Empty social media theatrics have replaced politics for progressives
One year ago today, Blackout Tuesday was an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of African Americans suffering from the effects of structural discrimination and police brutality. Spearheaded by the music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, it encouraged businesses and social media accounts to cease their operations for a day in order to “reflect and figure out ways to move forward in solidarity.” The black squares that blotted out profile pictures and corporate logos became ubiquitous on social media.
It is easy to be cynical about such costless gestures, but, in fairness, we could all use distance from social media from time to time. Stepping back from the furious whirling of the news cycle, and its constant barrage of dubious ideas and images, can give us time, space, and, one hopes, perspective.
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Did it in this case? Sadly not. A day of incurious silence was followed by long months of incurious ideological grandstanding. The fallout from the events of May and June 2020 have led to a blinkered attitude towards matters of crime, violence and policing. When Sasha Johnson, prominent British Black Lives Matter activist, was shot in Peckham recently, the former Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said, “Nobody should have to potentially pay with their life because they stood up for racial justice.” A young black man has gone to court for shooting Ms Johnson in what was apparently an apolitical crime. Abbott has not deleted her post.
This is but one case. Still, it is illustrative of the fact that the conditions of the lives of African Americans, and ethnic minorities in other countries, have only been of interest inasmuch as they can be moralised through the lens of progressive politics. We have heard too little about the awful spike in violent crime in the US in 2020, inspiring the progressive commentator Freddie deBoer to say, “Many seem to think that their duty, as defined in the past year of post-George Floyd America, is to simply pretend that crime does not exist as a political issue.”
The American commentator Razib Khan writes:
Of course, it is only natural that unjustified killings by the police, such as the shooting of Andre Hill last December, provoke more interest than unjustified killings by other people. We hold police officers to higher standards than criminals, for obvious reasons, or there would be no point in having them.
Still, when journalists were forced to duck for cover as shooting erupted – not for the first time – on George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on the anniversary of Floyd’s death, one had to ask oneself how advocacy for black lives, on such a large scale, had zeroed in on such a small subset of them. (“George Floyd Square very quiet again now,” reported Philip Crowther of Associated Press, “But a fellow reporter just had her phone smashed because she took photos of a storefront hit by a bullet.” Sounds positively peaceful.)
Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that issues of crime and policing exist in splendid isolation from one another. They, like other factors, are closely connected. But social media theatrics, and the dull-minded ideas that can result from disconnection from real life, help no one. Perhaps people should step back from their screens again, but more soberly, and more curiously.