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#Ferguson: Knowledge and Justice in a Social Media Age

August 15, 2014

If you’re looking for an opinion on the killing of Michael Brown, look elsewhere.

I know that any clash between the police and young African-Americans can be co-opted by the internet Leftist hype machine. On the other hand, I know enough American history not to pretend that the relationship between the police and young African-Americans is all sunshine and lollipops. I don’t believe that black people are all criminals, or that the police are a jackbooted Gestapo ruthlessly targeting minorities. The truth is more complex is that. And its the complexity of the truth that I want to deal with.

So this post is not an opinion on Michael Brown. In a way, it’s not about Michael Brown at all. Instead, it’s about the way that people from my demographic (young, rich, white, Left-leaning Millenials) react to stories like this in the social media world. I don’t have any inside knowledge about what happened in Ferguson, MO. On the other hand, I do read a lot of Twitter and Facebook. And my diagnosis is this: more often than not, social media hampers rather than helps social justice. This is not a slam on social media per se, just a statement of its limitations. Social media plays to human epistemological limits in such a way that discourages ethical action.

Social Media Can’t Handle Complexity

Bumper stickers are designed to be simple. The message of a bumper sticker is easily digestible and signals that the driver of the car takes a certain posture towards the world. “Smoking is not a crime.” “Nobody died when Clinton lied.” “Impeach Obama.” The bumper sticker isn’t primarily interested in starting a serious dialogue about constitutional law. Rather, the bumper sticker identifies the driver as a certain kind of person–a caring Leftist, a realistic right-winger, a smoker, a parent of an honor student. The bumper sticker presents the driver, not as a complex individual, but as a member of a certain group, as a caricature.

I am Leftist; hear me roar

Social media posts are like bumper stickers. Social media is biased towards simplicity. This is not necessarily bad–Twitter’s 140 character limit can be a boon to creativity. But it does mean that social media is not a good vehicle for delivering complex arguments, the kind of arguments that sway people’s opinions. Instead, social media posts about serious issues usually function like bumper stickers–they identify the poster as a certain kind of person (Leftist, right-wing, etc).

This simplification plays to human epistemological limits. Thought takes effort. To reduce effort, the brain uses shortcuts. We tend to assimilate events into different schemas or narratives. Thomas Sowell calls these narratives “visions,” and he writes,

Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind. Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. Like maps, visions have to leave out many concrete features in order to enable us to focus on a few key paths to our goals. Visions are indispensable–but dangerous, precisely to the extrend that we confuse them with reality itself. What has been deliberately neglected may not in fact turn out to be negligible in its effect on the results. (A Conflict of Visions, 13-14).

Real-world example: If you see a dude in the mall wearing a tank-top, gym shorts, and big sunglasses, you’re probably going to put him into the “bro” category. Maybe he reads Aristotle and enjoys knitting. But since you don’t immediately know that, and since your brain doesn’t want to take the effort to carefully scrutinize a passerby, you put him into a category and move on. The same thing applies to a narrative. If your narrative is “no power in the ‘verse can stop me,” you will tend to interpret the girl’s rejection of your offer of dinner and a movie as proof that she’s not good enough for you. If your narrative is “I am a worm and not a man,” her rejection will simply confirm your self-hatred.

People do the same with news stories. Whenever we read a news story, we tend to assimilate it into our pre-existing narrative. We also ignore details that challenge our narrative. To make matters worse, the writers of the news story are usually doing the exact same thing. Thus, after reading the news story or the editorial piece, we think we’ve gained new knowledge, whereas we’ve actually just confirmed a pre-existing bias. Then, we post our opinion on Facebook or Twitter, blissfully unaware that we’re not offering up a considered analysis of the situation, but instead just presenting our (non-empirical) vision.

It gets better. Once people start reading our posts, then they start assimilating those into their narrative. Thus, what we thought was a poignant and witty defense of democracy and justice gets categorized as “just more Leftist buffoonery.” We don’t have time to think seriously about every single person on our Facebook newsfeed; if we did, we would have better ways to use our time. The people who agree with us are just going to have their opinions confirmed. The people who disagree with us are, at best, going to be irritated. And worst of all, we are going to be fooled into thinking that we are making serious strides in public discourse, when we’re really just patting ourselves in the back.

“Why don’t we just make an effort to think more clearly?” This is a nice thought, but it’s just not practical. Creating narratives and visions is the brain’s default option. It takes energy to try to look at the individuality of thing. Humans have a limited amount of energy. We can’t spend it all on trying to nuance every single thing that we read. I have many things that I have to do in the day. There is not enough time for me to worry about whether I am thinking clearly about every single passerby on the street, or whether I have accurately interpreted some rando’s Facebook post. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever try to think outside of our visions or narratives. We just have to be selective in when to do so.

Edward Elric, Political Philosopher

Proposal #1: Stop talking about these things on social media. Don’t Tweet. Don’t post a Facebook status. For heaven’s sake, don’t write something on MySpace. It’s not going to help.

Objection #1: You are counseling apathy. Social media is the main channel of public discourse, and the main way to raise awareness about injustice. If you are against discussing serious issues on social media, you are de facto promoting apathy about social situations.

Reply to Objection #1: I don’t think that all discussion is fruitless. I don’t even think that social media is entirely useless for promoting discussion of serious issues. It is an excellent way of sharing articles, for instance. I do, however, think that social media has serious limitations. Twitter is a great place for funny jokes. It is not a great place for mutually uplifting dialogue.

As shown above, the medium of social media accommodates humans’ epistemic limits rather than challenging them. Social media posts are biased towards simplicity, and as such they are almost always going to be interpreted simplistically. Thus, they mainly confirm the writer or reader’s bias.

“But simplicity can still be effective.” Perhaps, but there’s another problem with social media posts, a problem illuminated by FullMetal Alchemist. In the anime/manga,  the magic system is governed by the law of Equivalent Exchange. As the protagonist Edward Elric says,

Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange.

This principle applies to life. Accomplishing valuable things requires effort and risk. It takes no effort and risk to post something on Facebook. It takes effort and risk to have a serious conversation with a close friend, especially a close friend who disagrees with you. In face-to-face conversation, you have to make an effort to understand the other person’s point of view, to show charity, to respond gracefully. A nasty comment in a conversation can end a friendship. A nasty comment on a status will usually get a couple likes. The anonymity and accessibility of the internet mollify most of the consequences that taking a position usually entails.

Think of it this way: Do you really want to argue politics with a man who has a metal arm?

And why should anyone care about your opinion. If you want to get buff, you go to the gym and watch what the buff guys are doing. If you want to make money, you don’t get advice from your broke Uncle Larry. The opinion of someone on Facebook carries very little weight (“kind of like this blog post”–Greek Chorus). So you read a couple of articles from HuffPost or National Review that confirmed your view: Who died and made you the arbiter of all truth?

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tackles the problem of doing ethics while recognizing our epistemic limitations. His solution is “skin in the game.” He writes, “Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have–or don’t have–in their portfolio.” Most social media posters don’t have anything in their portfolio. I’ve admired my professors who have moved to the inner city to pursue social justice or racial reconciliation. I may not agree with their opinions, but I know that their opinion has some weight behind it. The person who lives in the white suburbs, on the other hand, and waxes eloquent on the state of race in America–their opinion has no weight.

Now What?

“But what if I’ve read these articles about Michael Brown [or whatever] and I feel legitimately concerned about this issue? Are you saying I should just not care?” No. I’m saying that if you do care, you need to be smart. And if you feel called to some social justice pursuit, then start by doing something.

One of the most annoying things about Cornel West’s Race Matters was the way he evaded making specific policy pronouncements. Every ten pages he would write something like “the black community needs is a focus on justice” or “America needs is prophetic leadership.” What this actually looked like on the ground was left to the imagination. In contrast, John McWhorter’s All About The Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America contained many specific policy suggestions for the problems facing black America. Whether or not you agree with McWhorter’s politics is beside the point–he wasn’t making broad statements, but instead proposing a plan of action.

I’m not against talking; if I was I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I’m not against thinking; successful action rarely comes from thrashing about wildly. I am against empty hand-wringing. I once heard a student in my college’s chapel say “We have not done enough to remember the legacy of slavery.” He meant well; but it does little good to “remember” the legacy of slavery. All the white Millenials in the greater Chicagoland area could get together in a room and have a good cry about slavery, and nothing would change. And lest you think that this is just the cranky rumination of a stone-hearted right-winger, arch-Leftist Ta-Nehesi Coates agrees. In an inspiring quote that I unfortunately can’t remember accurately, Coates says that if the “conversation” about race in America just ends in nodding and chin-stroking, then it is useless. Talking loudly about the need for change will not create change any more than talking loudly about your need to have a relationship will land you a girlfriend (trust me, I’ve tried).

“How many more times will I have to tell her that I’m single before she takes the hint?”

So do something. Do something tangible. Do something that doesn’t involve talking. If you think that the police are too antagonistic towards young black men, the question you should be asking isn’t “What should I put on Facebook,” but “What can I do to heal the rift.” This may involve becoming friends with the police. Same thing if you think that young black men are too antagonistic towards the police–sitting at your desk, complaining about people you’ve never met is only going to make you feel good about yourself. So if you want to fight racism (or whatever), find a concrete thing you can do. Maybe it’s volunteering. Maybe it’s making friends with people of another race. Maybe it’s having a serious conversation with Uncle Larry. Doing actual work won’t have the dramatic flair that posting incendiary things on Twitter will. On the other hand, your good faith effort will have a more  lasting impact than Twitter. Remember: equivalent exchange.

And if you don’t feel called to this particular battlefield, don’t feel bad. Christians especially have a problem of turning a social cause into the social cause. I remember another chapel where the speaker beat everyone over the head about not being compassionate enough to gay AIDS victims in Chicagoland. Helping them is a noble calling; it’s not my calling. If I try to help gay AIDS victims in Chicagoland, orphans in Africa, the black community in Missouri, the homeless in Scarsdale, alcoholics in Serbia, and the shoplifters of the world, I’ll spread myself thin and won’t be able to help anyone well. It would be like trying to passionately love ten women at the same time (“Only ten?”–Giovanni Casanova). Instead, it would be a better idea to find the one thing you are called to help, and then focus on that. Not feeling particularly called to racial reconciliation doesn’t make you a racist. If you don’t find yourself called to it, then help out by focusing on what you are called to do, and lend a hand to the people called to do other things whenever they’re in need.

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