In the distant future — if there is one — I see our perfect fictional grandbaby looking up from her crib and saying, “Bestefar and Tinamatua (I assume this is what she will call us), what did you do in response to America’s swan song into fascist mediocrity and gun violence?” (I assume this is how she will talk.) And it gives me some anxiety, wondering if future me will tell that baby genius the truth. I wonder how many of my friends and family think about this inevitable conversation, and if they will tell future loved ones the whole story. Because I’m guessing the answer for most Americans will be some version of “Well… we didn’t do much.” Turns out agonizing over the world on a public forum is not the same as addressing the agony itself.
What did you do?
Like everyone else, I posted a diverse set of curated memes to multiple social media channels, sometimes up to three consecutive days after each shooting or racial incident. I used a 60/40 split of shaming memes (I called these “shmemes”) plus funny political memes that made you kind of think without having to do much beyond choosing the proper emoji response on Facebook. I was personally responsible for thousands of posts over the years that really united people who already 100% agreed with me. And I did this for free, alongside my fellow Americans, because we couldn’t stand by and do nothing.
When the white nationalists took the White House and the presidency, that’s when I kicked it up a notch and started posting more to Instagram Stories. I wanted to hit those Nazis where it hurt. I re-posted someone else’s thoughts about fascism (see also: sexism, racism, ableism, capitalism) every single day, hoping my followers would better understand me, while showing people I didn’t really care about that I cared about something. Also the Instagram “resistance” gifs felt really empowering at the time.
Sure, we worried when they started pushing racist bans and passing restrictive laws against women, but there was a great deal of knitted hat solidarity among mostly-white women — once or twice a year, anyway — which appeared to have a very positive impact on social media and mostly-white women. This is when memes ending with “…then you’re a part of the problem!” really had their day in the sun. I wonder how many people changed their ingrained behaviors and belief systems based on these Facebook posts; I imagine less than zero. After every shooting, I recycled a large number of posts about the uselessness of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ flooding people’s timelines with something arguably way worse: useless memes about how thoughts and prayers are total bullshit. With everyone pointing fingers at each other, we realized too late that our rights had been completely dismantled in almost every state.
But that’s not all we did — people were being gunned down in the streets every day across America, thanks to our white male terrorist epidemic. We had to do more. So I wrote a couple of angry blog posts that 12 people read. I went to a few protests with my husband but left early from all three because my feet hurt or I was hungry. I donated around $400 in ten-dollar increments to organizations that my favorite Instagram celebrities recommended over a three-year period. I opted in on text messages from Everytown to stay current on the fight against gun violence, and didn’t always ignore them. I wrote a few angry letters to state representatives. And in the many hours of free time I had each week, I made sure to encourage everyone to volunteer for worthy nonprofits.
I retweeted other folks who were FED UP WITH THE SYSTEM IN ALL CAPS, other people who spent the majority of their time staring at a screen, feeling angry and hopeless. I retweeted Michelle Obama a lot; the true impact from something like that can’t really be measured. The hope one Michelle Obama tweet could give people at the time was endless; she really helped me feel like I was doing something. And while hope can’t dismantle a system of oppression that’s been in place for hundreds of years, perhaps the t-shirt I bought quoting her will: “When they go low, we go high.” I still haven’t worn it.
One thing I did — we all did, collectively — that consumed much of my time was argue with strangers online in comment sections where no one’s mind was ever changed. I left each thread feeling like I’d won an incomplete conversation competition with what was eventually discovered to be an army of bots. The perversion of emojis was also a surprising mindfuck — where one would use the laughing emoji on Facebook like it was Opposites Day (whether it was laughing at the pursuit of equal rights or a “Trump Declares Himself Genius” headline) — and that really did a number on me. I never enjoyed misusing laughter like this — it felt like mean-spirited, low-hanging fruit — but I know that people found great joy in contributing to our society in this way.
Those same people could often be found shouting FAKE NEWS on any comment thread about any topic they had heard of but knew very little about. This behavior promoted a lot of solidarity around shouting about what was real, based on mostly-fake information, fed to them by organizations (ex: Fox News, POTUS) actively and publicly working against their private interests. I saw a lot of progressive memes making fun of these people, and posted a few myself, which just deepened our divide. No one in the history of the world has changed someone’s mind by calling them an ignorant, racist asshole — especially if they’re an ignorant, racist asshole. That’s not how people or assholes work.
When the mass shootings began to outnumber the amount of days in the year, I sent a lot of love and light into “The Universe,” which was really just whatever room I was standing in at the time. There was no actual light element to this, and the love I felt was more from the edibles I had eaten, but “love and light” seemed to be the popular action du jour amongst women who wanted to help in a truly invisible way. There were no tangible results from my experiment with putting “good vibes” into the world, either. “Good vibes” were just the inactive cousins of “love and light,” in that they were popular, related, and completely ineffective as tools for fighting oppression.
There were times that I really thought about doing something, which was usually a guilty knee-jerk response to seeing others dig into America’s long-running problems — donating money to the Southern Poverty Law Center or volunteering for Planned Parenthood or hosting undocumented people in their homes — I just didn’t want to do any of that. Like a truly woke individual, I wanted other people to fix things and complain about how long I had to wait for those things to get fixed.
I can name a lot of awful things people have done and a lot of good things, too. This is more about *taking personal inventory* of what I’ve done to move the needle forward as the current administration does all it can to turn back time (though not in the sexy sailor Cher kind of way). As we approach the 2020 election, I’m watching all my friends and family bomb FaceTwitInstaSnap with CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT memes and AMERICA ON FIRE headlines and TRUMP: NOT A GENIUS, JUST A FASCIST hot takes, which aren’t that hot because hello, we all knew that. He doesn’t really hide it. This is exactly what we did in 2016. And I’m not sure if you remember, but what followed was a waking human rights violation nightmare.
I have always been fascinated and inspired by the story of Daryl Davis, the Black man who convinced 200 KKK members to give up their robes. Do you think he did it by anonymously shouting at them every day from an upstairs window? “IF YOU’RE PUTTING ON A WHITE SHEET AND LYCHING BLACK PEOPLE, THEN YOU’RE PROBABLY PART OF THE PROBLEM” while backing away into the safety of his home, quite pleased with his contribution? Do you think he sent the KKK “good vibes”, hoping that would reverse years of conditioning and racial bias? Maybe he left handwritten notes in every KKK member’s mailbox that said “YOU’RE WRONG!!!!!!!!1!!!!” — but I seriously doubt it.
What if we all took personal inventory of what we’ve done so far, what we can do more of, how we can be more diligent, smarter than last time, more connecting, bigger advocates, less social media pariahs and more in-person allies? I’m not saying I can turn 200 KKK members into progressives; I’m mostly owning how little I’ve done and how much more I’d like to do. This isn’t just an election fight, it’s a lifelong fight against systems that were put into place hundreds of years ago, which only a fraction of the world actually benefits from.
Two things I want to remember in this horrifying ramp-up to the 2020 election:
1) The only people getting something out of our political Facebook posts is literally Facebook — we’re just gleefully giving them more information about how to keep our feeds divisive and how to continue marketing to us because it’s all about money and zero about you convincing Aunt Karen she’s a racist monster who should vote better.
2) Be more like Daryl Davis in the days to come, and less like someone who wants to feel like they’re doing something about these issues while doing nothing at all.
“What did you do?” Take real inventory. It’s not just We Are Heroes, They Are Monsters. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. That’s the definition of “insanity,” and we’ve had enough of that in the last few years to last a lifetime.