I’m a proponent of using social media to fight for changes that you believe in because it brings awareness of issues to a wide audience and can lead to changes both for individuals and society as a whole. The recent surge of the #MeToo hashtag has been very effective in showing how widespread sexual assault is and has led to the firing and/or criminal investigations of several prominent figures in the entertainment world, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, and Bret Ratner to name a few.
I imagine that it has also helped a lot of victims personally by providing a space for them to share their stories and not feel alone. A space where they can get emotional support from others. That’s really important. Hopefully, this is just the beginning and it will lead to widespread change in the entertainment industry and society in general. And that, I think, is where social activism becomes more difficult.
In a blog post, Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt discuss three types of digital citizens, based on Joel Westheimer’s framework of a ‘good’ citizen: personally responsible citizen, participatory citizen, and justice oriented citizen. I think that people generally find it fairly easy to be a personally responsible citizen by following the law and helping out in emergencies by donating. Online this occurs when people are made aware of situations by various social media campaigns, which then provides funds for organizations to do the work needed. People may also bring more awareness of these situations by retweeting or otherwise sending the message out to their followers. Being a participatory citizen, where people need to actively participate in organizations to create change, requires more effort and time but people can certainly get involved in organizations that exist online or perhaps start their own organizations to support those affected. A justice oriented citizen, on the other hand, tries to analyze more deeply to find the root causes of problems and change the systems that support the injustice so that it is eliminated. This is a lot of work and, in my opinion, most people don’t extend their social activism this far.
When I look at the #MeToo campaign, I see a lot of people participating as personally responsible and participatory citizens. Many are tweeting their own experiences and support, while some organizations are changing their practices to be more receptive to complaints of sexual assault and applying appropriate actions in response. However, it will take more than this to change society so that sexual assault is not so pervasive. It seems like it should be a simple thing: just don’t sexually assault people. How difficult can that be? Obviously, quite difficult given the overwhelming evidence of the #MeToo campaign. To reduce the number of assaults in the future will require a huge shift in how people use power to control others.
In fact, to create lasting societal change that would result in fewer sexual assaults requires us to analyze power structures in society, including the intersectionality of gender, race, class, and other marginalized identities, and work to change those power structures.
While intersectionality is essential to the process of making meaningful change across society, I’m going to briefly narrow this discussion down to sexual assault against cis women in general. Analyzing power dynamics in this case, means learning about and changing all of the subtle ways that sexism manifests, not just the obvious, clear cut, and easy-to-understand ways. I think that even though it occurs with great frequency, most people understand that assaulting women is wrong but what about other more subtle behaviours that show the power differential, like interrupting women when they’re talking, judging women (or men) for showing emotion, pitying women who aren’t married and don’t have children, and thinking that women have achieved equality, so feminism is unnecessary? These actions indicate a society where women are not as valued as men, thus leading to more toxic behaviour. The current #MeToo campaign, while not without its drawbacks, has forced some major changes but we need to find a way to change established thought and behavioural patterns in regards to power and gender if we want to make permanent changes that will lead to fewer sexual assaults.
So, how can I be part of the solution to societal problems? Looking at Westheimer’s framework, I realized that when I was younger, I was a participatory citizen but now I find that I’m mostly a personally responsible citizen. I feel that I need to move back towards being a participatory citizen and beyond that to a justice oriented citizen. That’s a personal choice but how do I do this without threatening my livelihood? And what is my responsibility to my students? Should I separate this aspect of my life from my work and my students or should I be an example to them, both online and offline? I’ve decided that it’s a balancing act and depends on what I’m focusing on. Food drives and anti-bullying campaigns likely won’t cause much backlash but I’m sure that the further I dig into the reasons underlying these social problems, the more likely I am to meet resistance and possibly censure for overstepping the bounds of my role as a teacher. How do I reconcile that with my desire to bring about substantial change and to teach my students how to participate in this process either in person or online?
So, let me ask you — how do you approach social activism online as a teacher?