Thursday, August 27, 2015

#Hashtag Binaries

I preached this last Sunday on the strange, intense life of radical abolitionist John Brown, whose visage graces my blog.  As preached, it was a reflection on faith, violence, and the violence of martial imagery in scripture.

But there was an undercurrent in the sermon, a quiet hum that I just couldn't ignore, but that couldn't be cleanly integrated into my reflections.

We've found ourselves in a spasm of national anxiety over race for the last year.  As the final term of America's first black president comes to a close, our nation grows more and more anxious about race.  Because for all of the idealistic look-we're-not-racist-anymore hopeyness that blossomed when Obama was elected, the reality for most African-American communities hasn't changed all that much over the last seven years.  We've not "solved" the problem of communities color that are systemically and culturally trapped.

So we are tense about it, and that tension splashes out in odd, culturally-idiosyncratic ways.  For pointed example, I'm reasonably sure John Brown wouldn't have known what to make of our recent squabbling over hashtagged slogans.  #Blacklivesmatter or #Alllivesmatter, locked in a mortal struggle?  It would have been incoherent to him, as, in fact, it is incoherent to me.

Here, all this sound and fury vented over two propositions that are different, but neither antithetical nor mutually exclusive.

#Blacklivesmatter is important to say, and say clearly, because it reflects an organizing principle for a systematically disenfranchised community.  Black communities and persons need to be able to say this clearly and firmly, because the rest of the culture needs to hear it and they need to hear themselves being heard.

Having travelled through the Deep South, and through areas of urban blight, I know this isn't what our dominant culture tells black culture.  Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested in his recent book that what white culture does is continually plunder black culture, but I think his pessimism misses the mark.  It's worse.  Plunder implies some sense of value, even if just as an object.  Generations ago, the dominant culture plundered.  Now, those disenfranchised communities are simply discarded, having been used up in the way our industrial consumerist society uses up objects.  They serve no purpose in the great global machine.  They do not matter.

Which is why #blacklivesmatter is so very important to be able to speak without shame or qualification.  Because a community without hope or purpose will forever tear itself apart, and never find the will to rise and grow.

And #alllivesmatter?  That's categorically different.  It is not the discrete organizing principle of a particular sub community.  It is, instead, the intersectional foundation for building a larger coalition.

Because, to be blunt, the clawing, empty meaninglessness that has torn the heart out of black communities is doing the same everywhere else.  For Latinos, Asians, and Europeans, the same cultural issues are at play.  The growing divide between the socioeconomic elite and the rest of society is crippling all of us.  The besieged working class scrambles to cobble together a life in a culture where labor has all been offshored.  The anxious center watches as their economic foundation crumbles, and as it becomes harder and harder to maintain life, where a single job loss or hospitalization can crush a person or a family.  Our culture teaches that #nolivesmatter, that all of us are disposable and replaceable.  That dark consumer-materialist ethos needs to be resisted or it'll tear us apart.

The two ideas both speak prophetically against the same reality, and both can be integrated seamlessly into a single worldview.

And yet these two have been set into opposition, as if they are fundamentally antithetical propositions.  To say one is to be accused of silencing the other.  Why?

I wonder, with McLuhan, if it has anything to do with the medium.  Meaning, the problem lies not with the incompatibility of the concepts, but with organizing around #hashtags.

A #hashtag, after all, is not a relationship.  It is a data tag, a marker of a discrete concept within a virtual socio-neural network, one that--as a principle--stands in relation only to itself.  It is #this but not #that, a closed thought, not part of the complex latticework of narrative symbol, but a single strand of viral information.  Even a bumpersticker is more complex.

And sure, we can play around with #hashtags.  #We #can #play #with #their #inherent #divisiveness.  We can use them in intentional conjunction to indicate #polyvalent / #non-boolean concepts.  But their purpose remains.

A #hashtag as a search tool is all well and good.  But used as a primary organizing principle it is inherently rigid, divisive, resistant to modification, and inherently exclusivist.

Thanks, #Twitter.

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