Artists and activists overcome the background noise.
Hyenas would be better conversationalists, I sometimes think as I scan political arguments on social media. This is not unlike a Republican presidential debate, where a Bad Lip Reading parody is just as enlightening as the original.
When former president Jimmy Carter spoke candidly and with good humor last week about his cancer, millions were inspired by his serenity, humility and grace. But the next day, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked him. When I said on Facebook that I recently read Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and found it fair and reasonable, I was met with scorn by someone who had not read it.
This reckless speed is all too common in public forums. So let us look at a few examples of activists and artists rising above the din of the keyboard warriors to propose useful reforms or tell their stories in ways that help us see differently.
After weeks of squabbles by various people over direct-action tactics in the Black Lives Matter movement, policy solutions were issued by activists DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Samuel Sinyangwe. The effort, called Campaign Zero, is described as a “comprehensive platform to create systems and structures to end police violence.” Their detailed plans (see joincampaignzero.org) are informed proposals by practical public policy advocates, notwithstanding sniping and trivializing like that of a self-described anarchist I encountered on Twitter.
The #CampaignZero planning team writes, “Police in England, Germany, Australia, Japan and even cities like Newark, NJ and Richmond, CA, demonstrate that public safety can be ensured without killing civilians. By implementing the right policy changes, we can end police killings and other forms of police violence in the United States.”
Dr. Dre, a producer of the movie Straight Outta Compton, made clever use of social media for viral marketing with a meme generator (straightouttasomewhere.com) created by his Beats by Dre audio brand. The film powerfully portrays the emergence of hip hop group N.W.A. and its protest music out of a violent late-1980s urban milieu. From exploitive music execs to police who act like an occupying army, it feels all too contemporary.
The movie, however, has drawn criticism for the rappers’ disrespect toward women and the glaring double standard by which male promiscuity is taken for granted while sexually active women are stigmatized. Dr. Dre, responding to criticism that the film omits his violence toward women, apologized for that violence. Blue Telusma at The Grio responded that words are not enough, and suggested he contribute to domestic violence charities.
By using the film’s high profile to confront a troubling legacy, the critics did not shut down a conversation but expanded it. The songs retain their impact because they capture something real. When “Fuck tha Police” stirs us, it is not just about a movie but about current injustice. What to do about misogyny and police violence is a question for us, not just for Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
Finally, Amy Wallace reports for Wired on a battle over white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia in the science fiction world, and how they were resisted at the Hugo Awards in Spokane, Washington last weekend. Fans registered in historic numbers and voted “No Award” in categories where a group dedicated to white male dominance had exploited arcane rules to control the list of nominees. A leader of that group once called fantasy author N. K. Jemisin, who is black, an “educated but ignorant half-savage” on his blog. The fans pushing back against this oddly earthbound myopia echo those of the 1950s documented by the One Archives in Los Angeles who were early LGBT activists.
Each of us decides whom to follow, whom to block and how and when to respond. It is up to us to tell the signal from the noise. Rather than censoring and sanitizing divergent voices, we need a multiplicity of them, along with restless people searching for connections to forge new art and new politics.
Glib put-downs on social media are about ritual display, not advancing understanding. The discerning and dedicated few make the breakthroughs that lead to beneficial change, like an old statesman focused on eradicating guinea worm disease across the world despite his own terminal illness.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.
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