Enjoy The Silence?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Separate from all of the other debates raging online is the question of whether you are, in fact, a terrible person if you’re steering clear. Or, conversely, if you’re joining in. Which is it? First, the counterpoint:

Nick Bilton is also skeptical (NYT):

Trying to discuss an even remotely contentious topic with someone on social media is a fool’s errand. Yet still we do it. My Twitter and Facebook feeds over the last month have been filled with vulgar discourse about Israel and Gaza. For example, someone posts a link saying Hamas hailed rockets upon Israel, someone else responds by accusing Israel of killing hundreds of civilians, and next thing you know it’s chaos on social media. A link quickly devolves into vicious and personal attacks.

Been there, done that. While I do scan Twitter and Facebook to see what others have linked to or are discussing (and, ahem, linking to the things I’ve written), when it comes to actually posting things myself, I’m ever more drawn to Pinterest, Instagram, and the upbeat, apolitical world of adorable pets, space-age fashion, and from-scratch yuba preparation. (No, that was not a gratuitous link to a Saveur article that, yes, happens to include a photo of a fit, shirtless man. That was just the best explanation of yuba I could find!)

But there’s also a strong case that social-media silence is itself unethical. Writes Janee Woods:

For the first couple of days, almost all of the status updates expressing anger and grief about yet another extrajudicial killing of an unarmed black boy, the news articles about the militarized police altercations with community members and the horrifying pictures of his dead body on the city concrete were posted by people of color. … And almost nothing, silence practically, by the majority of my nonactivist, nonacademic white friends – those same people who gleefully jumped on the bandwagon to dump buckets of ice over their heads to raise money for ALS and those same people who immediately wrote heartfelt messages about reaching out to loved ones suffering from depression following the suicide of the extraordinary Robin Williams, may he rest in peace. But an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight gets harassed and murdered by a white police officer and those same people seem to have nothing urgent to say about pervasive, systemic, deadly racism in America?

They have nothing to say?

Why? The simplest explanation is because Facebook is, well, Facebook. It’s not the New York Times or a town hall meeting or the current events class at your high school. It’s the internet playground for sharing cat videos, cheeky status updates about the joys and tribulations of living with toddlers, and humble bragging about your fabulous European vacation. Some people don’t think Facebook is the forum for serious conversations. Okay, that’s fine if you fall into that category and your wall is nothing but rainbows and happy talk about how much you love your life.

Woods goes on to discuss factors beyond social media pertaining to what she sees as white silence regarding Ferguson (worth reading), but let’s pause on her analysis of what it means to remain silent on social media. Woods is ostensibly referring to two different phenomena: First, to the people who are very much part of the conversation, but who’ve skipped a particular topic, and next, to those who have active social-media accounts but tune out. These are, however, two sides of the same coin. If someone’s weighing in, but only in uncontroversial cases (does anyone support depression or ALS?), they may be making the world a better place, but they’re not risking anything.

But! Before weighing in, there’s something to be said for knowing a little bit about what you’re talking about. Like Woods, I found that a disproportionate amount of my social-media reading material (links and commentary) on Michael Brown has come from non-white (specifically: black) Facebook friends and Twitter users, but… I’m actually fine with that. Listening-to rather than speaking-for, you know? Everyone should be upset about what’s happening, and it relates to all Americans, but when it comes to figuring out what’s going on and what to do about it, I would, all things equal, rather hear what black people have to say. I’m not sure what’s added if white people, responding principally to an “in case you missed it” social-media environment, start holding forth before… well, before doing what Woods advises later in her post: “Diversify your media.”

Is abstaining from these squabbles a noble way of focusing on more serious debate (or of leaving important problems to the experts)? Or is engaging what it means to be an informed citizen? It’s hard to avoid the sense that some of the weighing-in is see-I-care posturing. An appropriately-timed status update that hits just the right notes garners “likes”; is the warm feeling that ensues about what those “likes” say about how one’s friends stand on this key issue, or is it maybe just the teensiest bit personal? But it’s also hard to hear justifications of prolonged silence on certain issues as anything other than defensiveness.

Do you battle it out on social media? Email dish@andrewsullivan.com to let us know.