These are, undoubtedly, some of the most prominent movements in today’s society. They have a huge amount of momentum and are pursuing ambitious and positive change in society.
Some would argue that these movements owe a huge amount of their following to the idea of ‘woke’ or the need to be in tune with current affairs and world events. And the ways that they manifest online, notably on social media, shed a lot of light on the true nature of these movements but more importantly, the people who subscribe to them.
I use the word ‘subscribe’ very intentionally because the more I learn about and engage with these colossal online movements, the more it feels like a system of subscribing to content and ideals without actively participating in the change that they promote. Take the horrific death of George Lloyd for example; social media platforms have exploded with tributes to the man who died while being arrested by police officers in Minneapolis. His death re-ignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement and has led to mass protests around the world. Both the activity that we are seeing online and the protests happening on the street raise an interesting question; that of the difference between supporting a movement and actively participating in it.
I thought that I was helping call out and draw attention to an issue that desperately needs to be addressed. I thought I was showing solidarity to people affected by systemic racism and involving myself in this movement. In reality, I simply shared something on social media.
Now it is, of course, essential to note the power of social media in influencing people’s perspectives on the world. Building this sort of presence on social media is fundamental in shifting the narrative but I want to argue that there is a massive difference between simply propagating a piece of content that someone else has created, and being the author of your own words.
Yet, on the other hand, dumping the responsibility of speaking out and ‘policing’ (for lack of a better word) behaviour on people already dealing with immense oppression, trauma and hardship is problematic. It doesn’t do to simply sit back and expect victims to fight systemic inequality on their own. Staying silent for fear of taking someone else’s limelight is denying your involvement and your duty to stand up for your values. We all have the right to believe in values and to ensure that they are upheld, even when we, ourselves, are not the direct victims. This is the principle of solidarity. And even to dismantle what I have just said, victims of systemic inequality are not exclusively those oppressed or robbed of opportunities that are given to others. We are all victims because for those of us who experience privilege, we lose the opportunity to learn from other communities and to be part of a society in which diversity is celebrated within egality.
It is clear that there is a real conundrum around language and this is something that has been discussed in the media and around the globe in relation to the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Language has the power to oppress but also empower, distract but also highlight, destroy but also create, discredit but also educate. We all need to learn how to use language in a way that actively constructs the world we want to live in. Speaking for others discredits their voice but expecting others to speak on your behalf ignores your duty and opportunity to uphold your values.
I have come to realise that there is one way in which we can really and truly ensure that the way we feel is purposefully and accurately communicated and that is to say it. Say. The. Words. Use language and tell others how you feel; not how other communities feel, not how your friend feels, but how you feel and what sort of change you want to see. When I looked further into the people behind posts that went particularly viral, almost all of them said that they felt uncomfortable with the explosive impact of their words. Many requested people donate rather than repost and to use the time and energy they would have spent reposting other people’s content in educating themselves instead. It isn’t enough to simply profit off the time someone else spent in composing thoughtful content. Those words came from a personal space and from their heart. We have no idea of the experiences that person may have had in the past that inspired a sentence or the relationship they have to systemic racism that shapes the way they speak about the movement. Re-appropriating words to fill your own platform detracts from the power of speech and composition. You have that power too! Use language to ignite a conversation with others and to encourage them to also express themselves. Use your own voice, articulate yourself and your perspective. If we have learnt anything from the past few weeks it is that we need greater diversity. Diversity in the workplace, diversity in government and diversity of content and the voices that speak it. We need to give our voice, not to victims of oppression because they have a voice and they are using it, but to the movement and your own part in that change. What is it that you want to see change? Tell the world because the world wants to hear you!