by Janani Balasubramanian
(The title is cheeky, I’ll admit it.)
I’ve been excited to see pieces surface recently that engage with certain dynamics in online activism that frustrate me–specifically online activism around pop cultural criticism and viral internet outrage. One article on Orchestrated Pulse by contributor RobtheIdealist discusses the inevitable cycle of the ‘social justice outrage machine’: ‘In any given week, the internet will be in an uproar over the latest sensational headline. Ani DiFranco’s racism. Beyonce’s feminism. Duck Dynasty’s bigotry. It doesn’t stop.’ In my own online community, I’ve seen the cycle around fucked up things that celebrities do go something like this:
1. Celebrity does racist/sexist/classist/
2. Articles surface that call out celebrity’s fucked up act and contextualize it in systems of power–>
3. The trolls and online bigots come out to play–>
4. Several of my friends share and discuss these articles on various social media, sometimes countering the trolls–>
5. Some articles go viral, and several more articles and other media are made that add more nuance and debate–>
6. Repeat steps 3-5 until the next big celebrity uproar.
This isn’t to say the above is a futile cycle. I value it in several ways. Pop culture is widespread, and for that reason criticism of it is an easy way to bring a lot of people into conversations around dynamics of various oppressions, quickly. A lot of the articles produced in reaction to pop culture events also hold deep, rich critiques and strategies. These discussions give us language. They offer momentary unities. They provide the feeling of being held: i.e. witnessing something damaging but not quite having the words for why it was damaging, then finding those words in someone else’s text. The internet, in general, also gives unprecedented access to social justice dialogs–not to say that the web is universally accessible by any means, but it does break all sorts of access barriers in meaningful ways. All of that’s pretty remarkable.
Resistance has also always been a cyclical engagement. Power makes it difficult for social justice critiques to be heard and internalized. Oppression will always manifest and re-manifest. I’d contend there’s nothing wrong about the social justice outrage machine being cyclical. But I have a few concerns about what is frequently left out. (These are broad statements, and there are great exceptions to all of them.)
1. These pop culture criticisms tend to focus on individual/interpersonal oppressive dynamics, by targeting the celebrities, rather than contextualizing them within corporate, state, and other broader systems of power and capital. RobtheIdealist discusses the example of outrage targeting Rick Ross: ‘the majority of the outrage essentially asked Reebok to discipline Rick Ross over rape culture [in his lyrics], with almost no one noticing that rape culture is something that Reebok itself also perpetuates. Reebok uses sweatshop labor. Sweatshop labor is disproportionately made up of young women (and girls) who are often beaten and sexually assaulted on the job.’ This is true of appropriative art as well. We can see such a dynamic in coverage of the strife between Le1f and Macklemore, where a lot of the focus was on these 2 celebrities, rather than the constant and historic appropriation of Black music in the US.
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2. We are less likely to discuss our own complicity in the systems that give rise to these celebrities’ oppressive actions. Chico Moreno deals with this point in more detail in his piece on ‘reactive anti-racism‘. Whiteness in pop culture criticism, Moreno writes, becomes ‘flat and monolithic’, while people of color are blameless. Moreno asks us to consider that people of color (and other oppressed peoples) are agents of change, not just passive receptacles of oppression. That patriarchy can function without cis-men. I’d add that colonial attitudes can function without the direct colonizer present. That heteronormativity can function without straight people. And
3. Reactivity, as Moreno says, lends itself to flat analyses and notoriety-chasing. The strictness of the white/POC binary itself is a result of histories of racism, he writes. Moreno also asks us to consider how our geographic location (in the US, and even more specifically in our regions, and communities) shape how we are able to engage with race. (I ask the same in my article on media about queer rights in Russia.) That kind of attention to location can be left out in a moment of reactivity. And the internet’s pace lends itself very, very well to reactivity. What’s more, Moreno aptly points out the following: ‘[W]e know that popular culture (including most online news sources) cater to profitability. If the dominant forces are providing us with the majority of our material to critique, they are essentially formulating our resistance for us.’
4. We feed a lot of trolls. Or rather, several of these discussions tend to both feed and engage with trolls, and also re-center the celebrities in question, and in doing so re-center agents of power, rather than resistance. Publicity is publicity, even if some of it is negative. Moving as swiftly as possible away from the individual celebrities as the primary subjects of discussion is usually a solid strategy. Also, if you talk about Miley Cyrus, she wins.
And then there are some farther-reaching questions to be dealt with, and to be dealt with differently in an online activism context:Where does the rage go? What can we do with it beyond liking and sharing it? I’m with RobtheIdealist on the point that outrage is useful; I’m also hungering for more. I get excited when I see offline projects and responses to pop culture criticisms. I want all this rage to be doing something more than padding the pockets of internet conglomerates who are selling our data to advertisers, or putting us on the NSA’s watch lists. Movement-building, unlike Instagram, shouldn’t necessarily be about mass appeal, though ‘likes’ can certainly be used as a strategy. A ‘like’ is not an action, but it can be a way of building attention. We can hold the truth that the internet is useful, and a safe(r) space for many, and still ask for more from online activism. We can hold these contradictions.
The social justice outrage machine isn’t going to stop existing, and for several of the reasons I’ve stated, it doesn’t necessarily have to. I’m hoping we can challenge each other, though, to be additive, and practical. To move discussions into our own complicities in the dynamics we’re discussing. To send pop culture articles to folks we’re in community with who won’t necessarily agree with all the critiques, but can use pop culture as an entry point–ie to move beyond the circle jerk. To question why we hold particular analyses, and where they come from. To view internet popularity as a strategy, not an end goal. To consistently post links and give to rad organizations and projects doing work to dismantle the systems that pop culture is mired in. To share those fundraising and direct action links as much as we share pop culture criticism. To keep making our own art and media. To love that art and media as much or more than we love any celebrities.
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Janani Balasubramanian is a South Asian literary and performance artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Their work deals broadly with empire, desire, microflora, ancestry, apocalypse, and the Future. They’re one-half of the spoken word duo DarkMatter, an organizer at the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, and a writer at BGD. Janani’s currently working on their first science fiction novel, H. You can read more of their work at queerdarkenergy.com.
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