Hashtag Activism, Identity Politics, and Surrounding a Problem, Part 1

Out of Niger — and as a bothersome aside to the real work of rescuing and healing the kidnapped Girls — has come another instance of the debate about hashtag activism, liberal ego, and how to deal with terrorists or bigotry like “marriage protection” and “religious protection and restoration.” But attached to this quandary are matters of intersectionality, alliance, identity and post-colonial politics. And then, well, there’s the matter of geopolitical strategy.

That is a tall order, so I’ll break it down in the first ever Virginia NOW Online blog series.

Spoilers, darlings, most readers of this blog will like part one, be aggravated by part two, and then like part three.

Let’s begin with two facts that I take as the ground for my thinking here.

  1. John Stewart (click here) is correct that these young women are some of the bravest people on the Earth. They live in a country (one of many in the Middle East and North Africa now) where they know, every morning, that they are risking their lives to go to school. Malala Yousafzai (click here) and these young women are not, by far, the only cases of Girls being punished for their desire to learn, to determine their own lives, to become “too Western.” Calling anyone “Girl” after knowledge of these events is only the highest compliment to their character and fortitude (props to you John). In fact, so much a compliment that I’m going to capitalize that word from now on: Girl. Girls.
  1. If the ‘net were not an effective tool for political and social change, the NSA would not be storing/reading everything we write and say to each other. Which, they are (click here). Glen Greewald’s new book, No Place to Hide, should remind us that what we’re up to is very interesting.

That is: Net Activism Works, and It Works Really Well.

The voices I have encountered so far who boo-hoo / harrumph /hate on #BringBackOurGirls are of two kinds: social/political conservatives who want us to leave the status quo be (both here and in Niger, but more on that in part two), and people who are pretty sure that everything white folks participate in is self-justifying at best and damaging at worst (also more on this in part two). George Will, everyone at Fox News, and lots of people who prize some commodity they call “identity” over any kind of effective coalition, I am not on your team.

How does internet activism work then? Like this: Arizona does not have a law that lets bigots refuse (click here) to serve lunch to the objects of their bigotry. This did not happen because of tweets and posts sent TO the legislators/bigots in AZ. It happened because tweets and posts calling a spade a spade created a social climate (click here), a conversation that:

informed millions that AZ was trying to pass such a (clearly unconstitutional) law

and then that

the internet buzz got the attention of some famous gay people (you rock George Takei) outside AZ who upped the ante by using their massive numbers of followers to bring some (shame) social pressure on corporations that might do business in AZ

and then that

so many people tweeted and posted their willingness to boycott companies that tacitly supported AZ’s dingbat bigotry

that then

a bunch of really big corporations told AZ “no conferences, no cooperation from us”

and that finally

Governor Brewer was like “Well, hell, this isn’t the good idea I figured it for.”

And TA-DA!, no law in AZ permits otherwise unconstitutional bigotry to masquerade as “religious freedom.”

So, net activism works. But it does not work in the frontal assault / patriarchal way that most of us are used to. It works in a more indirect, contextual, and frankly feminist way of increasing transparency (raising consciousness of problems), and then changing the whole social climate / economics around an issue by the use of both shame and praise for behavior that does not increase the dignity and well-being of humans. It works more like non-violent civil disobedience in that the mechanism is moral, but it also works like plain old peer pressure (which is why it’s not a wholly trustworthy method).

Sometimes the effect is slower and more diffuse, and more married to pre-internet political/policy work. Courts and attorneys general all over the country are letting “marriage protection” die in order to create marriage equality. The Human Rights Campaign and many other organizations have worked on extending the civil rights of marriage to the LGBTQIA communities for a long, long time. But, social media allowed tens of millions of ally voices to be heard in both concerted and itinerant ways to say Love Is Love and Rights Are For All Humans. We said this with petitions, and posts, and shares, and re-blogs, and memes, and avatars, and hashtags. We made it clear that most of us really do happily accept that Adam and Steve and Eve and Alice are human and love like humans. And that change in the apparent social climate is having its effect, here in Virginia and all over the country. Praise be!

Caveat: Now, are there elements of net activism that are just self-exculpating, and lazy, and really about garnering some fake social esteem for re-tweeting a hashtag or passing on a petition or changing an avatar and then going back to watching terrible vampire movies on Netflix? Oh, yes. That’s why we spend a good deal of time curating our social media feeds/pages/privacy settings. A lot of day-to-day posting and sharing is about saying to the world This Is Who I Want You To Think I Am — but then, that’s 90% of all social interaction. We should not expect the ‘nets to be any different. But, even that surface flow of image and persona and branding is relevant. That why it matters to us when Rush says, well, nearly everything Rush says. He is the fountainhead of a still mighty current in our society. Ahhh, well. Peer pressure only runs in the direction the peers are running.

Are there instances of net activism not being effective. Yes. Arizona SB 1070 (click here) is still on the books, if modified to allow local cops to act as ICE agents only during other law enforcement interactions:–  so net activism hasn’t worked (yet) for Hispanics and Latinos in AZ. I’m sure many causes don’t get the support and energy they fully deserve. Preserving Net Neutrality and Unraveling the Security State are two I wish were kicking a little more political ass. Social acceptance of trans* people doesn’t seem to be catching on the way it should. WIWWP?

#BringBackOurGirls is working. It is doing exactly what the families of these Girls wanted it to do: get governments more powerful and (frankly) caring than their own to come in to Niger and at least try to find the Girls before too much damage is done to them or they’re sold on the slave market and lost forever to whatever horror their new owners dream up to inflict on them.

The Nigerian military knew the attack was coming and sat on their hands. The president tried to pretend nothing happened,and then he and the general who’s running against him for office (check and link) both claimed that all but 8 had been rescued when not one Girl had been seen or heard from. These families were completely on their own against a terrorist organization run by a genuine madman (link) and a government that could not be bothered. So, they called us, on Twitter, and asked The World to bring the pressure that might get them some help.

And it worked. Help is coming, efforts are being made, and there’s a little hope and a reason to pray and to keep tweeting about it.

The hashtag is not #GiveBackOurGirls, George Will, because while we are sure that Boko Haram does read Twitter, no hashtag campaign could bring them around to mercy or decency. It’s just not their thing. The hashtag is #BringBackOurGirls because the mothers and fathers and siblings and all of us who bothered about it want those with the skill and ability to get in there and get these Girls home.

Time for a new hashtag: #ThankYouNigerCoalition for getting together on the fly to do the right thing. May all the Gods, the Force, and the Mother be with you. You might not succeed totally, but you are — at least — doing the right thing.

(I’ll probably post Part 2 this weekend, got a really busy few days coming up, folks.)

Be good to each other.

Dr. Simone Roberts
Web Editor/Historian


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Dr. Simone Roberts
    May 19, 2014 @ 16:09:03

    For those who read all the way to the bottom of the email this site sends you, that bit after the signature, I apologize. That was a note for part two, and it wasn’t supposed to be there. The preview function must have wiggled on me. Should have double checked. :/ Identity Politics is for a few days from now. Peace.



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