We deploy the police for so much. We do it so easily and so casually and so habitually. And the only thing making me feel somewhat good about this moment is going back to this concept of a neighbor. It is quite clear that in cities around the country, there is at least a critical mass of people who look at George Floyd and say, “That’s my neighbor and this is intolerable. This can’t continue.”
Don't hate the player, hate the game
Reading the Map
Lately, when I think about the state of America, I feel as though I’m running full speed against the edge of a video game map. I know I’m inside this system; I know I’m playing the game. But when I reach the edge of the map, I hit the invisible wall and can’t break through. Businesses have begun to reopen despite rising COVID-19 cases in California, and after the murder of George Floyd, protests are breaking out against our country’s continued racism and violence towards black people. Every day the tension increases between the system I live in and the person I want to be.
I live in the Santa Monica Mountains where I have the luxury of hiking. These patches of scraggly nature are the only places I really feel sane. There are squirrels darting wildly through the brush, burping quail on morning runs, unpredictable shifting breezes, vivid scatterings of red ants, and slow undulating views that change only in the seasonal shifts of light. I hit the edge of the map— run up again against the invisible wall— when I remember I’m on a trail maintained by the state park and limited by the encroaching neighborhoods, suburbs, and city of Los Angeles. But the maps we play in aren’t just physical. I turn on my phone and I’m faced with theoretical realms, all constructed by human hands and minds. The limits of online realms have been surfacing. As my friends make daily #BLACKLIVESMATTER posts, they also share infographics about why we shouldn’t photograph protesters, why we must avoid planning protests on social media, and how we can avoid getting scammed by fake donation links. Meanwhile, advertising executives and app CEOs continue to rake in outrageous sums. They are buying our attention, even as we share memes that call for the dismantling of racist, sexist, and capitalist structures.
Television and Visual Media
In his 1978 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander, a former public relations and advertising executive, politicizes Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” suggesting that the nature of television limits its usefulness in humanitarian politics. In fact, television has had a significant role in homogenizing the public, limiting the range of human experience, and bolstering the ruling class. In his systematic analysis of television, Mander considers the troublesome effects of visual media on the mind, including confusion between lived experiences and viewed content. He also makes early speculations about how watching TV forces people into extremes of dulled sensitivity and hyperactivity. Perhaps most interesting in the current political climate are his comments on the use of television for perpetuating autocracy, and the limits of television for activism. That said, he recognizes that the civil rights movement was one of the more successful at using television as a platform (pg. 38).
American adults still watch anywhere from eleven to forty-six hours of traditional cable or satellite TV a week (1) (older viewers watch more than younger viewers), and we spend an additional average of twenty-four hours a week on our smartphones (2). The Internet, in many ways, has become like glorified TV, providing freedom of choice in some contexts, and the illusion of choice in others. Consider how the internet was homogenized as we were ushered away from the egalitarian expanses of the world wide web and fed into monetized and pre-determined structures created by Google searches, social networks, and ad-happy algorithms.
Although Jerry Mander warns of the dangers of confusing personal experiences and media experiences, in an increasingly virtual and global world, perhaps we need the wake-up call of bearing witness. What white people have had the privilege of not seeing in their everyday lives is now being forced into consciousness. In the 2016 Netflix film 13th, scholars, politicians, and activists discuss America’s history of mass incarceration and racial inequality. At the end of the film, several of the interviewed suggest that visual representations of violence against black people have had a significant impact on anti-racist activism. In the 1960s, television depicted white people shoving and beating black Americans on the street and showed police blasting protestors with fire horses. In recent years, smartphones have accelerated the transmission of visual evidence of racial injustice, violence that, according to Van Jones, “the whole world has to deal with”. He continues, “That’s what’s new. It’s not the protests. It’s not the brutality. It’s the fact that we can force a conversation about it.” Jones also suggests that a “distributed model of leadership” in Black Lives Matter makes the movement less vulnerable to pointed attacks because there aren’t any figureheads or major leaders to attack or take down.
It’s clear that we need to start somewhere, and social media is where many of us are. As long as we use these platforms as extensions of our lives and voices, we must attempt to use them for causes we believe in, but we can only get so far playing within the boundaries of the map.
Kindness and Violence
If we hate the game, we have to also recognize that we’re players in it. As much as our culture tries to dismiss kindness, or even use it to shame and shut down women and people of color (3), true kindness is a powerful force that requires significant strength. It requires acting on empathy for others, and showing care even when the truth causes us discomfort. To be kind is to accept ultimate responsibility and love for ourselves and others.
Being kind is also about how we choose to re-chart our societal maps. I recently listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Ezra Klein podcast. The conversation made me wonder how kindness might fit into the restructuring of America, particularly our use of police. Coates and Klein discuss the politics of blaming people of color and protestors for violent behavior when the state possesses and utilizes normalized forms of violent force (police brutality, military, death penalty, etc.). At the end of the podcast, Coates talks with Klein about how calling the police is a last resort for most black citizens. They know that the police will likely escalate a violent situation or create violence where there was previously little threat. Klein agrees that even he has had moments where he thought it would be better not to call the police for fear of making a situation worse. Coates postulates that in situations where police are involved, mental health is usually the issue, and asks a major question, “Should we be calling people with guns to deal with mental health?” I know what my answer is.
We need to remap our state. If we’re lucky enough to be comfortable, we need to humble ourselves in discomfort. We need to see the pain and suffering that our ignorance perpetuates by default. And seeing that we are living in a system, or a game to extend the metaphor, we must redirect our anger towards the structure that is working well for a few programmers, but actively murdering and enslaving the players.
The first step of getting free is admitting you have a colonized mind. You have to accept that pretty much everything you come to understand about the human experience was taught to you from a white supremacist, capitalist, [patriarchal] frame of thinking[.]
@Duhlency on Twitter
Changing the Game
As writers, artists, and creators of all kinds, we are fortunate. We have outlets and platforms that allow for nuance beyond the confines of social media and television. We can express critical thought and poignant emotion in our work. We can make meaningful gestures in our communities that have nothing to do with Silicon Valley. We know that we have to break past the boundaries of this global game. Many Americans are entering a time of necessary and uncomfortable self-reflection in regards to race, power, and privilege. We face this awakening in the midst of an economic and environmental crisis. We face it during a pandemic. And as we have so quickly learned from COVID-19, human beings and human struggles are deeply interconnected, even when we are forced to be physically distant. The game can only continue if we all agree to play it. Brutality will continue unless we are willing to put compassion before comfort. Violent acts of prejudice will continue until we refuse to allow structures of domination to shape our consciousness and our lives.