I love the speed and breadth at which we can communicate using Internet tools. But when we combine that with social activism, I am afraid that we could be shooting ourselves in the collective progressive foot.
Let's just think for a second about the last e-mail you got about a political issue, or a policy that you believed in. If you are like me, you forwarded it on. If you are like me, you sent it to a series of people that you knew would appreciate it. In essence, you preached to the choir. And, outside of being able to engage in some self-congratulatory e-mails back and forth for sharing the same opinion, what have we accomplished?
How many times have you added your name to an online petition? What made it any more than a perpetually circulating chain letter, like the one saying, "Warning, PBS is about to lose funding!"
The danger is that after we forward these letters to like-minded people, or sign these ghost ship e-mails, or put our names on activist Web sites, or join issue-based discussion groups with similarly minded folks -- we feel like we actually DID something!
We did. We talked to people who agreed with us. And, outside of the fact that we shared information, we didn't really accomplish much.
That is what is dangerous -- the myth of activity, the feeling that because we are on a mailing list, or send on e-mails, that we are part of something of value -- we are change agents. While Twitter may reach a broad expanse of people, it has yet to prove its worth as an agent of change. Each tweet has a half life of mere seconds -- like an e-mail. The message comes, goes, and is replaced by another.
Our attention moves down the electronic slipstream and barely lingers long enough to register what it has seen.
Meanwhile, the extreme right is gathering. Face-to-face. In public. They are putting what they believe out in front of everyone who disagrees with them and in front of radio microphones and television cameras.
At least you know where to find them, and you don't have to be all alone in front of a computer screen to do it.
They are building community while the left builds e-mail lists.
They give real faces to the beliefs they have. People get to see who they are. And the extreme right gets to capitalize on the lack of visibility of the left. The left gets to be a visual myth to folks -- not a group made up of a diverse community of neighbors.
I live next door to a woman who is a member of the Tea Party movement. She marched on Washington, even though she is not a far-right wing person. She is a staunch conservative. She knows I do not share her beliefs because of the campaign posters that I erect in my yard at election time, and because I won't indulge unquestioned rhetoric. I like her, although our beliefs are wide apart. She respects the fact that I hold different beliefs and sees me as a good neighbor, as I do her. We laughed about it the other day across the fence between our yards -- and high-fived each other, saying "God Bless America" as we agreed that differing opinions are part of the free speech that makes America great.
Recently she has joined a group of Tea Party members who picket at the town square every Friday about some right-wing issue or another. It varies by week. They hold their signs and wave to people driving by. My least favorite sign was "Liberals don't care about the working man." They actually believe that. Or they were told to believe that.
But there they are, with their signs and honest smiles. So what should I do? Send another e-mail?
I have decided to come up with a series of signs for my front yard. Because of the proximity to a well-used public playground and to an athletic field, my street gets a fair amount of summer traffic. I am trying to decide what to say. I plan to rotate signs each week. (I am open to suggestions.)
WORK TOGETHER TO HEAL AMERICA
AMERICA FIRST, POLITICAL PARTIES SECOND
THE AMERICAN DREAM COMES TRUE WHEN WE WORK TOGETHER
DIVERSITY IS WHAT HAS MADE AMERICA GREAT
STOP COMPLAINING AND START LEGISLATING
RETURN CIVILITY TO CIVIL SERVICE
Any other ideas?
It isn't earth-shattering, but in a small town it could get some notice. And it gets me out of e-mail. It's a start.
Yes, I also send money to causes that do work that I support. I back political candidates. I vote. I blog. But I do too many things in the self-serving isolation chamber of my computer -- and I bet that you might, too.
I am not saying that e-mail is bad -- on the contrary -- it gets information out to a group of supporters faster than ever before. And it can supply information that outside of the electronic world can be used to change minds, influence positions.
But e-mail unites no opposing sides, finds no middle ground, does not engage in dialogue. Despite the tools we have online, we still need to do the tough work -- the work the right is not neglecting. We need to stand in the rain, leaflet, post or carry signs, demonstrate, and gather as a community with visible impact.
We need to spend time visible to and with the people with which we disagree. We need to be real to them, to the media, to Washington (a city intimidated by the visible right.)
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a BlogHer piece about the war, and about how online methods did not seem to help end it. I thought it would raise discussion, waited for the many folks that I thought would disagree, or even agree. It didn't get broad viewership. No one even commented. Was I wrong?
I still think that we need to make the statements that lead to discussions, and we need to engage in the discussion. And we need to engage face-to-face -- as neighbors, members of the same church, or school district, or city or world. And we need to be visible in the larger construct -- in the world away from the ether and the heady illusions of having actually done something. We need to be more visible Americans.
And you -- what do you think?
BlogHer does not take a political position.
I do however.
~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs to the left at Time's Fool
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