The Revolution Will Not be Re-Tweeted
By Ryan Madson, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, SCAD Savannah
The Black Lives Matter protests show no signs of going away. At a moment when it appeared that social media had rendered massive, in-person protests obsolete, citizens are instead using digital platforms to join forces in the public realm in the name of Black Lives Matter and civil rights. Mass political action around a cause is still possible — and necessary.
The Black Lives Matter movement has put paid to notions of the untimely death of civic engagement. What once seemed obvious — that the body politic is hopelessly shattered, and that real-world, taking-it-to-the-streets political activism is all but dead — has been overtaken by a new reality as the next chapter of the civil rights movement unfolds in real time.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and correlating political activism were only initial steps towards closing the yawning chasm of social justice. Legislation alone cannot overcome systemic societal problems. Social change is also required. With the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, public outcry went mainstream but initially failed to solidify into a sustained mass protest movement. The seed, however, was planted.
Significantly, many Americans have been made aware of structural racism during the present moment due in no small part to the dissemination of viewpoints via social media. White people now understand with much greater nuance and empathy the struggles of Black Americans, including racial profiling by police departments, unequal pay and glass ceilings in the workplace, the school-to-prison pipeline, curricular amnesia in history textbooks, media stereotypes, micro-aggressions against Black passersby. Critiques have recently been given widespread currency on social media. Digital platforms are undoubtedly crucial to mainstream and multiracial awareness, but they do not account for the urgency of the BLM protests themselves.
Byung-Chul Han, Korean-German philosopher and popular theorist, uses the word “outrage” in his writing as a precise term that describes what we feel when we respond in anger to the latest news cycle, as well as the reactionary quality of weak and diffuse political discourse that exists in the echo chambers of social media. Technological mobilities and social media can have deleterious effects on society and public discourse. In his insightful book, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (2017) he writes:
Waves of outrage mobilize and bundle attention very efficiently. However, their fluidity and volatility make them unsuited to shaping public discourse or public space. They are too uncontrollable, incalculable, inconstant, ephemeral, and amorphous for that. They lack the stability, constancy, and continuity that are indispensable for civil exchange [….] More still, waves of outrage evince little identification with the community as it stands. The outraged do not form a stable ‘we’ who are displaying concern for society as a whole. Enraged citizens, even though they are citizens, do not demonstrate concern for the whole of the social body so much as for themselves. For this reason, outrage quickly dissipates.
Byung-Chul Han couches his argument in a broader critique of digital society. He makes two assumptions: first, digital platforms prioritize individual voices over the collective when everyone is both producer and consumer, tastemaker and follower; and second, the moral authority that we once assigned to our contemporary leaders and public figures has eroded in the digital era.
While such observations may have once seemed self-evident, today they are fraught with counterpoints from across a spectrum of both real-world and online activities that shape the contours of the Black Lives Matter movement. Crucially, the moral compass now belongs to the movement and does not rely on any single authority figure to validate its true north. As James Baldwin wrote in 1972 in his book No Name in the Street: “All the Western nations are caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism: this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority.”
The American public is now closer than ever to acknowledging the truth in Baldwin’s words, and many BLM activists have discovered the agency to actualize a new moral agenda. We may have digital media to thank for this, but the internet will only take us so far when re-tweeting outrage has a flattening effect.
If the trauma of police brutality and other forms of racism had previously been borne by individuals, families, and communities, more so than the collective American consciousness, today the situation has flipped dramatically. Watching the video of George Floyd being suffocated to death under a police officer’s knee transformed a private tragedy into public outrage. With the well-publicized killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor preceding the death of George Floyd, we see in retrospect a slow burn towards public action. As spring of 2020 turned to summer, demands for justice on social media erupted into coordinated, collective action in communities across the United States and the world. The ineffectual swarms of virtual outrage described by Byung-Chul Han eventually grew into something potent, permanent, and epochal.
For so many Americans, tweets and re-tweets were simply not enough. Social media could not contain their anger and moral righteousness. Americans of all stripes were compelled to show support for civil rights in the public spaces of towns and cities. They spoke — and continue to speak — truth to power in waves of protest. This is what political action and social change looks like in 2020, even in the midst of a pandemic.
It is apparent that technological mobility and social media are used to coordinate real-world protests (a common refrain during the Arab Spring uprisings, and key to understanding the Belarussian protests today). However, the sought-after transformation of the status quo will only arrive because citizens have gathered in great numbers to demand it.
The visceral power of peaceful protesters rallying in real time around an idea is unlikely to ever be replaced by digital activism. Collateral generated from the protests — photos, videos, memes — drives social media shares, which in turn further propels the protests and the BLM cause.
Another civil rights movement is necessary to bring attention to a complacent nation. The revolution will not be (re)tweeted. It may be broadcast on our devices, but the real action is in the streets — just as the real change needs to be made in our hearts.
Bio: Ryan Madson is a writer, urban planner, and professor of architecture and urban design at the Savannah College of Art & Design.
Created in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, public murals by SCAD alumni Tayler Ayers (M.A. creative business leadership; B.F.A., fibers, 2019) and Will Penny (M.F.A., painting, 2013; B.F.A., painting, 2008) are now on view at SCAD locations in Atlanta and Savannah.