I think this is a deeply flawed way of looking at the world.
Now, I have talked about Ferguson, and I’ve talked about Gaza. (In fact, I’ve been writing and talking about Israel and Palestine for more than a decade.) But there are many important problems facing the world that I haven’t talked about: I haven’t talked much about the civil war in South Sudan, or the epidemic of suicide among American military personnel, or the persecution of Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar.
Is that okay? Is it okay for me to talk about, say, racism in football and lowering infant mortality in Ethiopia? Or must we all agree to discuss only whatever is currently the ascendant news story? Is it disrespectful to Ferguson protesters to talk about continued political oppression in Egypt now that we are no longer reblogging images of the protests in Tahrir Square? I think this is a false choice: If you are talking about Ferguson and I am talking about Ethiopian health care, neither of us is hurting the other.
I think the challenge for activists and philanthropists online is in paying sustained attention, not over days or weeks but over years and decades. And I worry that when we turn our attention constantly from one outrage to another we end up not investing the time and work to facilitate actual change. We say “THE WORLD IS WATCHING,” and it is…until it isn’t. We’ve seen this again and again in Gaza and the West Bank. We’re seeing it in Iran. We’re seeing it in South Sudan. And we’re seeing it in the U.S., from net neutrality to Katrina recovery.
The truth is, these problems are complicated, and when the outrage passes we’re left with big and tangled and nuanced problems. I feel that too often that’s when we stop paying attention, because it gets really hard and there’s always a shiny new problem somewhere else that’s merely outrageous. I hope you’re paying attention to Ferguson in five years, anon, and I hope I am, too. I also hope I’m paying attention to child death in Ethiopia. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.
I really don’t want to minimize the effectiveness of online activism, because I know that it works: To use a personal example, I’ve learned a TON from the LGBT+ and sexual assault survivor communities in recent years online. People on tumblr make fun of me for apologizing all the time, but I apologize all the time because I am learning all the time, and every day I’m like, “Oh, man, Current Me has realized that Previous Me was so wrong about this!”
But we can only learn when we can listen. And when you call me a hypocrite for talking about X instead of talking about Y, it makes it really hard to listen.
At times, online discourse to me feels like we just sit in a circle screaming at each other until people get their feelings hurt and withdraw from the conversation, which leaves us with ever-smaller echo chambers, until finally we’re left only with those who entirely agree with us. I don’t think that’s how the overall worldwide level of suck gets decreased.
I might be wrong, of course. I often am. But I think we have to find ways to embrace nuance and complexity online. It’s hard—very, very hard—to make the most generous, most accepting, most forgiving assumptions about others. But I also really do think it’s the best way forward.
Perishables! Come Congregate in the Cold!
Little Hot Waves, Or, Let’s Get Brain Cancer While We Wait For The Popcorn
Mix Your Drinks! (Stir! Whip! Purée!)
A Configuration of Whisks Which, When Activated, Allow Sufjan Stevens to Cook a Fluffier Omelette
Toaster (For the Toastless)
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—
Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped
—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.❞