I Thought it was Hate, but it might be Laziness that’s Tearing Us Apart

I will come right out and admit it.

I have been hiding, shielding myself from current events, only spoon-feeding myself the barest facts about the horrors that have gripped our nation for the past week.  I have almost entirely closed my eyes to social media, not wanting to slog through the mire of knee-jerk responses, hateful trolling, and outright stupidity.  This is, for those who know me, a nearly total reversal of course.

It will be temporary, but right now, for my own reasons…I just can’t.

I acknowledge that this ability, to turn down and tune out, is one born of my conditions of privilege.  There are many who do not have this option.  I do not feel guilty for taking advantage of this privilege in order to attend to my heath right now  (mental and physical), but I am a firm believer that my privilege confers responsibility.  I am responsible for paying forward the wellbeing my privilege affords me today and I feel this responsibility even more acutely when I am unable to meet the bar.  Soon, efforts will be redoubled, risk taken, sh*t kicked, but for now I am resting and healing.

One of the few pieces of media that I have managed to consume over the past few days was this tweet from former congressman and nationally syndicated radio host Joe Walsh.  (Yes, this is the same Joe Walsh who garnered hours of media attention for his tweet declaring war against POTUS and the Black Lives Matter movement).


However, I want to set aside the generally heinousness nature of Mr. Walsh’s rhetoric.  It is exhausting and thoroughly unoriginal.  Rather, I want to draw attention to a number of “formal” elements of this tweet in particular, because they seem–depressingly enough–to be emblematic of a set of emerging genre conventions.

The Importance of Genre

Some of you are rolling your eyes.  You are thinking, “leave it to an academic to undertake something as esoteric as a genre analysis of a tweet in response to some really heavy, really real f*ckery going on in the world. Enjoy the ivory tower a**hole!”  It’s okay.  I think this way a lot of the time.  It happens to be one of my most frequent modes of self-critique.  But I am giving myself some leeway on this one and I hope the eye-rollers among you will give me a moment to explain.

Merriam-Webster defines a genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” I think most of us have the intellectual flexibility to extend the concept of genre beyond texts and artifacts that are traditionally understood as artistic, musical, or literary compositions to elements of popular culture–even to tweets.  But genre isn’t just about classification.  Genre does more than simply group things that are alike.  Genre establishes expectations, contextualizes our perceptions, and serves as criteria for making subjective judgments.  In short, genre is a technology for shaping meaning and in this way it can shape the way we experience and understand the world around us.

Take a banal example: the rom-com.  The romantic comedy’s genre conventions are so ubiquitous and so firmly codified that most adults of my age could draft a screenplay for a Meg Ryan flick in a couple of hours.  Now, imagine staring at a blank screen. You are going to watch a rom-com. The opening credits have not yet begun, but you already know some things.  You know that if circumstances conspire to keep the protagonist and their love interest apart, this is not occasion to mourn–things will eventually work out.  You know that frequent acts of stalking and codependent obsessiveness should be understood as “romantic devotion.”  You know, almost precisely, the contours of the unthreatening, nostalgia-tinged bemusement you will feel when the closing credits roll.  In knowing the genre, you know what to expect, you know how to understand the actions that unfold, and you will make judgements about the quality of this particular rom-com based on a set of largely-unspoken “rules” for this kind of film.

I used a thoroughly Hollywood example for a reason.  Hollywood recognized something in the power of genre that is often taken for granted. That is, genre provides a set of shortcuts.  Recycling sets, plots, characters archetypes, and methods of developing conflict makes filmmaking simpler (and more importantly, cheaper).  It makes film-watching efficient and satisfying for viewers in the way that wearing a threadbare T-shirt you’ve owned for 20 years can be.  And most pursuant to the argument I am making in this blog post, it cultivates a particular kind of laziness.

Genres in (t)ruth-Telling

What happens when we aren’t talking about films, or literature, or music, etc?  What happens when we are talking about politicians and influential media personalities?  What happens when we aren’t talking about the fine arts, but the art of persuasion–the art of telling the (t)ruth?  More importantly, what are the consequences of making shortcuts in (t)ruth-telling?  What happens when genre cultivates laziness among the producers and consumers of the (t)ruth?  We can use Mr. Walsh’s tweet above to delve into this question.

Let’s name this emerging genre. Betty Friedan taught us long ago that problems that go unnamed can be particularly insidious.  I’ll call it the Twitter Factish (Yes, this is nod to Bruno Latour. You’ll just have to come to terms with my Latourian ways).  In spite of copious amounts of evidence that it may be unrealistic, there still exists an expectation that information shared and spread by politicians and influential media personalities should be, at least on some level, true.  Thus the Twitter Factish, being pseudo-journalistic as a consequence of its authorship, is a (t)ruth-telling genre.  Specifically, it establishes the expectation that the content of the tweet has a degree of veracity than can be taken for granted,  it prompts consumers to contextualize the information communicated by these tweets as accurate summaries of complex issues, and it provides consumers with criteria with which to make “justifiable” value judgments.

Three observable genre conventions in particular facilitate these functions.

The Slight

The slight is generally a thinly-veiled negative assessment of an opposing person, group, and/or discourse. In this case, the tweet above came in the middle of Mr. Walsh’s twitter-storm, railing against social justice activists and POTUS (because, you know, it’s always Obama’s fault), both of whom expressed outrage over the shooting death of Alton Sterling.  Mr. Walsh’s statement that “Facts are stubborn things” accomplishes two things.  First, it establishes he and his followers as “users of facts” and by suggestion those with whom he disagrees with as “ignorers of facts,” allowing consumers of this tweet to make a negative value judgment of the opposition (they are ignorant, mislead, or delusional, etc.).  Second, it reinforces the expectation that tweets from Mr. Walsh are acts of (t)ruth-telling–as “facts” are (allegedly) deployed in the interest of (t)ruth.  (Yes, this is a little bit of cynicism.  Forgive me.)

The Reduction

The reduction involves a distillation of complex information to a single “takeaway.”  Twitter’s 140 character limit provides an excellent excuse for egregious generalizations and omissions.  In our example, Mr. Walsh states, “More white people die from cops than blacks” and provides completely unexplained “statistics” from 2015.  Immediately, we are to understand that this “fact” is the evidence that fact-users like Mr. Walsh and his supporters are presenting to undermine the legitimacy of  Black Lives Matter activists and anyone suggesting that the use of deadly force on the part of police might be influenced by race.

First, it’s worth noting that Mr. Walsh chose to use an oddly clunky phrasing when he might have used the more grammatically clear statement, “more white people killed by cops than blacks” for the same number of characters.  The differences between the verbs “die” (speculative and without specific culpability) and “killed” (concrete in the past tense and with very specific culpability)  shouldn’t go unnoticed.

But the more significant aspect of this reduction is how it strips this issue of complexity and thus distorts it enormously.  Mr. Walsh extracted two pieces of numerical information from a link (discussed below) that in turn extracted slightly more information from a Washington Post article detailing demographics about the number of people fatally shot by police in 2105.  From what was originally a wealth of information, Mr. Walsh reduced the “facts” to one–494 white individuals were fatally shot by police and 258 black individuals were fatally shot by police in 2015.  With this he made his argument…one is more than the other.

This is astonishing.

Let’s put aside for moment that the original source data reports  that 990 people were shot and killed by police in 2015 (an alarming number in itself).  What should be obvious here is that if race were not a significant factor in police fatalities, these fatalities should be occurring at a rate that is relatively consistent with the racial distribution of the general population. Some very quick math reveals that this is not the case. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 population estimates, white Americans make up 77.5% of the population and black Americans make up 13.2% of the population.  The data that Mr. Walsh (sort of but not really) cited reveals that in 2015, white Americans accounted for just 50% of fatal police shooting deaths and black Americans for 26%.  Thus, independent of reasons, it’s abundantly clear that black Americans are fatally shot by police at a much higher rate than white Americans.

But I don’t think we should stop investigating here.  It’s worthwhile to ask what the causes of these disproportional uses of fatal force might be.  The article that Mr. Walsh linked to in his tweet uses a spurious correlation to black-on-black homicide (which for the record occurs at only slightly higher rates than white-on-white homicide) to suggest that disproportionally high rates of fatal shootings by police among blacks are explained by unusually high rates of criminality in black communities.

Again, this is a reductive deployment of “facts.”  There are, in fact, higher documented rates of certain types of criminality in black communities.  However, it is important to consider two very important pieces of contextualizing information.  First, high rates of criminality in black communities are not a product of the race of the residents.  Rather, high rates of criminality in these communities is correlated with poverty.  For example, recent research published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has uncovered some interesting trends about the correlation between violent crime and poverty.  Three of the most interesting findings are:

  • “Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households.”
  • “Poor persons living in urban areas had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas”
  • “Poor urban blacks had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites.”

These data suggest that poverty, not race or neighborhood character, is the strongest predictor of violent victimization (being the victim of a violent crime)–and I think it’s reasonable to assume that the rates of falling victim to a violent crime in any given location are strongly correlated with the rates of commission of violent crimes in the same area.  Thus, the underlying issue is not that blacks (and thus black neighborhoods) are inherently more criminal, but that disproportionality more blacks live in poverty.  And while poverty has its own set of complex causes, we are a nation that is only half a century removed from a time when it was commonplace and perfectly legal to deny people housing (1968), jobs (1965), and educational opportunities (1954) based on their skin color.  When you consider that countless academic studies have determined that the strongest predictors of economic success are 1) parent income and 2) educational attainment (and that a recent Pell Institute study has determined that household income is the strongest predictor of college completion), it is very easy contextualize disproportionately high rates of poverty among blacks within a very recent history of systemic disadvantage.

The second piece of information has to do with the self-fulfilling nature of policing.  If impoverished black communities are understood to be more criminal, they are more actively policed.  More active policing results in more convictions.  More convictions provide justification for more policing.  The cycle continues.  But it’s important to understand that comparatively more documented criminal activity is at least in part a product of more active policing rather than more criminality.  Take for example recreational marijuana usage, still considered a criminal activity in most states, and something of a central focus of criminality among young urban black people.  Numerous peer-reviewed studies like this one and this one (not to mention the anecdotal information of anyone who has set foot on a residential college campus), suggest that marijuana usage is significantly higher among suburban (mostly white) young people than it is among young urban (mostly black) young people.  I think it’s worth asking, what if there was more active policing in these suburban communities?  Would this result in more documented arrests for possession and distribution?

I could go on digging into this information, speculating about causes, making connections and interpreting correlations.  The process of doing so wouldn’t lead me to simpler answers, rather it would lead me to assemble a more complex, and in its complexity a more accurate, picture of contemporary American society.  I happen to believe that this is how it should be–that (t)ruth-seeking should be a movement toward complexity and detail, that questions not statements should drive this process, that provisionality rather than certainly is the only ethical way to consider issues that are so obviously multifaceted.

The Link

The link is generally an explicit reference to external source material, whether it is an explicit hyperlink or simply an allusion to some colluding “authority.”  Interestingly, the link often does little more than provide a headline and featured image.  The fact of its existence, within the Twitter Factish genre, testifies for its legitimacy.  That is, we are not supposed to question the credibility or rigor of the source–blogs, fringe political websites, listicles, and memes created by neo-nazi sympathizers are all rendered credible source material by the Twitter Factish.  Even more unbelievably, politicians and media personalities no longer seem to think it necessary to vet the quality of the source material they use.

Symptom of a Trend toward Dangerous Laziness

When the Twitter Factish is put to work, much like Hollywood film genres, it cultivates a certain kind of laziness.  But instead of the result being bad formulaic movies, the result is dangerous reactionary thought.  It lulls social media audiences into accepting that tweets like Mr. Walsh’s above are the (t)ruth, when just a small amount of intellectual effort would uncover that the numbers he presented raise important questions at best and totally contradict his own argument through an act of racially-biased omission at worst.  When deployed as a genre of (t)ruth-telling, Twitter Factishes serve as the basis for people to make wildly unfair judgements about their fellow Americans.  They encourage people to reduce complex issues to ahistorical talking points with no consideration of context or history.

Of course the Twitter Factish is not itself the problem, but a symptom of what I personally (yes, I am owning this) believe might be a bigger problem than hate–or rather I believe that we might have the order of operations all wrong.  I have always believed that hate and fear makes people lazy thinkers, that hate motivates people to uncritically believe anything that justifies these emotions.  But I am starting to believe that it is just as likely that laziness makes people hateful and afraid.

I also want to be clear that while I used an example from a prominent (or at least loud) voice on the right, this kind of laziness is common in all camps.  The laziness that allows Mr. Walsh to reduce Black Lives Matter to an unjustified anti-police movement is matched by an equally dangerous laziness on the part of some activists who have arrived at the ridiculous conclusion that all police are malicious racists.  I, for one, am proof that it is more than possible to simultaneously support the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and be extremely supportive of and sympathetic toward our police.   The laziness that empowers some people to loudly pronounce that rape culture does not exist is matched by the laziness that behind the assertion that if college football and fraternities were outlawed the problem would go somehow go away.  The laziness behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is matched by the laziness in assuming that the underlying causes of violence would be completely resolved if firearms were banned.

Things…particularly important things…are just not that easy. Courting nuance is hard and often frustrating work.  There are rarely satisfying answers to be had in such an approach to looking at the world.  But there are rewards–immeasuably awesome rewards–for undertaking this hard work.  I happen to think increases in compassion, reductions in hatred and fear, more effective perspective-taking, and more solution-orienated thinking are chief among them.

Playing the “Race Card:” The New “Ni**er” – PART 2

On December 1, 2014, I wrote Part 1 of this post.  Shortly after I wrote it, I reduced my communication footprint considerably.  I cancelled my cell phone contract and started using a combination of iMessage, my office phone, and Google Voice for my day to day communication needs.  I deactivated my Facebook accounts, the personal account AND the professional account that I used to interact with students, colleagues, and maintain a social media presence for the service-learning program I administer at my college.  I stopped using Instagram, Tumblr, and the soon to be defunct Google+.  All that remained of what used to be a rather active and connected digital life was this blog, my LinkedIn profile and my Twitter account.

My experiences over the last few months have measured up to what is starting to become a well-worn cliche of “unplugging.”  The changes have been wonderful for my life and well being in general.  But, I will have to save those details for another entry.  The important thing here is the big picture.  And the big picture is this: I nearly allowed Facebook to break me–mentally and emotionally.  Stepping away was an important health decision for me.

Now some of you (presuming that I actually have readers) are probably snickering, rolling your eyes, writing me off as one more excuse for a human being who didn’t have the self-control to curb their social media addiction.  Judge if you must, but also know that my circumstances were significantly different.  The majority of my Facebook use before I decided to leave was not blithely social.  I did not just hang out, message friends, or gossip about trivia…though of course I did a fair amount of this.  I used my Facebook accounts to engage with my students in class discussion groups, to engage members of the professional associations to which I belong, and to build professional relationships with other scholars and academics.  I used my Facebook accounts to gather news, to get a sense of what people were talking about, and to add my voice to that cacophony.  I used my Facebook account to nurture relationships that I will admit I have all but lost now that I no longer use “the Book.”  I used my Facebook accounts to feel a part of a broader community of like-minded individuals and to engage with friends on a level that can be considered nothing short of ambitious for someone as introverted I as I am.  But most often, I used my Facebook accounts very actively as platforms for social and political activism.  I often spent hours at a time composing research-supported, article length (many of which became posts on this blog) missives on the issues about which I am passionate.  And of course, I engaged in countless comment thread conversations, hoping that I could further the end of social justices through dialogue.

Ultimately, it was the strain of these last efforts that led to my decision to leave.  Ironically enough, the same reasons are making it difficult to stay off.

I wrote Part 1 of this post shortly after it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be prosecuted for the murder of Michael Brown.  I chose to engage in a conversation on the comment thread of post by a friend has an enormously diverse range of political perspectives represented among her connections–some that, I am ashamed to admit, make me feel insecure about the authenticity of her liking of me.  In that conversation, I tried to articulate some of my thoughts on the ruling, not with vitriol, hyperbole, or emotional outrage (I was just about out of all three of those), but with a measured appeal to look at the big picture.  I conceded up front that I did not believe that Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown because he harbors a personal hatred of blacks.  But I asked those I was engaged in a conversation with to consider that the Ferguson Police force, embedding within the larger cultural history of deplorable Saint Louis area race relations, might represent a culture of largely unintentional, seemingly justifiable, and therefore incredibly dangerous racial bias.  And within that culture of bias, black men are assumed to necessitate a level of policing that is inhumane and fundamentally racist.  I said then, and I still believe now, that I that Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot Michael Brown.  And I will say again, that the question we should be asking isn’t whether or not Wilson or any other officer’s fear is real; it is how do we keep our young black men alive if walking down the street, carrying Skittles, holding a toy in a department store, playing loud music, reaching for just about anything, or asking for roadside assistance are the kinds of activities that the majority of white America will perceive as authentic threats to their lives?

For making these statements and asking these questions, I was mocked by a friend of my friend and accused of playing the “race card.”  I made light of it at the time, but it hurt me more than I can articulate.  I don’t know the woman who made this comment and she certainly did not know me.  She probably forgot about the interaction minutes after it happened and went on to blame Obama for something.  But her comment still hurts, because it distilled the enormity of challenge I have taken up, because it made me feel powerless…which is of course the tactical brilliance of racism, its ability to erode the foundation of those who would challenge its position in the status quo.

I find myself wrestling with this pain again this morning as the details of last week’s Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Force continue to make the rounds.  I suppose I should feel vindicated that the report puts to paper what many of us already knew, the Ferguson Police has shown a consistent pattern of racial bias against blacks.  And this culture of bias existed well before Michael Brown.  Of course, we didn’t need the Justice Department to tell us this.  It was already in the data about Ferguson traffic stops.  It was already part of the historical record about this region. It was already part of local consciousness and experience.  And it was the reason this police department was already under investigation BEFORE Michael Brown was killed.  And it was the reason the community reacted so passionately to Brown’s killing, to the alarmingly militaristic stance the police took after the shooting, and to the atrocious and unconscionable treatment of media attempting to cover the event.  Contrary to the incomprehensibly clueless stance that the Ferguson community “overacted for no reason” or worse, because they were “animals, ” collective unrest–riots–don’t materialize out of nowhere.  They are generally the result of a tipping point reached only after years, decades, even century of provocation.

So the news that officers in this department engaged in overtly racist “water cooler talk” via state owned email addresses over the years isn’t terribly surprising.  And the news that these emails were not reported, that no one was disciplined, that no one was told to stop, rather “the emails were usually forwarded along to others,” simply adds another layer of detail to the already well formed picture of police department whose culture was defined by what I call Racism 2.0.

dojreportI suppose I should feel encouraged that this news is out there.  But, I wonder if people are even talking about it on Facebook.  Certainly not as much as they talked about the riots.  I have the feeling that those who justified Mike Brown’s murder by citing stereotypical violence amount young black urban males, will not find the Ferguson community’s fear and anger about the state of policing (a state that legitimately threatens their lives) justifiable though it has been conclusively proven they have much reason for anger and fear, even outside of the Brown debacle.  Even in the limited social media interactions I still maintain, I have already seen a kind of self-deluded insistence that the history of racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department and the shooting of Michael Brown are totally unrelated–which is something like saying that falling snow has nothing to do with the prevailing winds.  But this is the nature of American exceptionalism, right?  Our willingness to believe in the exception as rule, and to relegate the role of history, context, and material reality such that a norm, like racism, is perceived as an exception.