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April 19, 2013 / missmarymax

No Comment: On Actively Opting Out of Atrocity Play-By-Play

Increasingly, I don’t post about major, tragic news events. In the media firestorm that follows, when most people seem to spend more time on social media, posting more frequently, I actively take time away from my phone and my computer. When I do engage with news coverage, I do so in small bursts, and I rarely share what I read. These are my choices, and – more and more – they are choices I make mindfully. They’re choices I make in spite of the fact that I’m usually very active on social media and that I share a great deal of “difficult” and “upsetting” content through these forums. They’re choices I make, in part, because immersing myself in 24-hour news coverage (of the kind of events that warrant it) floods me emotionally. Essentially, I make these choices because I have experienced the depression and anxiety that follows, for me personally, when I don’t make them.

I don’t opt for this response because I believe it’s an exclusive “right” choice.  I absolutely believe these events need coverage, need sharing, expressions of solidarity and sympathy, commitments to action, and action. But if I post about a major news event, in the midst of that event unfolding, I’m likely to focus on resources for people experiencing that event as a trigger, the importance – for many of us – of taking media breaks, or the fact that none of us are less valuable or compassionate humans for choosing to turn off the reports.

As someone who absolutely believes in taking action, in not passively making myself complicit in these kinds of horrors, I’ve thought a lot about this silence, what it means, and whether – despite it being what I need personally – it aligns with my values for engaging the world beyond.  Currently, I believe it can. I don’t believe it does, automatically, but I believe it can. Surely every RT of the same (often misinformed) news byte is not a necessary act of change.  Why then, should opting out of the sharing process, be a de facto barrier to it?

(I don’t believe it is.)

Lately, I’ve had far too many opportunities to implement my new, evolving practice of opting out of these particular social media (and IRL) storms.  Slowly, I’m developing some guideposts for myself and beginning to understand how to better do what I want to do – and can do safely – in these situations.  I’m sharing them now, for whatever they’re worth to those of you in similar shoes:

I choose to opt out of the coverage, but strive to pursue the solutions. In other words, I think long and hard about the ways that our culture encourages these kinds of atrocities. Sometimes I think about this as the events unfold, sometimes weeks afterward. I investigate the campaigns and reforms I feel could make a difference. If I don’t know what those campaigns are, I find time to reflect on my sense of helplessness, to read, research, and generally search them out. And then I participate. These actions, unlike the content that brings them into my awareness, I share widely.

I try to pair my “silence” in the post-disaster conversation with critiques of how that conversation unfolds (or with clear alternatives). I’m increasingly aware that not RTing the standard meme or posting the standard status does not have to mean choosing to disengage from these issues altogether. This post is one example of engaging with these topics in different terms. Some others, which have meant a lot to me today:

  • This morning, Angus Johnston (@studentactivism) interrupted my regularly scheduled Crisis Twitter Feed by live-tweeting an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The result was striking. Just as Fred Rogers feeding fish or tying his shoes for minutes at a time slowed the hyperactive pace of children’s programming, Johnson’s shared recaps recreated steadiness and calm, in the midst of a cultural response that can easily mirror and exacerbate the chaos.
  • Lesley Kinzel (@52stations) also creatively engaged the meta-conversation, this time with “breaking coverage” of reported zombie uprisings that included Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. Obviously, humor is one of the quickest ways to trigger accusations of “callousness” – but, for me, that risk itself raises important questions. For instance, why isn’t “tragedy-as-watercooler-small-talk” considered equally callous? Why are ‘how informed we are’ and ‘how well we comply with post-disaster etiquette’ more important standards for judgment than what we’re doing to put an end to these events?

I believe it’s important for us to discuss the way we respond to these issues. I don’t think the FB memes and the TV coverage should be considered appropriate or positive simply because they’re the status quo. So if I’m opting out, I want to be opting out in a way that calls attention to the dangers of our current response. I want to be opting out, by choice, and with clarity of meaning.

I focus on responsibly managing my own use of media rather than directing anyone else’s. My least favorite Facebook post, in any cultural moment, is the one that starts “I can’t stand people who post ___.”

Yes, I personally find the social media posts that swell  in the hours and days following a major tragedy incredibly difficult to process. Yes, I find the way we share and discuss these events dangerous, on personal and political levels. But that doesn’t mean other people have any less right to post as they are. Frankly, I believe there are irresponsible ways of engaging in these conversations and irresponsible ways of disengaging from them, and I believe “my response is more socially responsible than yours” is a dangerous trap for people in each of those camps.

How useful is this approach? I don’t know. I hope, in the future, I have fewer opportunities to test it.


For the record, at the moment, my search for solutions has led me to explore the Zinn Education Project, Roots of Empathy, Americans for Responsible Solutions and the concept of “cultural violence.” I’m forever seeking other approaches, organizations, and ideas.


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