual response, it's still a shame that individuals have to respond to such a situation in the first place. This has been going on for centuries, not just in our American society, but worldwide.

So imagine what a reprieve it must be to those individuals when they can go online and identify themselves in any way that they choose.

I remember joining my first internet forum and making up some clever username for myself. My online handle was completely divorced from my middle eastern heritage, and had more to do with the fact that I really liked playing video games at the time. If people said negative things to me online, it had absolutely nothing to do with my actual identity or pedigree. In fact, it couldn't possibly have anything to do with it - they didn't know anything about my identity unless I told them about it.

I can only imagine what it'd be like to go online while belonging to a more inconvenienced, disenfranchised minority. All of those concerns and insecurities built up inside you would have no factor in how people speak to you. Perhaps someone can conceal details of their identity in situations where their identity is irrelevant. It must be a liberating experience.

Online social justice movements further demonstrate that the internet gives us control of our identities.  Concealing one's identity is a nice luxury to have, but the user also has the luxury to make their identity relevant online when they want to take a stand about an issue. It demonstrates that having the option to escape one's identity-baggage doesn't make escapism a necessary conclusion. People of a disenfranchised minority can find one another and make precious networks. They can talk about their shared concerns and help parse out their own insecurities, all the while having a dialogue with anonymous strangers online of different backgrounds in order to understand one another.

On a bigger picture, the Internet's offerings to a more egalitarian society are pretty contestable. The added diversity and opportunities for widespread dialogue are countered by the threats of cyberbalkanization and mob behavior. Legitimate movements for equality have to share the term 'equality' with other enthusiastic movements that don't have the same weight or priority.

But if at least one individual, going through most of his or her life with fears about how other people perceive them over race or gender or sexuality, can find internal peace with themselves through using the Internet, then that's a definite win.

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