Friday, September 25, 2015

Facebook racism & making good political use of "WTF?" moments

Lately, we've been subjected to a rather higher density than usual of a particular kind of moment in public life. These are moments that combine what are (when you're on the left) fairly common emotions like outrage or frustration or dismay, with something else: surprise. It isn't necessarily the flabbergasted sort of surprise that would indicate total and unexpected novelty, though it can be, but at the very least it involves a sense that there is some part, some aspect or flavour or component, that's new in whatever has prompted the reaction.

For instance, I would argue that Donald Trump has been a generous source of such moments, and really as a political phenomenon could be understood as one big example of what I'm talking about. He's incredibly awful, of course, and evokes all sorts of outrage and opposition from those with left inclinations. You can make a case, however, that he is the logical culmination of a 40 (or even 60) year trajectory in the Republican Party and shouldn't be surprising – it's not like Republican presidential hopefuls saying outrageous things is new, but there's still something about him that pushes the bounds of what you previously thought possible and makes you go "WTF?"

The example that has got me thinking about this is less spectacular and closer to home than Mr. Trump, but not necessarily any less troubling: In the space of a couple of weeks, seeing someone in my social media circles share something that's blatantly racist and/or Islamophobic and/or anti-migrant has gone from pretty rare to...well, quite a bit less rare. And perhaps because I'm somewhat buffered from it by the kind of information bubble we all exist in online, from what I've heard, at least some other people are seeing a lot more of this stuff than me.

On the one hand, the circulation of racist sentiment among white Canadians is completely unsurprising. We live on stolen land in a country founded on genocide and slavery and existing in conditions of ongoing colonialism and white supremacy. Our first Prime Minister was a vocal proponent of a "White Canada." Anyone who experiences racism or who listens to those who do will know that manifestations of such things, from the small and everyday to the big and life-threatening, have never not pervaded the lives of racialized and colonized folks in northern Turtle Island. For all of these reasons, "OMG, Canada used to be so tolerant what happened" is a disingenuous response at best.

At the same time, there is something new here – not unprecedented, but somewhat novel in its details. Partly the novelty is the combination of how widespread and unabashed the sharing is, with how odious and hard-right the sentiments – not all of the memes that are going around have these markers, but some that I've seen are quite clearly from a particular openly fascist British organization, or from some weird fringe white supremacist organization here in Canada. And partly it is the way that this is tied to what I wrote about back in March about the novel ways in which the Harper gang is deploying electoral racism. It's opening new ground in what I describe in that post at the "electoral economy of violence," and I fear that now that it's open, there is no going back. And because this is coming from a powerful mainstream institution that mainstream media is institutionally obliged to treat seriously, that shapes how such racist awfulness gets treated more broadly – folks who follow politics in the UK and Europe, for instance, will be familiar with how mainstream right and centre-left pandering to racist fringe outfits leads to their politics getting more serious mainstream treatment overall. At the same time, though aspects of this newish mode of Con electoral pandering to white supremacy have been clear for at least a year, I think there's something very specific about this recent upsurge: I first started to notice it intensely a few days after the alarming news of Harper hiring some Australian thug who specializes in nasty racist campaigning to be his campaign closer. Given that correlation, I think there is deliberate effort and money going into getting this social media upsurge of hate among folks who are not otherwise sympathetic to the Right, or at least its more xenophobic elements. And that tactic done in that way is new too, in the Canadian context.

What I want to say here, though, is less about that phenomenon specifically, and more about where thinking about it has led me. Whether it's Donald Trump, or the sudden jump in breadth and number of hard-right memes in Candians' Facebook feeds, or the blatantly laughable and disturbing demonstration of mainstream media subservience to power in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader of the UK Labour Party, all of these moments that evoke enraging surprise/not-surprise have something in common. I think they are all moments in which some disjuncture between dominant narratives of how the world works and how the world actually works become temporarily more visible, to more people.

Recognizing a mismatch between dominant stories and actual workings of power, and how those deceptive stories are not only ubiquitous but absolutely essential to the maintenance of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that is our social world, is nothing new. Lots of important work done by both movements and writers since at least the 1920s has focused on pushing against dominant myths about how our supposedly liberal-democratic societies work – myths about universal equality, about fairness, and so on – and drawing attention to all of the ways that liberalism and capitalism inherently, by their very structuring, cannot help but fail to meet those ideals. Organizing in this vein may use other terms and may have other focuses, of course, but it generally has a similar shape to this. So, for instance, we have dominant narratives about the "free press" and the role of (mainstream) media in democracy, but there's no shortage of writers and movements that have shown that the mainstream media is quite a different beast than those stories would have it (albeit in ways that are usually quite a bit more complex, less personal, and more systemic than the unhelpful image that sometimes crops up of a capitalist behind the curtain issuing orders for how to confuse the public next). And lots of organizers and writers have taken on dominant notions bound up in left-liberal nationalist visions of "Canada" as tolerant and welcoming and relatively racism-free, and demonstrated that this is completely at odds with the lived realities of lots and lots of people.

I think these moments of surprise/not-surprise that I'm talking about often involve some sort of shift in how power is actually functioning, big or small, that jars, at least a little, with the currently dominant version of the stories about how the world works. This means the workings of power become a little more visible for a moment, until stories and expectations shift to take this new detail into account, or until the moment is forgotten. The different ways in which these moments are experienced – how much surprise is actually felt, and how each person narrates it – are of course related to the different ways in which differently situated and differently politicized people exist in different relation to these realities and narratives. I think it's an interesting testament to the power that these dominant narratives have that many of us who might know full well at an intellectual level that the social world is not at all like X or Y still feel some surprise when that becomes more visible. And experiencing surprise, whether genuinely or as surprise/not-surprise, is not, as some folks who work very hard to perform rad-ness occasionally take it, a reason to be scornful. Rather, it is an opportunity to make the actual workings of power in the social world more visible. These moments are, to use a hyperbolic and somewhat old pop culture reference, glitches in the matrix. We need to make use of them. And we don't do that by only emphasizing continuity, but by combining that with an acknowledgement of what is new and different – of the bits that mean that whatever it is has become newly visible to new people.

So, in the case of this disturbing uptick in disturbing Facebook memes, those of us who have the space to do so in our lives (and whether we directly experience it or not) need to harness that socially produced sense of surprise, that instinct that something new is going on. Not only do we need to point out, where we can, how the specifics of the content are wrong and awful, but we need to take the upsurge as an opportunity to investigate and talk about the what and the how of what's going on. This newness makes visible a corner of the ways in which white supremacist social ordering and the stories that support it pervade what we currently call "Canada" in ways that are not new and that dominant myths about multicultural tolerance so often hide, so part of what we need to do is follow the thread that is momentarily visible and give it a bit of a pull, so that more of those actual workings of power become visible for more people.

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