In the early hours of last Wednesday morning, a numbness crept over me as I realized Donald Trump–the guy from reality TV and gossip magazines, the guy who has never held an elected office before in his life, the guy who spent the better part of his 17-month campaign marginalizing huge swaths of the electorate, the guy who has blocked people I know, regular people, on Twitter over minor slights, a terrain normally reserved for fringe basement dwellers and the harmonica guy from Blues Traveler–had received the nomination to serve as the President of the United States of America. I had been holding on to a sliver of hope, but when the networks called Pennsylvania for Trump, I knew it was over.
I had joked that if Trump was elected, I would have to call in sick the next day. However, when I awoke after a few hours of sleep, I pulled myself out of bed, showered, dressed, and headed to Statesboro. I didn’t know what I should do at school. I didn’t know what I should say to my students. I didn’t know if I should do or say anything. I didn’t and don’t assume to know how my students voted, but I would imagine it’s safe to say that some voted for Trump, some for Clinton, and maybe one or two for Johnson. It seemed wrong to do or say something special when some–if not many–of my students voted for Trump, but it also seemed like silence was the wrong approach in the face of an election result that was perceived by many as, and perhaps was, a mandate against their very presence in the United States. In short, I didn’t have any answers, and having answers is one of the things I’m ostensibly paid to do.
What I ended up doing was smiling and trying my hardest to exude warmth. I didn’t say anything special, but I did remind my students that any of them could come talk to me during my office hours about anything that was or wasn’t class-related. A few students took me up on that offer. A few tears were shed in my office. In the hallways between classes, I saw tears in the eyes of both students and colleagues. It was a rough day.
What struck me most was that my cognitive frame for this country had never been rendered so nakedly wrong before. I knew there were people, many people, in this country who would–for both perfectly legitimate and deeply questionable reasons–hitch their cars to the Trump Train. I knew there were people who would go out of their way–for both perfectly legitimate and deeply questionable reasons–to vote against Clinton. But I had no idea that we would wake up last Wednesday morning with Trump on his way to the White House. It was a jarring rebuke of What I Thought I Knew.
With my cognitive frame for America suddenly and shockingly rewritten, I’ve spent the past several days thinking about what got us here. To those ends, I’ve looked inward and outward. First, I can clearly state, without hesitation, that I need to make some changes in my own life. There’s blood on my hands, too, and that’s never an easy pill to swallow. However, looking around me, it’s clear that if we’re going to move off the path Trump’s victory surely has us heading down, there will need to be some larger cultural shifts.
Moving Past Performative Gestures
I spent most of last Wednesday in a haze, but I do know the first lucid thoughts I had came in roughly this order: Fuck Facebook. Fuck Twitter. Fuck hashtags. Fuck memes. Fuck viral videos. Fuck sharing clickbait from Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. And, for good measure, fuck that Lena Dunham sensual pantsuit video. Fuck all of that shit.
My anger is rooted in the fact that social media has brought a paradigm shift in how we communicate. Specifically, on social media, the act of sharing information is so often exclusively performative:
I’m sharing information-x, which signals that I am type-of-person-y.
I’m posting “#ImWithHer,” which signals that I am a Democrat who is voting for Hillary Clinton.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with performative acts, gestures, or utterances. Do you. Say it loud. Say it proud. My concern, however, is that in the age of social media, we’ve begun to mistake these performative acts, gestures, and utterances as tantamount to actions that will actually positively impact anyone beyond ourselves. I saw a whole goddamn lot of #ImWithHers on Facebook in the weeks and days leading up to the election, but I have some very serious doubts about whether any of those folks did anything to convince someone else to vote for Hillary.
And I’m guilty here, too. I certainly was quick to let everyone on social media know that I was at the Bernie rally here in Savannah last November. I cracked many jokes about Trump on Twitter. I was fast to digitally roll my eyes at any suggestion that Trump would win the presidency. But beyond actually casting a vote–one vote–and crowing on the internet, did I do anything concrete to ensure Trump lost? No. Of course not.
If I’m being totally honest, I’ve spent too much time on social media in general. And social media, as many folks have pointed out over these last several days, is an echo chamber. On social media, we tend to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree, which in turn leads to us reading and seeing only information with which we agree. Ultimately, we just see the same information, and the same kinds of information, over and over. That’s a big part of how the results of last Tuesday’s election came as such a surprise, and frankly, I’ve been discouraged to see that in the days following the election, folks are still just firing information into the echo chamber.
In the days since the election, multiple college campuses across the country found unseemly messages scrawled in chalk on their sidewalks and buildings. One of those messages read, “Fuck your safe space.” Into the echo chamber with that information! By last Friday, that information had been shared far and wide; anger and disgust were bouncing ceaselessly back and forth in the echo chamber. Now, and this goes back to that performative act vs. actual action dilemma, in the face of these chalk messages, beyond adding outrage into the echo chamber, did anyone do anything to make anyone feel safer? If I hear about hateful chalk messages on my campus, at least going forward, I’m getting a fucking bucket and a sponge. Not on my campus, buddy.
And by the way, let’s take a step back from our outrage to do a little rhetorical analysis of these chalk messages. These were messages in chalk. They were written by people who didn’t have the courage to risk going to jail to impart these messages onto these campus communities. The writers of these messages wished to remain anonymous, so again, not exactly a sign of much integrity. And finally, these messages were found on college campuses, so they were most likely written by students. And not the type of student who had anything better to do than to scribble bullshit on sidewalks in chalk. These are individuals who, if I were to guess, are in desperate need of more love. But instead of love, we give them something else they’ll surely come to crave: attention. I wish we could quiet down the echo chamber long enough to actually listen to these folks. Listening, I imagine, is something we can do to positively impact someone’s life beyond our own.
Moving Beyond Sanctimonious Outrage
The performative nature of sanctimonious outrage–the implied sneer of “yes, I’m more woke than you” behind much sanctimonious outrage–has surely contributed to the cultural chasm that has opened up in our country. Before the election, I saw some Clinton-supporters direct sanctimonious outrage at people who may have ultimately voted for Clinton or, more troublingly, people who may have voted for Clinton had it not been for all the brows furrowed in their direction online. Since the election, I’ve seen some Clinton-supporters direct sanctimonious outrage at everyone but themselves, the Clinton campaign, or Hillary herself.
While there is undoubtedly a time for outrage (such as when people channel their outrage to speak truth to power), I worry that some outrage drove some people directly into the arms of Trump. I also worry that some outrage serves to weaken what could otherwise stand as a unified front in opposition to Trump going forward. I’ve seen a lot of posts along the lines of “you don’t get to tell me how I should feel about the election results!” I think that’s a fine sentiment and a message some folks certainly need to hear, but one could accompany it with “I’m glad you are so unconcerned, so unafraid; we’ll need people like you going forward.” Because this I can say without doubt: we will need everyone going forward. There is no longer time for sanctimonious outrage or performative acts, gestures, and utterances alone. We need actual action.
To be clear, I think we can have performative acts, gestures, and utterances and actual action, but for me, for now, I want to significantly curtail my social media use to ensure I’m using my time and energy in a manner that is productive before it is performative. I want to continue to become a better educator, which I believe will help bring about positive social change. I want to campaign for candidates and causes I believe in. I want to help start a DSA chapter here in Savannah. I want to serve on a school board. I want to do everything in my power to make sure I’m never as fucking surprised as I was early last Wednesday morning again.
I hope that in the post-election landscape, I’m not alone in reconsidering social media use broadly and what the sharing of each piece of information accomplishes specifically. The Democratic Party as a whole needs to take a good long look in the mirror. We can point fingers at racism, misogyny, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, voter indifference and ennui, third-party candidates, FBI director James Comey, Vladimir Putin, or Bernie Sanders (who was accused of being too white to win throughout the primaries and too radical to have won after Hillary lost), but if we’re not also willing to point fingers at ourselves, our candidates, our party, our philosophies, or our own, sometimes too-limited, worldviews, we will lose again. We will lose and lose and lose and lose.